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  India, in a joint initiative with the African Union, has launched the Pan-African e-network project, which will support tele-education, telemedicine, e-commerce, e-governance, infotainment, resource-mapping and meteorological services *

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Statement by H.E. Mr. Gurjit Singh, Ambassador of India to Ethiopia and Djibouti and Representative of lndia to the African Union and the UNECA at the World Information Technology Forum (WITFOR) 2007 TOUCHING LIVES
Source : Embassy of India in Ethiopia

In a momentous effort to reach out to the countries of Africa and bring the cutting edge of India`s technological achievements to touch the lives of people of Africa, the Government of India has undertaken a Pan-African e-Network Project. This is the single largest project which India has undertaken in Africa since independence and has the ambit to cover the entire continent.

The vision for the Pan-African e-Network Project was born in an address by the former President of India H.E. Mr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam to the Pan-African Parliament in 2004. This vision was then translated into a plan of action, which has been under implementation through India`s strong relationship with the African Union.

In 2005 two delegations from India which were led by Mrs. Shashi U. Tripathi, Vice-Minister of External Affairs visited Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where the headquarters of the African Union Commission is located. The discussions focused on making a presentation of the vision of the project how it could be implemented and areas to be covered by the project. Following these discussions the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Prof. Alpha Oumar Konare, established an Advisory Committee of the African Union which went into the details of the project and concluded that the Indian proposal for the project fitted in with the objectives of the African Union and would greatly assist the African Union and its member Countries in achieving the Millennium Development Goals through a visionary use of information technology. Initially the project was handled by the Commissioner dealing with Science & Technology in the African Union Commission but later transferred to the Infrastructure Department.

The Project

      The vision of the project is to provide optical fibre or VSAT based linkage among all African countries and linking them to each other and to India through a satellite network which by itself is a revolutionary concept as the transformation of African telecommunication linkages to a common satellite is yet on the anvil. Further, after establishing a VSAT based network all over Africa it would provide linkages for tele-education and tele-medicine purposes to Indian universities and hospitals. The shared ambit and depth of this project was widely studied by the Advisory Committee of the African Union commission and after due diligence it was decided that an agreement will be signed between the Government of India and the African Union Commission to implement the project.

The total project cost is over $100 million and is a grant by the Government of India to build connectivity within Africa and support the creation of tele-medicine and tele-education programme. Where such programme already exist the programme will be an augmentation and an alternative option. The pilot project in Ethiopia cost about $2.1 million. Under the Project, the implementing agency would cover maintenance costs for up to five years and build local capacities for running and maintaining the project in the future. The tele-education component would cover about 10,000 students in Africa and a set number of hours would be provided as part of the grant for tele-medicine consultations. Subsequently, the tele-medicine and tele education centres created African countries would have the option to work with their Indian partner universities and hospitals on a cost-effective basis or use the hardware for other connections to be established.

Subsequently, after discussions in Addis Ababa in May 2005 and continuing informal discussions, a delegation of the African Union commission led by the Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy, Mr. Bernard Zoba, visited India in October 2005. An agreement was signed between Mrs. Shashi U. Tripathi, Vice Minister of External Affairs and Mr. Bernard Zoba on 31st October, 2005 in the presence of all African ambassadors in New Delhi. This was truly a momentous occasion.

As per the agreement, India and the-African Union Commission jointly agreed to implement the project and provide an impetus to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in Africa. At the same time, the Government of India, designated the Telecommunication Consultants India Limited (TCIL) as the implementing agency from the Indian side and an agreement between the African Union Commission and TCIL was also concluded the same day. Draft agreements, which every African country could sign, through a designated or implementing agency with TCIL was also approved and subsequently translated into the working languages of the African Union viz. French, Arabic and Portuguese besides the original in English. This set into motion a vigorous process of bringing the information on the project to all member States and concerned institutions in Africa which has led to a new engagement and momentum which has become an engine for the future development of Indo-African relations

