Tuesday, September 1, 2009

India urges South Africa to join Pan-African e-Network

September 1, 2009

By Peter Fabricius Foreign Editor

The Indian government is saddened that South Africa has not joined its $117-million (R909m) Pan-African e-Network through which India offers online technical assistance to Africa.

India's minister of commerce and industry, Anand Sharma, said in Johannesburg last month that 33 African countries had already signed on to the network.

"The first phase covering 11 countries - Benin, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Seychelles - links leading universities and hospitals of Africa with their counterparts in India," he said at the Gordon Institute of Business Science.

"The second and third phase will be covered in the coming months," Sharma added.

"I must mention with a tinge of sadness that South Africa has so far not joined this network and I have raised this issue, with President (Jacob) Zuma and Deputy President (Kgalema) Motlanthe, that we cannot have a Pan-African co-operation which does not include South Africa."

When Indian President Abdul Kalam first proposed to link all 53 nations of the African Union with the fibre-optic and satellite-powered Pan-African e-Network, in Midrand in 2004, South African government sources expressed suspicions that the network would enable India to snoop on African countries and governments.

This could still be the reason Pretoria is holding back from what seems to be an obvious benefit.

The proposal includes not only tele-medicine and education but also internet, video conferencing (including among heads of state and senior officials), e-governance, e-commerce, infotainment, resource mapping, meteorological services and others.

"The Indian government believes that providing adequate educational facilities and affordable health care to citizens are two prominent concerns of many developing countries," the network website says.

"Technological improvements in terms of communication infrastructure for delivering quality education and health care uniformly, across the length and breadth of the country, are a key factor in the progress of any country."

Sharma expressed his regrets about South Africa not participating in the network while describing the benefits of greater co-operation between India and Africa, especially South Africa.

"India today offers a range of low-cost products and services. We make the world's cheapest car, the cheapest artificial limb and offer one of the lowest cost medical cares. We welcome our brothers from Africa to come to us to access affordable high quality health care services. For those who cannot come we are even offering consultations online through the Pan-African e-Network which is a shining example of our co-operation."

Sharma also offered Africa the fruits of India's experiences in its green revolution, which made the country self sufficient in food grains, and in skills training to make Africans globally employable and get them out of the poverty net which had captured an additional 50 million people since the global recession began.

"It is equally important that Africa encourages the development of home-grown corporate leaders who have the ability to take risk and to invest overseas," as Indian corporations were increasingly doing, he said.

Sharma said he would like to see Indian companies such as Tata, Mahindra and Kirloskar build on their sales to Africa by establishing many manufacturing facilities.

Further, he called for greater collaboration between Indian and African companies in building infrastructure across Africa.

Sharma noted that it was an Indian company that had broken the stranglehold of the Merck patent for antiretroviral drugs, which had substantially brought their cost down.

He said he would like to see Indian pharmaceutical companies invest across Africa.

He also offered to share with Africa India's vast experience in information and communication technology as well as in outsourcing information technology and financial services and said India would like to establish high quality software development centres in Africa.

"The African continent must not miss the digital revolution which is transforming this globalised world," he said.

Sharma also stressed the increased Indian aid to Africa, which had grown out of the first India-Africa Forum summit last year, including the Duty Free Tariff Preferential Scheme which would cover 94 percent of India's tariff lines and provide preferential market access on tariff lines for 92.5 percent of the global exports of all least developed countries.

He noted that India comprised a market of one billion people and a middle class of over 300 million.

India also announced at the summit that it would double concessional lines of credit to $5.4 billion over the next five years, prioritising infrastructure.

India's $500m budget for aid to Africa provided grants for critical areas such as human resource, development and capacity building. India had also doubled the number of scholarships.

"Our trade with Africa, which was less than a $1bn in the early 1990s, rose to a level of $35bn last year and I would like to see trebling trade with Africa over the next five years to reach the $100bn mark," Sharma said.

"India had launched a Focus Africa initiative in 2002 and it is my intention to deepen this initiative and to institutionalise our economic partnership.

"I must end with a quote of Mahatma Gandhi's: 'The commerce between India and Africa will be of ideas and services, not of manufactured goods against raw materials after the fashion of Western exploiters'."