Africa upbeat on prospects of a Digital Advantage

November 30, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

A few years ago, South Africa decided to stop complaining about what is often called the Digital Divide separating developed and developing countries, and to start talking instead about what it described as the Digital Advantage.

The upbeat tone, emphasising the potentially transformational contribution of ICTs to development rather than the disadvantages they can create, sums up the optimism that has been a dominant theme of discussions here in Lisbon over the past two days.

The 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT has been the fifth in a series of annual meetings. Each has provided an opportunity for ICT specialists and stakeholders from both Africa and Europe to explore ways of working together (next year’s meeting is likely to take place in Cairo, Egypt).

Earlier meetings focussed largely on the potential and proposals for collaboration. In contrast, this year’s was able to include concrete success stories showing how effective collaboration is already taking place – and beginning to make an impact.

One example was the launch of the UbuntuNet, part of the AfricaConnect project, which provides enhanced data exchange between researchers in the two continents (as well as in African countries themselves).

No-one pretended that difficulties – or perhaps one should say challenges – in promoting collaboration do not exist.

Barend Taute, of the CSIR Meraka Institute in South Africa, summarised these to the final session of the forum as including “funding, diversity, travel, timelines, cultural peculiarities, languages, policy and regulation, vested interests, infrastructure and human capacity”.

Quite a list.

Set against this, however, is growing political will. European governments in particular – and to a lesser extent, their African counterparts – seem convinced that, for a variety of reasons, closer collaboration on ICT projects between the two continents is desirable.

From the European point of view, this is partly based on the awareness that ICTs can significantly boost the impact of conventional aid projects (for example, in areas such as health and agriculture) by increasing the efficiency by which services are delivered.

But as participants in the meeting continually stressed, Europe and Africa also face common interests in working on ways that ICTs can contribute towards socioeconomic development, providing scope for genuine partnership.

Of course, the playing field remains far from level.

Many African countries, for example, still have a long way to go in building up their own capacity to handle and develop ICTs effectively. One speaker criticised universities who continued to turn out engineers who seem to know more about Newton’s laws of motion than how computer networks work.

The need to ensure that ICT projects are genuinely based on social need was also frequently referred to. Calls for more “bottom up approaches” and “people-centred solutions” became familiar.

And funding remains a problem. Despite increasingly funding from the European Commission, many African governments (and, it was said, some development agencies) continue to insist that ICT development is the responsibility of the private sector, ignoring the extent to which public investment is required to build the necessary capacity and infrastructure.

But if the Lisbon meeting heard numerous pleas for greater awareness by policy-makers of the need to invest in ICT projects, it also provided numerous examples that can be waved in the faces of these same policy-makers to illustrate the gains that can be generated by doing so.

Or, as Taute put it in the final session: “here are already enough good success stories to make us happy about what we are doing. The potential Digital Advantage for the continent is so big and inspiring that we can only be positive about it.”

This blog post is part of our 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT blog, which takes place 28-29 November 2012, in Lisbon, Portugal. To read news and analysis on ICTs please visit our website.

‘No need for alarm’ over funding from Brussels

November 29, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

With member countries of the European Union (EU) currently sharply divided over funding for future programmes of the European Commission (EC), there is naturally some concern about the potential implications for research projects, including those being carried out jointly with researchers in Africa.

There was therefore some relief when EC official Carlos Oliveira told the 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT, being held in Lisbon, Portugal, that even if some adjustments are needed to plans that have already been proposed for future funding, “the essence of the proposals remain valid”.

Oliveira, a policy officer with the commission’s directorate general for communications networks, content and technologies (DG CONNECT), referred in particular to the multi-year Horizon 2020 programme, planned for the period 2014-2018, a period covered by the current negotiations.

EU flag (Flickr/European Parliament)

This is due to succeed the current Framework 7 programme – the main channel for funding research projects, including those involving developing countries – which ends next year.

