Do You Mean We Import Chalk?

Dr. Gilbert Balibaseka Bukenya, Vice President of Uganda told a story during the opening session of Digital Africa 2010. While traveling within the country, he paid special attention to small schools. While lacking nearly every normal school resource, each school had one common denominator – they all had black boards and chalk.

The question started nagging him. As the VP, he was in pretty good touch with imports, exports, and manufacturing within Uganda. But chalk, as an ubiquitous tool, was nearly completely imported from China. Something as simple as chalk, a tool used by nearly everybody n the country, was not being produced in the domestic business sector.

Primary school in a small village near KampalaDr. Bukenya changed that. The chalk problem was quickly rectified, and a new program of “can we make it in Uganda” started. The basic idea is if the product is capable of being made in-country, then Uganda should not pay another country for the product.

Reward local innovation, but don’t forget we are part of a global community

It is very easy to slap a flag on a cardboard box identifying the origin of contents with a “Made with Pride in ____.” And a good idea. If the materials and labor force are available, those things should not be imported, and the product may actually be robust enough for export. In the US we are nearly militant in our enthusiasm supporting “Made in America” campaigns, almost to the point of being accused of a shortfall in patriotism for buying foreign materials.

But let’s keep in mind we are part of a global economy. Innovation and entrepreneurship occurs in every nation of the world, and although it is difficult to admit, some ideas are better than ours. And at some point we like variety. And we can call this world trade.

Be a Hunter, not a Gatherer

Dr. Bukenya further challenged the delegates to change our minds (as a society) from accepting handouts from others, buying everything we use from others, and being dependent on donors for our livelihoods. Take control of our own destiny, and start producing. Nurture entrepreneurs, nurture innovation.

This includes innovation in the ICT sector. Dr. Aggrey Awori, Uganda’s Minister of ICT, stated “broadband (communications) and ICT are now the greatest enablers of modern society.” He went to make an even stronger statement “access to ICT is a basic human entitlement.”

Evidence indicates this is not idle rhetoric, but actual policy. The Open Internet Initiative (ONI) does not find any evidence of government filtering or censoring within the country. The major obstacle in Uganda’s efforts to bring Internet to the people being a lack of basic infrastructure, including both telecom and electricity.

The eLearning Component

Ugandans enjoy government mandated education up secondary school. However, while the basic literacy rate is high (66.8%), there is little wide spread access to advanced education tools such as Internet. Thus students complete their education at a great disadvantage to students in other countries with much greater access to network applications and technology.

Chalk is easy, producing software or manufacturing consumer and industrial goods for export is not. While Dr. Bukenya’s “can we make it in Uganda” idea is worthy, to make it work will require considerably more attention to building basic infrastructure needed to prepare workers for the global marketplace.

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, ICT is the 4th utility. Roads, power, and water are now joined by information and communications technology. Without ICT infrastructure as a basic requirement, a country cannot compete in the global marketplace, and will be restricted to depending on global donors for its existence – not to mention the vulnerability such as country has to political upheaval and violence.

Uganda gets it, and the delegates of Digital Africa 2010 get it. Now it is our job to make sure the rest of the world gets it.

Previous article in this series:

Digital Africa 2010 and Cloud Computing in Developing Countries

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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