From India to Africa: A basket of technology to transform lives

New Delhi, Sep 15 (IANS) Solar-powered lamps made in India and by an Indian company were distributed first in refugee camps in Ethiopia in 2009 to provide security to women and promote education.

Since then 100,000 of these SUNLITE Solar Lanterns, each of which provides 9 to 10 hours of light and charges a mobile phone to have about 40 minutes of talk-time, have been bringing light into the lives of over a quarter of a million people across the globe, including impoverished communities, disaster victims and people displaced by internal strife such as the ongoing Syrian conflict.

The lamp is one of the many Indian innovations in technology that are being embraced, especially by those who need it most, as in Africa. And the government is trying to develop a form of cooperation based on technology sharing with countries in the continent, which, in turn, would open new markets for technology developed in India.

"We are offering a basket of technologies spanning agriculture implements, food processing, dairy farming, telemedicine and mobile-based health applications," Arabinda Mitra, director, international cooperation, at the Department of Science and Technology (DST), told IANS.

"Nothing high-end, but low-cost, well-tested and honed in the home market, and that touches people's lives".

Many African nations in the past had traded natural resources for foreign currency and infrastructure such as roads, and bridges. Today, many are asking for technology transfers. As professor Mwesiga Baregu of St Augustine University in Tanzania points out, technology transfers mean jobs and better development opportunities.

Mitra says the science and technology programme is part of the government's policy to promote capacity-building in Africa through humanpower training, research platforms and infrastructure. Teams had recently visited Rawanda and Senegal.

"We are sensitising the countries about the technologies that could be of use and they make their choices."

Science and technology are now increasingly recognized as a "soft power" tool of diplomacy. Not just the developed nations, India's BRICS partners Brazil and China are also using science and technology to advance their global competitiveness. Brazil has supplied knowledge from its healthcare and agricultural modernisation, and China has agricultural experts in 35 African countries.

"It is a tectonic shift to the East with shattering implications," says Calestous Juma, international development professor at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, commenting on the "browning" of technology which has long been the domain of "white" Americans and Europeans in Africa.

"Western countries have been offering the wrong thing. Providing food aid or money isn't enough because food is more than calories, it is a way of life. What Africa needs is technical help, and that is coming mainly from Brazil, India and China... India is supplying technology to provide communications and land-based satellite information," Juma, author of "The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa", who advises the African Union on technology policy, told the New Scientist magazine.

Africa watchers say there is no need to reinvent the wheel. India and Africa have similar problems and concerns. The solutions have been tried and tested in India and are available to transfer knowledge and experience.

For example, grassroots innovators are leading the way in building frugal technologies in India. These backyard innovations, or locally called the 'jugaad', and value-added by the National Innovation Foundation must be promoted to access international markets.

The science and technology partnership followed from the 2012 India-Africa Science and Technology Ministers Conference. At the end of the two-day meet, the two sides agreed on the need for training of personnel, building academia-industry partnerships, innovative models for funding research and innovation and commercialisation strategies for scientific knowledge.

Rajiv Kumar, who looks after the African programme at DST, says India in consultations with African countries identifies need-based small and medium-scale technologies in select areas for transfer. Thirty-five countries have been identified for involvement for different programmes.

"It's a work-in-progress."

Mitra said Africans were getting exposure to India's experience in agriculture, aqua culture, water management and waste disposal. Traditional medicine is also gaining attention.

Mauritius, which is going ahead with its "Blue Revolution" and has shown interest in learning from Indian experience in farming of aquatic animals and plants -- one of the fastest growing area in the food sector.

Also, Africa offers a testing ground for Indian-designed technologies that can be scaled up for other markets. A good example, some experts say, is a solar-powered cooking stove as wood-burning stoves are responsible for much of Africa's deforestation.

"DST is a facilitator", bringing governments and industries together that will eventually lead to transfer deals, said Mitra. It is partnering with FICCI in promoting collaborations.

The DST is also urging more Africans to come to India, said Mitra. Three hundred and nine researchers from 30 countries have availed themselves of the C V Raman Fellowship to work in Indian R&D labs and academic institutions.

Cooperation is on with the Institute of Mathematics and Physical Sciences in Benin and the Pasteur Institute in Tunis on vaccine research. The astronomy project with South Africa is under consideration.

Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt are also interested to leverage the experience of India in science and technology, and work with Indian institutions.

"Africa is rising. To realize this exciting prospect, the continent needs to invest in skills and higher education, especially science and technology...I think that a partnership with emerging countries is a step in the right direction," said Ritva Reinikka, director for human development in Africa at the World Bank.

(Saroj Mohanty can be contacted at saroj.m@ians.in)

(Saroj Mohanty can be contacted at saroj.m@ians.in)

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