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[LUSAKA] Zambia's new information and communication technology policy could benefit some farmers and rural villagers, but it does not go far enough to address key issues for the country as a whole, say critics.

The new policy, launched last week (28 March), concentrates on using information and communication technologies (ICT) to popularise telemedicine and disperse information for farmers.

It will set up initiatives for the dissemination of agricultural technologies and the relay of weather information to farmers to help them in decision-making. In addition, an electronic government (e-government) system will be developed.

It is also aimed at attracting investment in the manufacturing industry, mainly in the telecommunications sector.

"We aim to create a favourable business environment and promote Zambia as an attractive destination for ICT-related investments within the region and on the international market," said vice-president Rupiah Banda at the policy launch in Lusaka.

Banda said the policy is an effort to improve the country's research and development capacity, and includes a range of new investments in human resource training.

But the policy has drawn criticism from those who say it should emphasise private-sector involvement. Some say the government should not be taking so much responsibility for implementing the policy.

David Venn, managing director of Celtel Zambia, one of the country's leading telecommunications networks, says, "The policy itself will not bring the desired results unless everyone is involved."

The policy also does not address Zambia's involvement in the East African Submarine Cable (EASSy) project that will connect Africa to the rest of the world through a high-speed fibre-optic telecommunications cable (see Africa online: getting set for a digital revolution).

The only telecommunications company so far signed up to EASSy, Zamtell, is state-run and enjoys a near monopoly over the project in Zambia, leaving little room for private sector involvement.

Priscilla Jere, executive director of OneWorld Africa, a Zambian telecommunications firm, says, "The project holds the potential to significantly reduce the cost of bandwith in a number of countries, including Zambia."

"But chances are that the exact opposite will happen if nothing is done to prepare the benefiting countries and address the current model under which the project is designed."

Zambia has identified the lack of appropriately qualified ICT experts at managerial, professional and technical levels as its main constraints to fast-tracking the implementation of the policy. To solve this, the government will provide training.

But Chibamba Kanyama, the general secretary of the Economics Association of Zambia, told SciDev.Net, "I would not advocate any use of taxpayers money in the training of human resources, or research and development spending, if these would benefit the private sector."

He added that the government cannot justify investments in ICT research if it cannot recoup the investment.