While the commission has proposed total funding for Horizon 2020 of €80 billion, some of the EU members states seeking major reductions in the overall budget are suggesting that this should be cut to €60 billion (in contrast, the European Parliament, has suggested a much higher budget, of around €100 billion).

Oliveira said that the general feeling in Brussels is that there is likely to be some fine-tuning in the Horizon 2020 programme. And that, at the end of the day, the current expectation is that “there may be a budget reduction of five to ten per cent”.

“But this does not put in doubt the fundamental principles of the proposed programme,” he said, referring to a general feeling that, even in times of economic crisis, spending on research and innovation represents a sound investment in the future.

In particular, the Horizon 2020 programme is likely to maintain a strong focus on core ICT activities, he said. Anticipated to account for 20% of the total budget, this includes research on the future of the internet, next generation computing, content technologies and information management, advanced interfaces and key enabling technologies (such as nanotechnology).

A further €4 billion is being allocated to the use ICT in tackling societal challenges such as health, energy, transport, and climate action.

“International cooperation will remain a cross-cutting issue in Horizon 2020,” Oliveira reassured his audience.

“We want to maximise the impact of this cooperation,” he said, adding that the commission is currently developing a detailed strategy for international cooperation in ICT, looking in particularly at ways of developing partnerships with other countries are mutually beneficial.

So, no back-tracking is anticipated in Brussels in this area, however difficult the task of arriving at a final budget turns out over the weeks ahead. Which was a relief to hear for many participating in the Lisbon meeting, whose future plans might otherwise be on the line.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT blog, which takes place 28-29 November 2012, in Lisbon, Portugal. To read news and analysis on ICTs please visit our website.

High-speed network, UbuntuNet, reveals benefits of collaboration

November 29, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Proof of the potential benefits of cooperation in ICT development between Africa and Europe has come in the form of a high-speed internet network significantly speeding up the communication of data between researchers on the two continents.

The new network is known as UbuntuNet, and represents a collaboration between the UbuntuNet Alliance, the regional research and education network for Southern and Eastern Africa, and DANTE, which operates the pan-European research and education network GÉANT.

The announcement of the network, the first of its kind in Africa, was made during the first day of the 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT being held in Lisbon, Portugal, and follows a launch in Dar Es-Salaam two weeks ago.

“This new network will not only promote better collaboration between researchers in Africa, but also make it much easier for them to collaborate with researchers in other parts of the world,” Francis Tusubira, the chief executive officer of UbuntuNet, told SciDev.Net

“It’s a big step forward for research in Africa,” he said. “I have always said that even without external support we would get this done. But it might have taken another five years; now support from the European Union means that it has only taken one year.”

Although the UbuntuNet Alliance initially only connected Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia to Europe, the expansion of the network will provide connectivity to many more countries in the Southern and Eastern African region.

The enhanced network has been launched as part of the AfricaConnect project, which receives funding both from the European Commission, and from African countries that will benefit from it.

Cathrin Stöver, chief of international relations with DANTE, told the Lisbon meeting that European funding had allowed UbuntuNet “to become a truly African backbone”, with African content being aggregated in Africa.

Although it had been “very challenging” to establish a financial model that requires beneficiaries to contribute, the goal was in the process of being achieved — she announced that 60% of the African co-funding had already been committed by African governments, and about 40% of the funding had been received.

“This places UbuntuNet very favourably when it comes to building financial sustainability in the long term,” Stöver said.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT blog, which takes place 28-29 November 2012, in Lisbon, Portugal. To read news and analysis on ICTs please visit our website.

Tanzania shows how to involve women and the young

November 29, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Africa must not forget the need to actively engage both young people and women in developing application for new technologies.

That was the message enthusiastically conveyed to the second day of the 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT, being held in Lisbon, Portugal, by Catherinerose Barretto from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Barretto described how, with a group of colleagues, she had set up a company called KINU, dedicated to providing “an open space for Tanzania’s tech community to foster co-creation, innovation and capacity building”.

