India kicks off pan-African e-network project

The $1 billion project aims to develop Africa's information and communication technologies

Ethiopia, South Africa, Ghana, and Mauritius will be the initial countries for the Indian government's $1 billion Pan Africa E-network project, a joint initiative with the Africa Union (AU).

The project aims to develop Africa's information and communication technologies by eventually connecting all of the 53 African countries to a satellite and fiber-optic network.

To launch first in Ethiopia, the project is seen by some as Africa's biggest ICT project ever, with online education and telemedicine programs expected to extend ICT infrastructure to rural areas and other underserved communities.

India hopes the investment will help it to sell more telecoms gear to Africa, including VSATs (very small aperture terminals), as well as IT services for telemedicine and other social applications. It has said it wants to make inroads into Africa's ICT markets before China steps up its investments there.

The telemedicine network will be used to share knowledge from Indian doctors with their African counterparts through online training programs, River Wallang, the Indian High commissioner to Zambia, said in an interview last month in Lusaka. The education network will allow similar information sharing, he said.

Africa faces several challenges to building out its ITC infrastructure, including nonexistent or low capacity national and international communications backbones, Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa said recently.

“Africa needs nothing less than the development of broadband infrastructure if the continent is to move together with the rest of the world,” he said, at an event to launch the cellZ network (mobile phone service provider) in Zambia's western province last month.

The Africa Development Bank has also announced plans to invest $1 billion in the continent's telecommunication and energy infrastructures.

The E-network project was first announced by Indian president Abdul Kalam in South Africa in 2004. In October 2005, the Indian government and the Africa Union signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize the project. The AU, in Addis Ababa, is an organization chartered to accelerate economic development and peace in Africa.

The Indian government has already established tele-education and telemedicine hubs in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. It will establish a hub in Africa to act as the main contact point between Africa and India and oversee the delivery of services.

ICT has been identified as the main growth area in India-Africa trade relations, Erastus Mwencha, secretary general for The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), said recently.