Access to data is being talked about as a human right

Honourable Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, Minister of Communications, Ghana, had said during her visit to India last year. From the international airport in New Delhi, she headed straight for the meetings as she wanted to leverage the time she had in the capital of India. However, one cannot find a hint of jet-lag or exhaustion when one meets her. And when she starts speaking, you can’t help but get engrossed in the conversation. Her energy is infectious; her passion for work rare!

Joining the conversation was His Excellency Mr. Michael Aaron Nii Nortey Oquaye, High Commissioner of Ghana to India. Excerpts of the conversation:

1. Your visit to India is significant, especially because it came at a time when India hosted the 5th Global Conference on Cyber Space. How was the experience?

Hon. Ursula: This is my first ever visit to India! I have been asking myself what took me so long. From the time we touched down, I realised that this was like home.

I went straight to the meetings and observed that the conversations we had around rural telephony and bridging the digital divide are similar to the conversations that we have had back home. So it appears that the time is right; an opportune time to be having these conversations. And no better place to have them then in India, which until very recently was just like Ghana.

India has, over the time, become technologically advanced and has introduced many innovative solutions to the problems that we are currently facing in Ghana. I have had a lot of bilateral engagements already, which are aimed at addressing many of our concerns back home.

We can do what we can do to scale up technology in all spheres of life but we want to look at cyber-security as well. You are exposing your confidential information, hence, digitalisation has to go hand-in-hand with securing the cyber space. And so this conference has been apt and we are looking at greater cooperation across common grounds with all the countries like us. We are looking at sharing experiences, creating alliances, building on the advances that others have already made.

Therefore, it has been a fruitful conference and I am glad I am in Delhi at this time, which is too short a time; so I have to come back.

2. You have met the Indian business community here and the discussions may have led to certain agreements. Are there any IT agreements lined up to be signed with the Indian Government during your visit?

Hon. Ursula: We are looking to the Indian Government to help us scale up the pan-African network, set up the IT Centre of Excellence and provide its support for its day-to-day operations.

There are many other initiatives that are going on. We are looking forward to greater collaboration in rural telephony, rural Information and Communications Technology (ICT) hardware solutions for post offices, and solar applications in telecommunications, particularly in the unserved and underserved areas.

Going forward, I see us inking many agreements along these lines, which will be cementing the existing good relationships that we have with India – a country that has helped us in agriculture, water systems, and telecommunications and in various other aspects of our lives. I am looking forward to even greater engagements with the Indian companies in the field of ICT.

3. You just mentioned about solar energy in telecommunications. The High Commissioner had attended an International Solar Alliance (ISA) meeting that was held recently. Can ISA help Ghana tap solar energy for benefitting the telecommunication sector?

H.E. Michael Oquaye: Let me start by saying that I am very happy to see the Minister of Communications, Ghana. We have tried on many occasions to get her here but she has been very busy. So her coming here is fantastic.

In the modern era, telecommunications and ICT without India is a non-starter. India has shown that they are world leaders in this area. I have lived in Europe for a very long time. I was there for about 15 years and for every renowned investment bank or organisation, the ICT was controlled by the Indians from India. This is a trend that we are also trying to emulate.

The Indian system, its culture and terrain, as Mrs Ursula rightly said, is similar to ours. Because of that similarity, the Indian technology is good for us. Hence, it is in our interest to engage especially in technology transfer. Because we don’t just want to buy equipment; we want to share knowledge; we want to share best practice; we want to share due diligence.

One of the Indian businessmen we met earlier with the honourable minister, rightly said, “We don’t just want to go about the know-how but also the know-why.” Why is it happening? We have, thus, learnt something together in India.

She is a dynamic person. I know her personally from private practice as we both are lawyers. She is, in fact, a very renowned lawyer in Ghana and I know that she is very practical and the situation in Ghana requires practical solutions.

She is the person who is handling the whole cyber project. In terms of rural telephony, incorporating solar energy is the best way to go about it. It reduces the issue of maintenance and high utility cost.

I am expecting that soon Ghana and India will be able to conceptualize a major flagship project with regard to rural telephony and sustaining fibre-optic development.

Once done, we will look at the best applicable financial package and form something bigger.

4. You both mentioned that the focus should not just be on know-how but also on know-why. In order to push Ghana’s digital agenda, local entrepreneurs in the IT industry need to be promoted. What is the Government doing to support the local start-up ecosystem?

Hon. Ursula: My visit here was delayed because there is a tech-conference going on in Ghana as we talk to showcase what the start-ups and tech entrepreneurs are doing in the software and applications industry in the country. It is amazing to see the different applications of digital technology – from church management to hospital management, e-education, utilities and consumption patterns.

We have established the Accra Digital Centre to provide shared working space for low-cost plug and play and office accommodation.

Then, there is the National Entrepreneurship and Innovation Plan, models of which have been run through the Ministry of Communications and the National Employment Agency.

To support tech-start-ups and IT-enabled services, we are looking at more Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) hubs and innovation centres to assist them develop and give them access to low-price data because cost of data has been one of the major issues that they were facing.

We can give them access to affordable data to be able to innovate. The government is also using its purchasing power to promote their work.