A key to KINU’s goals has been the active engagement of the potential users of ICTs and other new technologies. “We realised that there was a huge gap between what new technology can do and its actual application,” said Barretto. “It will be people that come up with solutions.”

KINU has recently moved into its own premises in Dar Es-Salaam which offers a range of facilities, from data storage to a room in which individuals can develop their presentation skills – essential for young entrepreneurs.

KINU at work — a recent “hackathon” in Dar es Salaaam

“The biggest thing for us was the need for a space for people to come together and develop the skills they need,” explained Barretto. “We not only focus on technical people, but all those involved in setting up innovative projects.”

KINU now works with some well-known names, such as Google, SEACOM and the Indigo Trust.

But establishing the links has taken work. “We were self-funded for a long time. Six young people trying to set up a tech hub in Tanzania was virtually unheard of when we started,” said Barretto. “No-one believed us.”

Engaging women has been a strong priority. “When we had an open meeting to discuss possible projects, of 250 people in the room only ten were women. Only one woman presented, and she was European,” she said.

As a result, she started meetings called ‘Girls Night Out’ to get women interested in how to use new technology. Activities ranged from teaching women how to build mobile aps for their businesses, to sessions in which they were invited to bring in their grandmothers to learn how to use mobile phones.

KINU is also working with a local university in a project under which students are required to go out and find a problem in the local community, to come up with a way of fixing it – and then to pitch the solution to the affected community.

The inspiring message was well received by the meeting. At least one participant asked for an immediate meeting to discuss future collaboration. The wave of the future?

More information:

This blog post is part of our 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT blog, which takes place 28-29 November 2012, in Lisbon, Portugal. To read news and analysis on ICTs please visit our website.

Has ICT fallen off the development radar?

November 28, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

That was the provocative suggestion that Harry de Backer, a telecommunications expert and former adviser to the EU delegation to the African Union, put to the second session of the 2012 Africa/EU Cooperation Forum on ICT, being held this week in Lisbon, Portugal.

De Backer pointed to the first decade of the millennium, when many governments were expressing their conviction about the importance of ICTs in development – and the need to provide generous support for projects in this field, for example, in the two components of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

“In the period 2001 to 2007, ICTs were on the radar,” he said, with strong enthusiasm from European governments, particularly those in the north of the continent such as Sweden and Finland.

In contrast, he said, the attention currently being paid to ICTs in development debates was low. “Either the radar is failing, or there is nothing on it,” Backer said. “The momentum seems to have gone.”

When challenged, development agencies tended to argue that ICTs were the responsibility of the private sector, or that there was already a strong ICT component in individual projects so extra funding was not required, or that broadband would expand under its own moments.

But, said Backer, ICT was more than mobile telephones, it was the whole infrastructure of the knowledge economy; integrating ICT into a project was more than just procuring a personal computer; and broadband was not likely to find its own way “to every god-forsaken village” in a developing country.

“There is a real problem with development aid,” said Backer. “Africa needs capacity building, it needs the creation of a level playing field so that the private sector is willing to invest, and it needs honest public-private partnerships.”

The solution did not lie in more international conferences like WSIS. What was needed were smaller meetings involving a range of stakeholders that included EU member states, African regional economic communities, and interested parties from industry and the services sector.

“The economic climate is not on our side,” he admitted. But there was a need both for more talking between the African Union and the European Commission about what needed to be done, and for more lobbying of development agencies.

A strong take-home message for all participants in the Lisbon meeting.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT blog, which takes place 28-29 November 2012, in Lisbon, Portugal. To read news and analysis on ICTs please visit our website.

The way ahead on ICT: progress through partnership

November 28, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

The geographical proximity between Africa and Europe has inevitably led to a long and close relationship between the two continents. Over the past few centuries, colonialism has meant that the relationship has often been a painful one, with Europe as the dominant partner reaping the greater benefits.

Today, as speakers emphasised at the first session of the 2012 Africa EU Cooperation Forum on ICT, which opened this morning in Lisbon, Portugal, the situation is very different. Cooperation between neighbours for mutual benefit is the theme of the day. And nowhere, it was stressed, is the potential for cooperation stronger that in the field of information and communication technologies.

