Second Africa ICT Best Practice conference in Ouaga – Closing the gap between words and action

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This week, the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou hosted the second annual “Africa ICT Best Practice Forum” which serves as a practical way for Governments from across Africa to share their own experiences and demonstrate practical examples of successful technology solutions in their respective countries. It attracted a large crowd of Ministers and civil servants from all over Africa and was held in at the same time as Burkina Faso’s national Internet week and the local ICT event SITICI. Isabelle Gross was there to find out what was happening.

Attendance at the forum was sponsored by Microsoft, the European Union and the Government of Burkina Faso so it attracted high-level attendees. But if those attending were high-level so was the rhetoric surrounding the event. For sponsors wanted nothing less than to:” accelerate Africa’s social and economic development, help foster more efficient and transparent public services, deliver the benefits of information technology much more broadly across Africa, facilitate e-government initiatives, promote technology access and capacity building, share regional and global best practices, … ”. And perhaps in the afternoon, to bring about world peace.

But the expectations of the attendees themselves were also high in terms of securing international public and private financing and cheap or free provisioning of hardware and software. There is no doubt that the Minister of Education of Burkina Faso appreciated the donation of 50 Intel-powered Classmate PCs running Windows software for the Lycée Philippe Zinda Kabore in Ouagadougou. However, this is a secondary school which currently has 6,000 students so it will now have one computer for every 120 pupils.

Whilst Rome wasn’t built in day, it is clear that there is still a considerable gap between the efforts of private sector initiatives and the actual commitments of the Governments themselves. For without a regular allocation in the education budget, ICT initiatives will remain like a dripping tap hitting a stone: regular and insistent but making little real impact. Countries may be poor but hard choices need to be made if the gap between intention and action is to be closed.

Despite the harmonious choreography of presentations of best practise case studies of projects implemented across the African continent, the question that lingered was what drives what? Is it the desire for more ICT assistance from African countries or the need for a more carefully thought through commercial offer from international ICT vendors to fit the context? Is it Government-driven, supply-led initiatives or demand-led initiatives (both public and private) that will generate their own momentum? If countries were making hard decisions with more of their own money then perhaps these issues would fall into starker contrast for them.

Everybody agrees that African public administrations need more information and communication technology to serve their citizen better and to support vital economic growth. According to Kedikilwe O. Kedikilwe, coordinator at the Ministry of Agriculture in Botswana, the implementation of Botswana Livestock Identification and Traceback System (LITS) has ensured that the country’s farmers have been able to continue exporting their beef to the European Union. In a country that can count more cattle than people (2.5 million beef cattle against 1.3 millions inhabitants) and exports 90% of its beef to the European Union, the introduction of new, more stringent European regulations covering the origin of the meat entering the European market had to be addressed as it was a clear threat to the country’s income.

Today each animal has a tracking device implanted to provide the required information which is fed into a national database. The implementation of Botswana livestock identification system has not only secured local farmers’ income but also enabled it to reduce the level of cattle theft. And while the UK was struggling to contain a major outbreak of foot and mouth a few years ago, Botswana had the disease under control. So African countries can teach Europe a lesson or two.

It is perhaps unfair to highlight the low level of computers in Burkina Faso’s schools as the country has a range of initiatives to address the digital divide. It has an infrastructure project for building a national fibre network reaching every administrative centre in its provinces/departments at an estimated cost of CFA50 billion francs (over US$100 million). Undoubtedly, this will lay the foundation for improving service delivery and making it more faster and more cost-effective. However, it remains difficult to believe that such project could become commercially viable in the short to mid-term in a country that has a literacy rate of about 30%.

The Government recognises this gap and supports grass root project like training and the annual Internet week. In 2007, around 6,000 people (civil servants, teachers, students and general public) received a 5 hour training course covering: basic understanding of computer hardware and software; email: setting up an email account and sending et receiving emails; Internet and how to carry out Internet searches. This year, the organisers hope to train over 7,000 people in 34 towns across the country in an effort to reduce the digital illiteracy rate.

As ever, the difficulty for African Governments is to try and get multiple initiatives from building a backbone (the equivalent of building a national road network) to raising the standards of education to coalesce into a focused form, where each initiatives actually feeds into the other. All too often the digital access project has unreliable and costly bandwidth, little or no content and services and is not of sufficient scale to move the considerable mountain range of barriers it addresses. Government is always attempting to respond to a wide range of needs and often failing to meet any of them effectively: implementing initiatives remains its Achilles heel. Ministries often fail to co-operate and co-ordinate their own initiatives. Change can be made but it will probably require a different attitude from African government itself.

Despite the fact that there were significant local events and a major international ICT event taking place at the same time, there was no real interaction between them. In the course of the forum, Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer announced a new partnership with the government of Angola which also includes a commercial agreement on software. It is likely that Microsoft will also reach a similar partnership agreement with Congo-Brazzaville in the near future. Follow-up action on sharing existing and new best ICT practices in Africa will be fostered by the launch of a website with an interactive database to post them to. The site which can be found at http://www.africaictbestpractices.net has been built by local IT company Softnet Burkina SA.

As international ICT representatives departed on the promise to meet again next year, Joachim Tankoano, Burkina Faso’s busy Minister of Post, Technology, Information and Communication went on to open the fourth annual international ICT show (SITICI) where local IT companies showcased their products and services until the end of the week. Over the last couple of years, the number of local IT companies has increased considerably. Hugue Kouraogo, Head of IT company Hugo Tech told us that more competition has pushed down charges for IT services and there were similar falls in prices on IT products like computers. He reckoned that local IT companies will have to diversify and offer new services to stay in the race. His company is now also offering security and CCTV solutions.

At the other end of the spectrum, a French-Burkinabe charitable organisation l’Atelier du Bocage (part of the Emmaus charity) is promoting its IT waste recycling project. Based in Ouagadougou, the organisation sells refurbished computers and accessories but also offers a recycling service. The recycling scheme has started in November 207 so the project is just beginning. According to Jean-Yves Taillandier, Head of the project, recycling IT waste requires high-tech processing facilities which currently don’t exist in Burkina Faso. Since copper is the only row material that can be recycled locally, the remaining components are shipped back to France for further processing. This recycling project, even if the IT waste is only partially recycled locally, is nevertheless an interesting awareness initiative as soon or later the 50 donated Classmate PCs will themselves need to be recycled.