Investment in information technology can help Africa to improve governance, overcome poverty and deal with critical infrastructure gaps, taking India as an example, the co-chair of the World Economic Forum on Africa 2010 (WEF) said.
“There is no need to reinvent the wheel,” Ajai Chowdhry, also chairman and chief executive officer of HCL Infosystems in India, told IRIN on the sidelines of a recent WEF conference in Tanzania. “India and Africa have similar problems so we can apply similar solutions. It’s all been tried and tested in India, and the software is readily available to transfer knowledge and experience.”
While mobile phone usage in Africa has ballooned – by almost 550% between 2003 and 2008, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) – and Kenya, for example, has led the way with the M-Pesa payment system and Ushahidi information-sharing platform, the continent has been lagging behind other developing regions in internet use and broadband connectivity, according to UNCTAD.
Financing fast broadband networks will require cooperation between national governments, donors and the private sector.
One example is Rwanda, which is working with donors, UN bodies and private companies to realize its “Vision 2020” with ICT at its heart. Ten years ago, only one school had a computer; by 2006 more than half of primary and secondary schools were equipped with computers, and over 2000 teachers had been trained in ICT, according to a World Bank report.
Enabling computer use, especially in far-flung areas, requires creative financing, says Chowdhry; the government of India provided a subsidy of $100 per computer from donor funding, thereby “taking computers to the village”.
Catalyst for change
In the early 1990s, India’s government had only US$1 billion left in the kitty. The International Monetary Fund proposed deregulation and opening up the economy. On the plus side the country enjoyed a strong financial system, which took banking to the unbanked, building urban infrastructure in rural areas.
In addition, knowledge centres were created in the villages, focusing on health, agriculture and education, thereby creating inclusive growth and discouraging rural-urban migration. While there have been a few hiccups, notably the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, the country is on target for 10 % growth in 2011, a rate that should eradicate absolute poverty.
At the same time, the government was focusing on building effective institutions, and improving transparency by harnessing the power of technology. The result is every person’s fundamental right to information, whereby every citizen can question every facet of government. After initial, strong opposition, officialdom and government ministers alike are adapting to the scrutiny.
“Information is key to overcoming poverty,” Chowdhry said. “Effective governance means electronic governance in India; our goal is internet access for all, we should make it as much a right as we now have the right to education for all.”
Investing in the future
Broadband penetration is only 3 percent in Africa but recent investment in undersea cables should boost that, bringing easier access to information on agriculture, healthcare, education and banking. The challenge of increasing access in homes and businesses will require massive investment, says Chowdhry, but the $5 billion low-interest rate credit line extended by the Indian government through the Export-Import Bank of India (EXIM) to Africa has hardly been tapped in the past 18 months.
Only large projects need apply, preferably for developing ICT in schools and universities to boost capacity, as tertiary education in particular is vital for the continent’s development and stemming the brain drain. Given that almost half the continent’s population is younger than 15, providing education and entrepreneurial opportunities is imperative.
“E-technology entrepreneurship will make as big a difference in Africa as in India,” he told IRIN. All the investment coming from India was private, he added, and private-public partnerships were a key element to investment that India could bring to the continent. India already offers more scholarships to African students than any other country while the EXIM Bank runs several policy initiatives, including the Pan-African E-Network, India-Africa Partnership Conclaves and the annual India-Africa Summit, to encourage closer ties.
At this year’s summit held in New Delhi in March, $9 billion-worth of projects were under discussion, focusing on infrastructure development and IT.