13 Mar 2006
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By Prof Monish Gunawardana
INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF MANAGEMENT, Windhoek
Advanced Microelectronics-based information communication technology (ICT) is the brain behind the recent economic growth in developing and highly industrialized nations. The increased utilization of ICT opens up new opportunities in Namibia and strengthens its creativeness and competitiveness in various economic sectors. According to our Vision 2030 Policy Framework, (published by the office of the President: 2004,69.P.): "The ICT sector is the most important sector in Namibia and Namibian-based ICT service companies are competitive players on the international markets. And Namibia is exporting, to a larger extent, tailor-made hardware and software to the world market, using e-business." It is true. As I underlined in my previous articles, Namibia has the potential to become the "African hub in the Knowledge Industry."
Bill Gates, in his remarkable book - "Business @ the Speed of Thoughts" simplified the scope of information technology as "the collection, storing and distribution of information in digital format". Governance, business and our way of living are going to change more in the next ten years that it has in the last twenty years. How will ICT help us run our businesses better than now? For instance, a food-processing factory in Windhoek exports an emergency order to a buyer in South Africa in two days instead of five weeks. This efficiency will occur because of a simple intervention: the smooth flow of digital information.
The world has been in the Information Age for about forty years, but most of the information moving among businesses in developing countries such as Namibia, remains in paper form. Now all information, such as texts, numbers, pictures and sound can be put into a digital form and can be stored, processed and forwarded immediately to any destination in the world, within a few minutes through the Internet. The Internet creates a new universal space for information sharing, collaboration, and international trade in a speedy and cost effective manner. Therefore, Namibia should use ICT, in its commerce and trade, to reduce costs and gain more profits from local and international commercial transactions.
Reversing Poverty by Technology
Namibia's state-of-the-art telecommunication system provides a good foundation for information technology.
And it can be utilized to take development to communities at the grass root level. As of today, many development interventions, such as higher education, trade skill development and health care circle around urban centers. This is a common phenomenon in the third world.
Nearly 30 percent of Indians are illiterate and live without electricity.
However, in using ICT India has been reborn as a high-tech nation. The Indira Gandhi Open University (IGNOU) designed low-cost courses and advanced degrees for 10 million people in rural communities.
The IGNOU transmits these courses via satellite to educate youths and elders in remote areas. Due to the lack of electricity, some centers use diesel generators. As a result of this cost-effective approach, India could lead the world in the knowledge industry. Hence, Namibia should use the ICT platform, to alleviate poverty and rise as a high-tech nation with more knowledge workers.
Investing in Technology
In November 2005, the world leaders gathered at Tunisia, for the UN World Summit on 'Extending Technology to the Poor.' And they promoted a Digital Solidarity Fund that could collect just US$6.4 million in cash! However, I personally don't believe that a separate fund is needed. Why is it not possible to augment multilateral funds such as World Bank resources to developing countries such as Namibia?
World wide nearly 14% (900 million) of the population is online compared to the USA and it spends US$2.5 billion a year to improve ICT facilities in its rural areas.
When our vision goes into action, foreign direct investors, public services, local industries in Namibia will demand efficient and low cost ICT services.
In 2005, to provide high-speed Internet and satellite communication equipment with WiMax (wireless technology) to HIV/AIDS clinics in Burundi/Burkina Faso had cost US$ 1 million. Those clinics were equipped with video-conferencing facilities and connections to clinical gadgets to facilitate remote diagnosis. Hence, investing in ICT infrastructure is a precondition to our economic growth. We should plan to treat AIDS patients in remote locations by the treatments which are cost effective and time saving.
Computers for All
We cannot think of information technology without access to the Internet. The World Wide Web (www) is a global university of this Information Age. To browse the web people need computers. In Namibia, 56 percent of the population survives on N$14 (US$2) per day.
Hence, the majority of our people cannot buy a computer, which will cost at least N$4 000. Bridging this digital divide, which is a direct consequence of the prevailing income disparities, should be addressed.
A computer is not a luxury. It is an essential thing such as electricity or a mobile phone, which makes our lives productive. Hence, at least, by 2010, all our children, undergraduates, teachers should carry a laptop as a standard education equipment. The relaxation of ICT import tax, low-interest bank loans are some immediate steps to bridge the existing digital gap. In addition, the private sector can establish a Computer Assembling Factory to sell a Namibian Computer to the local consumption and global market.
Windhoek as a Tech-City
Using the excellent metro-infrastructure, fiber-optic network and its cleanliness, we should transform Windhoek as the Tech-City of Africa.
Malaysia's Iriyan Jaya, India's Bangalore are famous tech-cities in Asia.
They accelerate economic growth for those nations. As I mentioned earlier, Namibia is an ideal center for the "knowledge-based outsourcing industry".
Bangalore was the launching pad for India's world leadership in ICT. American high-tech giants such as Micro Soft, Intel, Sun, Dell have established their operations in Bangalore, employing thousands of young graduates and injecting billions of dollars into the Indian economy.
Emerging economies in Asia and Latin America have ensured steady annual GDP growth starting from 5 percent and increased the growth annually.
These countries' economies were positioned on a high-tech manufacturing and efficient service sector. Moreover, the information technology was the foundation of their growing economies. By mainstreaming mathematics, science and technology, they transformed the education system to generate a high-tech knowledgeable workforce who can man and run the industries efficiently.
Our education system could not produce high-tech workers to implement the vision. But, Namibia's existing infrastructure is not so weak. I have seen the rural communities in India and Southern China (Quinmin Province). Most of their schools are worse than our rural schools. Using available resources, they sent astronauts to the space, developed nuclear technology, and captured the global market. Namibia's present education system needs a strong will to align it with the vision, rather than waiting more resources. For instance, annually UNAM gets a big share from the national budget and using that money consistently, it could produce high-tech graduates.
Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has introduced an affordable laptop for developing nations at N$650. He said: "The greatest natural resource in any country is children. No matter, what the national challenges, poverty, diseases or the environment, education is the solution." This is a wise advice for the Vision 2010 project that was engineered to shine Namibia as a high-tech nation in Africa.