      In the terms of the project India is committed to provide a VSAT based system linking African countries to Indian universities and hospitals. Each country which joins the project would sign an agreement with TCIL for implantation and would designate an implementing agency. It would also choose a nodal e-learning centre and a nodal hospital which would become the focal points for the implementation of the project in each of those countries. Thus, the 53 remote hospitals envisaged in Africa and the 53 learning centres would be provided with all equipment to have live c1asses for tele-education and live consultation for tele-medicine purposes. The VSAT based linkage would provide them access to 7 Indian universities and 12 super specialty hospitals in India including the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), New Delhi; Amity University, Noida; Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur; Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani and the Universities of Delhi and Chennai for tele-education purposes. Similarly, for tele-medicine purposes the 12 Indian institutions being considered for the project are: All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi; Apollo Hospital, Chennai; CARE Hospital, Hyderabad; Narayana Hrudayalaya Institute of Medical Science, Bangalore; Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, Kochi; Fortis Hospital, Noida; King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEM), Mumbai; Manipal Hospital, Manipal; Escorts Hearts Institute and Research Centre Limited, New Delhi; Sri Ramachandra Medical College & Research Institute, Chennai; Mool Chand Khairati Ram Hopsital, New Delhi and Santosh Medical College and Hospital, Ghaziabad. The nodal hospitals in African countries would be provided with PC enabled ECG, ultrasound and X-ray equipment which would provide inputs directly to the Indian consultants so that rapid diagnosis and medical advice could be rendered.

Regional Approach

      In the framework of the project it was also decided that there would be a regional level of interaction where 5 regional hospitals and 5 regional universities would be identified for undertaking a more coordinating role among the national learning centres and hospitals. While Africa has a 1arge number of regional economic communities it is broadly divided into 5 regions and India and the African Union decided to implement the project keeping in view the 5 geographical regions rather than any existing regional economic community which often have overlapping memberships. The AU at present recognizes eight Regional Economic Communities in Africa and these are: the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), the Economic Community for Central African States (ECCAS), the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), the Community of Sahelo-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) and the East Africa Community (EAC). India has MOUs with SADC, COMESA and EAC. At preset India is looking interestingly at the African Union efforts to harmonize the work of the RECs and is awaiting the development of MOUs with ECOWAS, ECCAS and IGAD.

The difference in these 5 regional universities is that besides having the same equipment and facilities as a national learning centre they would also have a studio where classes could be held parallel to the Indian institutions involved for learning. centres in the same region. Thus, while a class should be conducted from the Indira Gandhi National Open University for national learning centres, the regional universities would also be equipped to provide similar classes either on established content or on their own regional curricula. Similarly, the regional hospitals would be equipped with a consultative mechanism similar to those existing in Indian institutions so that they could be an alternative source of tele-consultants for national hospitals. Through this, project it is possible to provide specialized and localized classes and medical consultations through important regional learning and medical centres for the benefit of those regions. For instance, a particular disease prevalent in a region could perhaps be better tackled through local consultations among these centres through the regional super-specialty hospital.

Similarly, local content could be added to courses through regional learning centres which could even provide their own courses for universities in their region. The important point is that through a VSAT based system, connecting the whole continent and at least countries who have signed up in the first phase will provide access through these regional centres to any country in Africa wishing to address it. The physical boundaries of regions would not constrain the operation of the e-Network Project.

A tele-medicine facility at the African Union Medical Centre in Addis Ababa was also considered for implementation as that would substantially upgrade the medical consultation available at the clinic for the African Union Commission staff, and for visiting dignitaries at the many conferences which are held at the headquarters of the African Union Commission.

Establishment of Steering Committee

      Under the agreement between India and the African Union it was decided to. establish a Steering Committee co-chaired by the AU Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy and the Indian Representative to the African Union who is also the Indian Ambassador to Ethiopia resident in Addis Ababa. This Steering Committee has met 4 times in January, April & July 2006 and March 2007. These Steering Committee meetings have greatly helped in clarifying the ambit of the project to a large number of interlocutors which the African Union has included in the Steering Committee. These have included regional institutions and technical organizations like the African. Telecommunications Union, the satellite implementing agency RASCOM, the African Virtual University, Pan-African Postal Union, International Telecommunications Union, NEPAD e-Africa Commission, Economic Commission for Africa and regional offices of UN agencies like WHO. This allowed a wide variety of ideas to come into the development of the project in its implementation stage. While India was introducing the project based on its own successful tele-education and tele-medicine efforts in India, the Steering Committee provided an occasion to localize the ideas into an African context and also bring into account the diversity within Africa and its regions. For instance, the aspect of linguistic curricula, particularly pertaining to Francophone Africa was a clear input. At the same time, the higher existing development of similar services particularly for tele-education in Southern Africa was another important input.

