Among the first leading IT companies to have invested in Africa, Hewlett-Packard (HP) is convinced that to benefit from the continent’s full potential the Brain Drain phenomenon that characterises slow development has to be tackled in a manner that guarantees sustainable development. HP’s African Brain Gain Initiative (BGI), in conjunction with UNESCO, aims to ensure that African brains remain in Africa or work closer to home. The BGI seeks to consolidate professional collaboration between universities, researchers, professors, teachers, students, etc, both home and abroad, via a virtual network known as the grid and cloud computer technique. The BGI is one of many initiatives undertaken by HP on the African continent. Interview with Rainer Koch, Hewlett-Packard Managing Director for Africa.
Afrik-news.com: What prompted HP to embark on the Brain Gain Initiative?
Rainer Koch: The Brain Gain Initiative dates back to 2003 when we did a lot of business in eastern Europe. What we realised at that point in time was that a lot of local talent, especially from the universities, had moved out of the country. So basically, we did not have the right environment to get the right people to work with us. It also meant that having the right talent for sustainable development would be a challenge. That is when we created the Brain Gain Initiative with UNESCO, in order to coordinate our efforts to deal with the Brain Drain phenomenon.
Afrik-news.com: What are the objectives of the Brain Gain Initiative?
Rainer Koch: The programme’s main objective is to invest in local universities selected with the help of local ministries of education. We link those universities we facilitate in that process with universities abroad via our grid and cloud computer techniques. Those universities abroad also usually have teachers from the Diaspora. The programme seeks to benefit local universities by ensuring that their professors, lecturers and teachers have the right technical environment and also that they have the same kind of access to knowledge basis as is the case in other parts of the world. This does not only keep them motivated to stay in their countries, but also ensures that lecturers and professors are locally available, while students get the right education.
Afrik-news.com: But this Initiative has not been confined to Eastern Europe…
Rainer Koch: Indeed, in 2007-2008, we extended the project to Africa. We now have five universities connected to the grid and we will have 15 additional universities in 2010. In 2011, we plan with UNESCO and other partners to extend this programme to other universities across the continent.
Afrik-news.com: Will the scientists or products from the Brain Gain Initiative project really remain in Africa?
Rainer Koch: It is a question that is always difficult to answer, but if you look at patterns from other emerging countries like India, some thirty years back, when they got interested in the IT sector, the same question would have been asked. But today, India is a knowledge community and a recognised international IT centre. For sure, in Africa we will not able to prevent scientists from leaving, but the conditions for research and development is getting better. As far as HP, as a hi-tech company, is concerned, I can assure you that whenever we have a job opening on the continent, for an engineer or a manager, we get a lot of applications from Africans in the Diaspora wanting to go back to work in Africa… There are jobs available on the continent now. Africa might lose one or two scientists now and then, but conditions are getting better and better. I believe that the long-term trend is positive in that effect.
Afrik-news.com: Is Cloud technology, which is an essential tool in the initiative, not an issue for a continent that still faces serious challenges in what concerns affordability and access to both computers and the Internet?
Rainer Koch: Cloud technology is a tool to access foreign development networks. For example in Algeria, we are connecting universities to help develop a network for renewable energy... So cloud technology is not a topic on its own, it’s a tool to connect to other universities, to other research networks. In what concerns affordability, today’s computer prices are experiencing a free-fall. Prices will adjust with time. I do not think at all that the price of a computer is a limiting factor anymore. In fact, the limiting factor is the infrastructure and availability of network, as the real wager comes with getting connected to the Internet. Affordable network bandwidth makes all the difference. To use a PC, one needs some basic education. The bottleneck today is not in the cost of the pc anymore but rather in limiting factors in terms of network availability, connectivity, and education initiatives.
Afrik-news.com: Talking about education intiatives, many have expressed environmental concerns over the reckless disposal of computers on the continent…
Rainer Koch: We are aware of the fact that some companies misused Africa as a dumping ground for old computer equipment. HP does not support this attitude at all. We have initiatives where we invest in the recycling of old computers, thereby creating new jobs in that area. We educate companies or local initiatives on how to recycle old and broken down computers in the right way and how to make money from selling usable spare parts from those computers.
Afrik-news.com: Employment opportunities?
Rainer Koch: What is more important here is that we have also been creating jobs that are not linked only to the sales of IT equipment, but also linked to export services. In North Africa, we have outsourcing facilities that basically serve customers outside Africa, in Europe for example. This initiative creates export opportunities for African countries, more particularly service export, which is what outsourcing is all about. This is the exciting thing about Africa nowadays. The continent is seeing itself as a base for offshore activities, like India was in previous times.
Afrik-news.com: On the subject of adapting your product to the African market, what investments are you making in this area?
Rainer Koch: We might consider adapting our product portfolio to the local market in terms of the look and feel aspect… it is something we have been working on for sometime now but no final decisions have been made yet. In terms of investments or creating products in Africa, HP as an international company traditionally pays particular attention to emerging markets, and Africa is currently the fastest growing region in the world as far as HP is concerned. We have special growth initiatives now to have even more investments in Africa. Being the first IT company to be present on the continent, we have offices in basically the whole of north Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and of course South Africa. We also plan to open ten new subsidiaries in the near future.