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Ethiopia Leaps

ethiopia_vsat.jpgAs much as we celebrate leapfrogging here on WorldChanging, we have to acknowledge that it's a risky endeavor. The introduction of an entirely new infrastructure or technology is almost always financially costly, and questions inevitably arise about the appropriate allocation of resources, the relative needs of the population, and whether the chosen path is actually the best way to achieve the leapfrog goal. Efforts that focus on information technology are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of criticism, as IT -- unlike (say) water or electricity, or even medical biotechnology -- has a less obvious day-to-day positive impact on the lives of the people making the leap. At the same time, as computers and networks have enormous potential as economic drivers, it can be tempting for a developing nation to push ahead with an IT strategy in hopes that it will trigger the kind of economic acceleration to make other sorts of development more readily achievable.

Ethiopia is in the midst of just this sort of leapfrog process. We've noted encouraging signs recently that Ethiopia was embracing information and communication networks, but we didn't know the half of it. According to the Times of London, Ethiopia is spending 10% of its GDP on the introduction of local and regional computer networks, classroom computers and satellite-based Internet connections throughout the country. Although it hasn't much been in the headlines, this leap actually started several years ago; now, the hardware is ready, and the real work begins.

With the infrastructure in place, politicians, engineers and users now face the challenge of realising its potential. The network is intended to deliver high-quality education, agricultural training and, eventually, a telemedicine service, as well as to provide the foundation for an internet-based telephone system that could replace the antiquated equipment used in most of the country.
[...] "The technology has enabled us to introduce new activities that would have been very difficult without it," [Addis Ababa University president, Andreas Esheté] explains. "If a student wants to do a thesis on a subject for which we don’t have an expert, we get a person outside the university to supervise the thesis using the internet." Students in the computer department have also been able to work on joint projects with their counterparts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which could not have happened in the pre-internet era.

[...] For most of the time the network will facilitate the mundane but important business of efficient government, allowing the dispersal of advice, instructions and feedback without the need for long journeys on foot, but the links could also prove invaluable during emergencies. In the past, when food stocks began to run low in the more remote areas, news of looming famine and requests for help would travel from the villages at a walking pace. Now, each village is only an e-mail or phone call away.

An article in Dubai-based ITP.net from last summer detailed some of the country's plans for the system.

The first, ‘Woredanet’, will interlink 600 local and eleven regional government offices with the Federal government’s headquarters in Addis Ababa.The second network, ‘Schoolnet’, will provide over 450 secondary education institutions around the country with internet access and allow them to receive broadcast TV-based educational content from media agencies.The third, ‘Agrinet’, will link more than 30 research and operational agricultural centres. [...]A fourth network, meanwhile, is also being mooted. This will connect all Ethiopia’s major referral hospitals and form the basis for a nationwide tele-medicine initiative.

("Woreda" means "local.")

Ethiopia's Ministry of Capacity Building (a very cool name that seems just shy of "Ministry of Leapfrogging") is partnering with Cisco -- one of the major contractors for the networking hardware -- to roll out training across the country. Cisco is also facilitating the donation of 10,000 refurbished PCs from Europe.

As Jason Deign, writing for Cisco News, puts it, "the upshot is that ETC [Ethiopia Telecom], the Ministry of Capacity Building and the project partners were able to create a country-wide network from scratch, using a combination of fiber, microwave, wireless and satellite technologies." And they did it in less than five years.

Ethiopia is both learning from and passing its experiences on to other nations in the developing world. The 2004 Draft Report on Rural Connectivity Planning And Related Locally Sustainable Technologies (PDF) is a blueprint for the planning and implementation of telecommunications leapfrogging. It's written for IT professionals, so it's rather jargon-heavy, but more casual readers will be interested in its depictions of case studies elsewhere in the world, as well as its argument in support of expanded use of Open Source Software (as they refer to it) in the backroom systems. The report focuses primarily on the infrastructure, not on the end-user implementation.

This is an enormous gamble for Ethiopia, as the overarching agenda isn't simply to upgrade and expand the telecommunication network, but to transform the country's economy, turning Ethiopia into the foremost information technology and services provider in the region. In essence, the Ministry of Capacity Building wants to make Ethiopia Africa's first real Knowledge Economy. For a nation that has in recent decades suffered from overwhelming famine and civil war, this is an ambitious goal to say the least. If it fails, Ethiopia could become a symbol for the dangers of leapfrogging and the dangerous temptations of going too far, too fast. But if it succeeds -- and the earliest signs are hopeful -- Ethiopia could instead symbolize the pathway to success in 21st Century Africa.

(Initial tip via Smart Mobs)


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Ethiopia Leaps:

» ¿Cómo utilizar las IT para superar la brecha digital en Africa: Etiopia y Malawi muestran dos alternativas from Juan Freire
La brecha digital se ha presentado como una nueva barrera que impide a los pobres (sean países o ciudadanos) su crecimiento económico y desarrollo. Los países desarrollados, aunque una parte de la población permanece aún al otro lado de esa [Read More]

» Ethiopia Leaps from Global College Community Blog
Ethiopia Leaps This is a fascinating story of Ethiopia's daring commitment to implementing a robust IT infrastructure throughout the country. If this is successful it would make Ethiopia one of the most advanced countries in Africa when it comes to... [Read More]

Comments (5)

It pleases me immensely to see the current development that is taking place in Ethiopia. The potential benefits of such an undertaking are enormous. It is my hope that anyone who opposes these efforts would set aside their selfish motives and consider the masses. We have a tangible opportunity before us. Let us seize the day when Ethiopia can be a great nation for all it's citizens.


Does it really help to fortify IT when people have enough bread for a day? I think there are a lot to do before IT such as irrigation and other development works, how many percent of Ethiopian know how to operate a computer ? are they enough computer school in the country?

I will call this a no sense initiatives for a country that 80 % of the people are based on agriculture , education can be improved with out a computer and internet, I can assure you the older generation of Ethiopia are well educated than the current one, did they have internet or any IT , they read book and made it to be best

We shall focus on other type of development where the majority of the Ethiopian will benefited !

Is widespread, cheap IT good for Ethiopia and, indeed, all of Africa? You bet.

But the day this post went up, Ethiopia made its own announcement: it is waging a desperate fight against malaria because infections rates have risen to between four and ten times normal levels (see: http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=48582&SelectRegion=Horn_of_Africa&SelectCountry=ETHIOPIA.) From the article: "Malaria is the third biggest killer in Ethiopia, with some 50 million people at risk. Each year, around 80,000 Ethiopian children - 220 a day - die from malaria, while as many as 10 million people fall sick."

So let's not forget the less sexy things--food, medicine, drinking water, electricity, sewers, etc.--that would also be beneficial for the people of Ethiopia. Indeed, let's push just as hard for these things to be available to all people as we do for Woredanet and universal access to the IT world.

Jamais Cascio:

I agree 100%, Robert. Thank you.

How can it made a change with the telecom monopoly and the current banking system? We rather focus on using the money for feeding ourselves, if we are not going to make it work by liberalizing other industries that are necessary to make a change.



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