Plans for a 'virtual university' that will provide African students with Internet-based training were unveiled last week (18 November) at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia.

The online academy is among a range of initiatives, announced at the summit, that aim to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve health, education and scientific research in developing countries.

The academy, a joint initiative of Tunisia's Borj-Cedria Science and Technology Park and the United Nations University, will focus its teaching on water, the environment, renewable energy and biotechnology.

It is also intended to strengthen links between African scientists and research institutions, including existing centres for Internet-based learning such as the UN Water Virtual Learning Centre and the Kenya-based African Virtual University.

"It cannot be stressed too strongly how important it is for Africa to be equipped with the advantages of modern ICTs, especially for training people," said UNU rector Hans van Ginkel.

"The health and food security of tens of millions of Africans today and of billions more in generations to come depend on this outcome being achieved as rapidly as possible," he said. "If Africa is ever to fully meet its potential in a sustainable way, these technologies must be a central part of its strategies."

In another announcement, UNESCO and Microsoft jointly opened a Tunis-based centre called the InfoYouth Centre. It will provide training in ICT-related fields for instructors from more than 200 youth centres across the country. The centre will also raise public awareness about the role ICTs can play in development.

Also at the summit, the Switzerland-based Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) launched a US$1 million project to use ICTs to improve care of AIDS patients in Burundi and Burkina Faso.

Satellites, video-conferencing facilities and computers with high-speed Internet connections will be used to link up and provide information to HIV/AIDS clinics. The project will help train medical specialists to diagnose illnesses remotely and to keep up with the latest developments in HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.

DSF's executive officer, Elena Ursache, told SciDev.Net that the projects would be replicated in other countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, if additional funding can be found.