During the Steering Committee meetings an initial effort was made to decide on where the satellite hub for Africa would be located, from where the link up to international satellites would take place, till such times as RASCOM establishes the African satellite on to which the linkages then could shift. It was ultimately decided by a technical committee that only those countries of Africa could express interest in hosting the satellite hub station who were not landlocked and had an international marine landing point. This reduced the list to about 11 countries but there were only 3 serious bidders in Mauritius, Ghana and Senegal. It was interesting that though India had an existing IT related presence and TCIL offices in Mauritius and in Ghana, the decision yet went in favour of Senegal on the basis of evaluation criteria established by a technical sub-committee of the Steering Committee. Thus the decision to host the satellite hub in Senegal has been taken and work on its establishment is underway and should be completed by late 2007. The completion of this work would allow the project to take off in a fullsome manner.

Similarly, the Steering Committee enthusiastically worked on criteria to establish regional universities and hospitals. It was necessary to have a larger number of national agreements signed and national learning centres and hospitals established under the project before deciding on regional institutions. It is a reflection of the enthusiasm by which the African Union works that the work for selecting the regional institutions went in parallel with bilateral efforts to establish national agreements with TCIL. Till date 25 countries have signed the bilateral agreements viz. Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Comoros, Congo, Cote döIvoire, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe.

Interestingly, when the bids for the regional hospitals and universities were considered there was adequate response from West and East Africa regions but a lukewarm response from Southern Africa and North Africa. Central Africa had a more unified response but did not have adequate paper work to conclude the agreements.

The evaluation committees which looked into these criteria decided to take an immediate decision at the Steering Committee meeting on 24th July, 2006 and selected the Makerere University in Uganda as the regional university for East Africa and the Ibadan Teaching Hospital in Nigeria as the regional hospital for West Africa. The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and the University of Ghana were jointly selected as the regional university for West Africa. Subsequently a joint bid by the Rep. of Congo to host the regional hospital for Central Africa at Brazzaville Hospital, and by Cameroon for the regional university for this region at Yaounde University were evaluated and nominated as the regional centres for Central Africa. Decisions on other regions were deferred. This approach showed that in some regions the project was catching on while on other regions there were issues to be considered which will be discussed further.

      Of the 25 countries which have signed the agreement, the regional break up is as follows: East-10, West -11, and South - 4. Thus the interest which came from East and West Africa was more or less commensurate with the level of the national agreements signed from those regions.

      Interestingly, the response to this Project at present has coincided with a similar experience with the African Virtual University had while establishing distance learning programmes in Africa. The response from the West and the East was the best for them as well whereas North, Central and Southern Africa have had a lower response. But the reasons for this are different. In North Africa in some countries there is a heightened use of IT but not enough expansion into areas of healthcare and education. In Central African countries IT penetration is slow and utilization of downstream services needs enhancements. South Africa, on the other hand, has perhaps the highest density of IT utilization has in Africa and has existing programme of distance education and medical use of IT. Our approach in dealing, with these areas, therefore, acquired a varied response. In Southern Africa the Pan-African e-Network Project is projected as an adjunct and complementary programme to existing strengths whereas in other areas greater sensitization is required to comprehend the project paper and see how it meets national objectives.

The Implementation

      The pilot project of the Pan-African e-Network Project was undertaken in Ethiopia on the basis of a bilateral agreement to test the technology in local conditions and adept it to local use. This has been a great learning process and the successful launch of the tele-education and tele-medicine facilities in Addis Ababa on 5th July, 2007 by the Minister of External Affairs of India and the Minister of Capacity Building of Ethiopia was a landmark event.

At present MBA classes organized by the IGNOU are being conducted for about 35 students at two learning centres in Ethiopia at Addis Ababa University and Harmaya University. The second semester is underway and first semester exams have been successfully concluded. The students have found this extremely satisfying and the Ethiopian Government is choosing to train teachers for their post-graduation expansion programme in the new universities. Similarly, the tele-medicine consultations are going on in fields of pediatric cardiology, adult cardiology, neurology and radiology while pathology and dermatology are to be introduced soon at the request of Black Lion Hospital through the CARE Hospital, Hyderabad. A similar facility has been created at Nekempt Hospital about 400 kms. from Addis Ababa where their internal consultation with Black Lion are operational and the technical links to CARE hospital have also been established. The successful completion of the pilot project which has been through intensive efforts by both the Indian and Ethiopia sides to adapt this new technology and its technical requirements into local conditions has been a matter of immense satisfaction as well as a matter of learning.

