Research Must Be Relevant To Development and People – Prof. Mbarika

By Walter Wilson Nana in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Researchers across the African continent and beyond are on a consensus that their fallouts, findings should be relevant to development and mankind. In the ongoing ICT For Africa Conference 2013 holding in Harare, Zimbabwe, discussions are on that path and more.

Conference convenor, Prof. Victor Mbarika, Director, International Centre for Information Technology Development, ICITD, Baton Rouge, USA, defends the aforementioned assertion and gives other pertinent insights of their activities in this exclusive interview with iCameroon.Com.

The International Conference on ICT for Africa 2013 is ongoing in Harare, Zimbabwe, what are the issues being discussed?

Prof. Victor Wacham Mbarika in Harare, Zimbabwe

Prof. Victor Wacham Mbarika in Harare, Zimbabwe

The conference opened with a Doctoral Consortium, where we’re working with Masters & Doctoral Students. We’ve listened to their research, had good feedback and now we can prepare them for the big scholars for ICT in Africa tomorrow. We’re looking at theory driven and practical research in the area of ICTs. This Zimbabwean conference is looking at a lot of discussions going on between research rigour and research relevance. We need to do research and thorough research. It must be relevant to development, must be relevant to people and relevant in terms of sustainable development. Research must have direct impact on the society and not for the sake of it.

The conference is the idea of the International Centre for Information Technology Development, ICITD, Baton Rouge, USA and the ICT University, Yaounde, Cameroon. What does it seek to achieve?

We’re looking at ICT within the specific context of Sub-Saharan Africa. We argue, strongly that we cannot continue to take models developed from the West. We want to do research, which is specific for the Sub-Saharan Region. That addresses our African issues, our African problems and research motivations that will lead African scholars to be developers of knowledge and not users of knowledge. We’ve to be knowledge creators and not only knowledge consumers.

Previous conferences have held in Cameroon (2008, 2009),  Nigeria (2010, 2011) and Uganda (2012). What tangible contributions have they made in the ICT sectors of these countries?

We’ve had the Yaoundé Declaration, going back to 2010. It is widely quoted in a lot of circles now. We came out with a declaration on ICT Learning, that is E-Learning. In many countries now, E-Learning has become the talk of the day. At the ICT University in Cameroon, students can now take courses online and onsite at the campus. We had a lot of discussions in Nigeria, in Uganda on ICT policy. The next step now is to move these policies into practice. We’re contributing in a major way on the ICT debate in Africa and in other developing nations across the world. We’re not where we’re supposed to be, but moving slowly but surely.

What is the kernel of the Yaoundé Declaration?

The Yaoundé Declaration was strategies in promoting E-Learning within the Sub-Saharan context. We’ve to develop ICT systems that can run in areas that have low bandwidth — that is low internet speed in simple terms. We’ve adapted E-Learning software; Microsoft for the ICT University in Yaounde and other universities across Cameroon. The ICT University in Cameroon is helping some other universities in Nigeria to establish their ICT platforms in a way that fits that context, knowing that they are in low resource areas.

What will come out from Harare, this time around?

At the close of the conference, we will know some of the steps to take, to translate research theory into research practice. That is the big thing we’re looking forward to. Let’s watch out for the report that comes at the end. So far the conference is going on very well, with a strong support from President Robert Mugabe and his government, the Zimbabwean Ministry of ICT and the Permanent Secretary of ICT, Engineer Sam Kundishora, the National University of Science & Technology, Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Open University, the local support and the many sponsors that have come in.

Bringing stakeholders of ICT; academics, practitioners, researchers, policy makers and those in the industrial sectors from the African continent and beyond for three days. Is that enough to entrench the knowledge and culture of ICT across Africa?

Absolutely not, but it is a great start. Bringing together a strong mix of government, the private sector and the academia at once, it is an achievement. We’ve been able to bring all these sectors together, to be able to discuss ways to move theory into practice. It is not enough, but it is a start. The next step is the aspect of implementation of resolutions that come out of this conference. With the enormous support from President Mugabe, I am convinced, the ICT sector in Zimbabwe will move forward. The Permanent Secretary is insisting that we keep coming to Zimbabwe so that it becomes a partnership and for other sectors in the country to benefit from what we are doing.

What is the ICT context for Africa?

We’ve to create ICT knowledge and not using ICT in Africa. We must encourage programmes that develop software applications. And not as expensive from what we’re buying in the Western world. We need to encourage the use of open source technology. But we still need the technical knowhow to develop all these. The context in Africa is to train local experts. This is what I have written in my books and the many publications to my credit. We need to train people within the local context. We have to train locals to manage and develop ICTs within their local context. Rather than continue this dependency syndrome from getting support from the West.

How is the African context different from others?

While we’re resource rich in Africa, with natural resources but technologically poor in Africa, we’ve to look for a way out to come out of that poverty, which is creating your own. You’ve to learn to create your own product. You can’t depend on buying from the West. Now, everybody wants a laptop from the US or Europe, we can develop these things in Africa. We’ve people with the knowhow but there must be policy to facilitate things like that. We have young people who can do it, but government will come in with taxation policies that will discourage him or her from continuing. So, policy is necessary to motivate the younger generation to do many things. That is what we’re pushing in our conferences. That is why we’re interested in bringing policy makers to our conferences. We are confident that it will bear fruits soonest.

After 5 years on the ground, ICITD and the ICT University achieving their motives?

We’re. When I walked into the conference hall in the opening, it was packed with people, for the Doctoral Consortium. The interest is there and immense. The support from the government is there, so we’re excited about it.  Five years into these conferences, we are happy with what we’ve been seeing. We’re going to Nairobi, Kenya in 2014 with same intensity. In 2015, we hope to bring the conference back to Cameroon. We love what we’re going through.

What has been your difficulties as ICITD embarks on this endeavour?

We’ve not had a lot of difficulties, except in the area of travelling. It gets people tired and the issues about visa. It’s a shame that in some African countries that we go to, an American passport will go through faster than an African passport. A lot of our African guests have a rough time going through some countries. That frustrates some of our delegates and we hope that things like that will be corrected in future conferences.

The African continent is generally rocked with perennial problems of power outages and epileptic telecommunications systems. How successful will be the quest to adequately, implant the business of ICT?

The issue of power is still major all over Africa. It’s a problem we’ve to take heads on. Now, we’ve no choice for the time being to look for alternative choice(s).  In some countries, like Nigeria, the use of loud generators is an approach. While some people complain about the noise, I think that is our best alternative. It’s a shame but I say it. Some people say how about solar and wind energy? The fact is those two areas have not been well developed in the African continent. In areas that we’ve wind energy, it is expensive for now. We’ve to keep working with what we’ve – generators.

How far does ICITD intend to go with the implantation of ICT across Africa?

We’re not stopping any soon, I’ll tell you that. We’re moving to Kenya next year and either Cameroon or Malawi in 2015. We’ve been booked for these conferences up to 2017. One of the biggest things we’re pushing as an organisation is for the ICT University to train a lot of PhDs on ICT across Africa and take over these conferences and the donors we have set over time. People should go to our university; and apply.

Thank you Prof. Mbarika!!

Thank you too for coming.

Interviewed by Walter Wilson Nana in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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