Investment in ICT is no substitute for technology policy

Many African countries focus on teaching IT Copyright: Flickr/Neelie Kroes

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African governments with technology policies that focus only on ICT should rethink their priorities, says Ndubuisi Ekekwe.

From the steam engine to information and communication technology (ICT), technological advances have increased productivity, changed commerce, and improved living standards. But across human history, none has crossed geographical boundaries as effectively as ICT.

ICT has created unprecedented linkages between public and private institutions, governments, citizens and corporations. It has changed nearly all aspects of modern society, and seen a redesign of traditional structures, leading to developments such as eGovernment and digital education.

But ICT cannot exist in isolation. It is not synonymous with technology, and African governments that consider their ICT policy a technology policy should think again. While it is vital for development, it is not a substitute for technological advancement in a broader sense.

Problems like the lack of clean water or lighting cannot be solved by ICT. For all the mobile software apps for farmers, Africa still needs seeds for agriculture. Policymakers are wrong to focus almost exclusively on ICT and neglect long-standing development needs.

Tunnel vision

ICT is a consumptive technology that requires other, more traditional technologies to function and flourish. For example, it cannot progress without advances in microelectronics, which supply microprocessor pipelines that help improve the performance of computing devices.

It is unique in being an enabler or enhancer, improving the speed and efficiency of operations. It does this so well that it overshadows the operations it is expected to facilitate — mobile apps or SMS systems that power eHealth in African villages, for example, taking attention away from medical practice. Besides, ICT is the platform for promoting its own benefits.

Some African countries have created federal ministries solely for ICT. Kenya and Nigeria, for example, now have ICT-focused ministries as well as commissions and agencies.

Nigeria’s 2012 budget allocated NGN18.31 billion (US$120 million) to the ICT ministry, while the science and technology ministry received NGN30.84 billion (US$200 million) — which, of course, will be partly spent on ICT tools. [1]

And from Kenya to Ghana, the governments of many African nations have redesigned school curricula to position ICT as the gateway to a technology career — a trend not likely to change any time soon.

There is nothing wrong with teaching ICT. The problem is that no other emerging technology — alternative energy, biotechnology, or nanotechnology — has received the same attention. This risks introducing school children to a ‘narrow’ view of technology at the expense of the technological diversity nations need for economic growth.

For a continent with inadequate electricity and clean water, where transportation networks are often poor and agricultural productivity faces many challenges, governments need to nurture talent in more areas than ICT.

Untapped potential

Africa’s progress for sustainable development depends on countries’ capacity to benefit from scientific advancements through policies that set out a broadly based technology roadmap.

The continent needs to modernise its technical education to encourage highly competent, independent thinkers. This will help not just in making ICT a creative industry (African countries are mainly distributors of existing technologies), but also in providing the skills necessary to develop other technology sectors.

To jumpstart other sectors, funding for startup companies will be crucial. ICT has penetrated the market because the seed funds needed to start ICT firms are relatively smaller than those required in other sectors like energy, water and electronics.

An investment exit strategy, such as vibrant stock markets, will also be important: without a path that shows how investors will recoup investments, capital-intensive areas like biotechnology, nanotechnology and alternative energy will have poor chances of taking off.

The continent also needs to modernise its legal system so that intellectual property rights (IPR) are better enforced. In any knowledge economy, the competitive weapon is the idea — and when that cannot be protected, advancement stalls. Africa’s pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors will not develop without a strong IPR system.

Africa has untapped potential in its global diasporas, which could help introduce new ideas. Diaspora communities should be encouraged to establish firms back in their homelands to support enterprises across industrial sectors.

Basic infrastructure and services such as electricity and water will be vital to the success of these efforts. Without a working refrigerator, a biotechnology specimen will be lost; and power failure during microfabrication will damage silicon wafers.

If Africa provides the right environment with the right policies, more opportunities will open up in areas other than ICT, helping to diversify the technology ecosystem.

Some countries are making progress. South Africa has partnered with Brazil and India in a nanotechnology initiative (IBSA); Nigeria is funding entrepreneurs in all sectors through its YouWin! Programme; and Rwanda has successfully brought Carnegie Mellon University to Kigali, focusing on technical education.

The continent needs to scale up these efforts faster.

Ndubuisi Ekekwe is the founder of the non-profit African Institution of Technology.