If you look at our national identification (ID) project that is being developed using biometrics, like Aadhar in India, we are using a local company, which has world-class facilities to do everything – from conception to actual production of the card, to the management of the database.

When we look at the digital property address system, several companies had bid but eventually, the solution chosen was a Ghanaian product, developed by local expertise.

The Government has also put its support behind to run the National Property Address System and it has become one of the key parts of the digital ecosystem that we are creating.

So it is not just encouraging the young entrepreneurs by word. We are putting our faith in them for developing products on a national scale. The government is putting money behind these companies by procuring their services. We are promoting electronic payment systems, e-education, e-health, and management of information systems – the solutions that they are so brilliantly developing.

Then we encourage others to continue developing software and applications by providing a commercial incentive.

We also want our children to learn coding at an early age so that it exposes them to the digital world and demystifies it. Going forward, this will enable them to navigate those places quite confidently and innovate and develop those products.

We are thinking of giving every school child a hand-held device or a laptop loaded with the school curriculum to facilitate e-education program. This will even the playing ground for our children regardless of where they live in the country.

If we generate interest among young people in all things digital, it makes navigating and living and working in this space very comfortable and more convenient to them.

They grow up with the tools at their fingertips such that it becomes a way of life for them. They develop applications which make life simpler, and help them entertain, communicate and work better.

We know that’s the way of the future. We have moved from pen and paper, chalk and slate to hand-held devices and we need to expose our children to that as well. Our young people know about more this world than we do.

By creating the required digital ecosystem, we are facilitating the growth of more businesses in that area. We want Ghana to be the tech-hub of the West African sub-region. I think we are versatile and smart enough to make it happen and others in the sub-region can also learn from our experience. I am excited by all these developments.

We are also working to create technology parks around the country. This will promote research and development and assist our graduates and undergraduates to have practical applications of these IT solutions. As they are exposed to a proper working environment, they move from merely learning the theory towards seeing the practical applications in real time. This will teach them how these things are useful in real life situations.

Being located on the Greenwich meridian and near the Equator, we speak clear English as well. We can become BPO centres for many large scale international companies to come and locate their call-centres. This will create jobs for the young people and employment for those, in general, who are acquiring skills in this area.

I keep telling people that we have a plan; we are not working in isolation. It is not scattered initiatives that we are doing just for the sake of doing.

We know where we want to go and our President is very keen on developing this space, particularly the potential of creating high skilled, high net-worth individuals and well-paid jobs for our young people.

We are well-paced for doing that and in the next few years, all these things will come together and gel. Hopefully, we will soon reap the benefits.

5. You just mentioned that all these strategies are not
scattered; they are connected. We are all aware of this massive industrialization program called ‘One District, One Factory’. In what manner does the IT sector occupy relevance in this initiative?

Hon. Ursula: It is critical. We see telecommunications as a utility just like water or electricity, which will facilitate the growth of core businesses. It is important that we spread the benefits of technology to every part of the country as we want every district to industrialize.

We cannot do it without stable power, access to clean water and high-speed affordable data. For us, we need to move to the point where we take it for granted like the air we breathe.

Access to data is being talked about as a human right now. Hence, depriving somebody of access to data is depriving them of their human right. It is one of the key pieces of infrastructure that we need to put in place to enable the success of this industrialization drive.

We are all keenly aware about it and that is why rural telephony is very high on our agenda. We need to connect every part of the country within the next two-three years to enable all these initiatives to derive optimum benefit and drive down the cost of doing business.

Where, for instance, instead of moving a vehicle for carrying out a certain task, the individual can just send in a message or make a phone call.

We need to work in an integrated manner to make all these flagship programmes of the Government work. Setting up factories to produce tablets and laptops and other smart devices is also industrialization and it will create jobs in the semi-urban districts as well.

Technology is, thus, integrated and ingrained in every sector by default.

6. Implementing the concept of e-governance, paperless operations, digital database and the development of an inter-operability system to integrate government databases is an ambitious task. What engagements are you expecting from the Indian government?

Hon. Ursula: We have already started the engagement with the Indian Government on various aspects of cooperation – from capacity building and assisting our graduates, undergraduates and post-graduate students to scaling up on their acquisition of knowledge.

We are fascinated by the benefits that India is reaping already from its unique identification system AADHAR, electronic payment and other digital systems that you have put in place. We have begun to implement such initiatives.

You have done amazing work in rural telephony and we want to learn from your experiences.

As we go on to develop similar systems in our own country, there are a lot of ways in which we can work together with India and ride on the back of the knowledge that you have already acquired.

It is working here and we know it will work in our country also, because of the similarities of our development process.

We already have the Ghana-India Kofi-Annan IT Centre of Excellence. We will put in a request to set up a training centre in Ghana for cyber security, to train not just the Ghanaian population but the entire sub-region of Africa.

We see ourselves as key partners of India in its quest to export its know-how, technology and systems. It is when our countries develop that we can lift up the entire sub-region, build an ecosystem, which we all thrive and profit as equals. We are not a country receiving hand-outs from others. We are very excited for the opportunity of better cooperation and collaboration between the two countries and are looking for the future.