Among the learning processes have been the following:

(a) The requirements for high speed technical links of 2 mbps which are not often found in all African countries. This will be obviated once the hub in Dakar is established and the project shifts to a VSAT base.

(b)The requirement of trained manpower at each location. The implementing agency from the Indian side, TCIL, has a mandate to build capacity through technical and human resource at each location. We have to, however, guard against the snitching of such trained manpower by emerging private sector opportunities leaving a gap in may places where the hardware would be installed but the operators may be missing.

(c) Closer contacts between the nodal learning centre/university and the Indian university to adapt existing programmes into local conditions and requirements.

(d) To fit the tele-education and tele-medicine facilities into the fulfillment of national development goals.

(e) The differences between major referral hospitals and remote hospitals and their requirements. In Ethiopia, we found that the Black Lion Hospital is fairly well endowed with doctors and other resources and needs the tele-medicine component only for consultations in difficult cases. The Nekempt Hospital, however, has a lower allocation of human and other medical resources where the consultations could actually be on more day-to-day cases.

      I am convinced that the impact of the project in Africa is likely to be great however, it is also true that the full impact of the Project is yet to be grasped. There is great excitement in Ethiopia where the project has been implemented in the pilot phase and the realization that technology can transcend existing ideas is growing. Under the tele-education component live classes can be held with interaction between teacher and student with the teacher being in India and the students in multiple African universities. This is a real time education process and not a distance learning one. The teacher and the student can talk to each other and ask questions through the questions or chat mode of the operation. Assignments can be provided which will be done on the web and results available soon thereafter. Teachers also have the option of conducting quizzes either planned or surprise, by tapping the quiz mode in the database.

      Similarly, in the tele-medicirie concept real time consultations can be undertaken for patients African hospitals with Indian doctors. For this designated times and specialties are to be fixed between the respective hospitals on each side and patients prepared on the African side. The equipment provided at a tele-medicine centre through the Project includes a x-ray machine, pathology lab, ECT, etc. which are all PC-compatible and can transmit results directly to the tele-medicine centre in India.

      The tele-education component is going to be an important adjunct to the human resources development programme of many African countries. Several of these countries already have a strong linkage with Indian universities and send students to study in India. In countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Eritrea a large number of Indian university professors are teaching in universities. Thus the teleeducation segment will complement existing collaboration between India and Africa in the field of education and depending on individual country chooses it to allow for greater cohesion and enlargement. In Ethiopia, for instance, there is a focus on post graduate courses through the tele-education programme as the Government of Ethiopia seeks to expand its post-graduate seats for university students. In a country like Djibouti, however, the programme could well be used for English language teaching as the country looks to transform itself from a Francophone, country to English-speaking one. Thus varied responses are likely to emerge which would create different opportunities for Indian institutions to engage with African countries through, this programme.


      Similarly, the tele-medicine programme will create new capacities for bringing healthcare to a wider range of people in Africa Hospitals will have the freedom to choose which specialty they need consultation from India for and could compensate for the brain-drain of doctors from their own countries by utilizing this system. In some countries the lack of a neurosurgeon could be compensated through the telemedicine programme where in others coronary heart disease could be a major focus. Linked to this is the continuing medical education programme in five regional universities which would provide professional linkages between Indian and African doctors.

With the growing entry of Indian pharmaceuticals into African this telemedicine segment will become an, important complementarily to enlarging the engagement of India and Africa in the healthcare sector and make it more meaningful. It would, of necessity bring on harmonization among African countries themselves of their pharmacopoeias and national drug registers which will itself be a new challenge.

The Pan-African Network, therefore, is one of the most important initiatives thus India has taken in Africa. It is a symbol of continuing Indian commitment to bring the cutting edge of Indian technology to Africa and engage with them in a futuristic exercise whose full impact is yet to evolve. When I was with two of my young col1eagues at the live test of classes between Addis Ababa University and IGNOU, at sheer joy on our faces and the faces of our Ethiopian Counterparts at putting this technology to successful test was something which will remain etched in my mind.

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