As Moctar Yedely, head of the information society division of the African Union Commission, put it: “our relationship is something that should never fail because we are so geographically close that we have no choice but to be close and to be friends”.

Yedely stressed that ICT was about more than telephones and computers. “It is about those applications that will bring value to transforming African societies”. He added: “If a small village in Africa has access to the potential of ICT, it may bring benefits to a remote village in Europe”.

Zoran Stancic, deputy head of the European Commission’s directorate general for communication networks, content and technology (DG-Connect), emphasised that joint work on ICTs was a central element of the broader partnership between Africa and the European Union (EU).

He pointed out that the EU already recognised ICT as providing a central pillar for facilitating growth and jobs. “We see the same thing happening throughout Africa,” he said, pointing out that the number of mobile phone users in Africa had grown from 8 million to 800 million today.

Stancic said that there was an “avalanche” of new innovative solutions being developed in Africa. For example, innovation in mobile banking in Kenya was a success story that needed to be promoted in a broader context.

Cooperation in research was one way that Europe could help Africa achieve more successes. He said that there had been a constant rise in the number of African institution participating in Europe’s framework programmes, from 40 partners in the 6th Framework Programme (which lasted from 2002 to 2006) to more than one hundred in the current 7th Framework Programme.

“We see the next framework programme as an important instrument to help this flourish in the future,” Stancic added. “A proper approach to facilitating cooperation between EU researchers and researchers in Africa can bring benefits to both sides. We want to work together to support capacity building in Africa, but European scientists can also benefit from our friends and partners in Africa.”

The current challenge, both in Europe and Africa, he said, was to promote success stories in a way that would help political leaders “make the right choices in the future”.

Portugal, the host for today’s meeting – and one that has the longest links with Africa of any European country – is one country that needs little convincing.

Leonor Parreira, the secretary of state at the country’s Ministry of Education and Science, said that Portugal was committed to continuing initiatives that had already been started in area related to ICT, and to build on established alliances to evolve strong knowledge networks based on regional diversity and complementary.

“It is critical that these partnerships become sounder to overcome differences between cultures and demonstrate that we have common interests,” Parreira said. “ICT has the potential to enable this.”

Lots of fine words. The next two days will show what they mean in practice.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT blog, which takes place 28-29 November 2012, in Lisbon, Portugal. To read news and analysis on ICTs please visit our website.

Europe and Africa link up on ICT research

November 27, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

No-one doubts that information and communication technologies (ICTs) make a substantial contribution to development, even in the poorest countries.

Indeed, many have suggested that such technologies are helping developing countries to leap-frog the earlier stages of industrial transformation that the so-called developed countries have each had to pass through, offering a quick route to social and economic development.

But developing countries, particularly those with a weak research and development base – as is the case in most of Africa – will not be able to achieve this on their own. They need support and assistance from countries that already have high level of ICT skills.

For the next two days (28 and 29 November) more than 200 ICT experts and stakeholders will be attending  the ‘2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT’, being held in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.

The meeting aims to strengthen and support the development of cooperation on ICT research and ICT for Development (ICT4D) between Africa and Europe.

Those participating will include policy and decision makers, heads of stakeholder institutions and international organisations, and academics from both Africa and Europe. Topics to be covered range from e-learning infrastructures, to what are described as “living labs”.

There will also be an emphasis on how ICTs can help Europe and Africa collaborate more closely in research. In particular, on the first day of the forum, (28 November), the AfricaConnect project, which has featured in regularly our news columns (see for example, here), will be formally launched in Europe.

I will be attending the forum and posting regular blogs describing some of the main presentations and workshop discussions. And hopefully I will be able to pick up some broader information about future funding for research in developing countries in the EU budget. It promises to be a fascinating meeting.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT blog, which takes place 28-29 November 2012, in Lisbon, Portugal. To read news and analysis on ICTs please visit our website.

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