Rumble in the Jungle: Part 2
A cheap machine to milk a cow automatically. A clothes' iron heated by CNG, not coal. A motorcycle that tills a field. Table rugs made from farm waste. A windmill for just $100.
China's trade with Africa last year was worth more than $122 billion. It lends more money to the African continent than the World Bank itself. It's built huge Parliament buildings for the countries of Malawi and Lesotho and might build another one for Zimbabwe. In a face-off with a juggernaut like that, what India conjures up are little baubles.
That's what I thought, walking through a grassroots technology expo organized on the side lines of the India-Africa Science and Technology Conference in New Delhi. The Chinese have cornered the really big industrial projects that can transform Africa, so we've resorted to peddling them shiny beads and gimmicks.
"Why didn't we think up stuff like this!"
- exclaims an embassy official from Benin, shaking his head in fascination. The object of his attention - a spring loaded coconut tree climber, popularised by a south Indian villager four years ago.
In another corner, a tiffin box sized wood and mud oven - enough to bake rows of biscuits. A cheap machine that pulps seven different types of fruits - just what a small businessman needs to sell bottled juice. A bicycle powered wool shearer, shown off in the movie Three Idiots.
People crowd around Arunachalam Muruganantham, a Tamil Nadu man whose wife divorced him because he'd been asking all the menstruating women in the neighbourhood for their used napkins. Turns out he was researching how to make cheap ones. The machine he's invented costs just a bit over $1000 and villagers use it today to make napkins that cost just one rupee.
Are you disappointed, I asked Nadia Eskander Zakhary, Minister of Scientific Research for the Arab Republic of Egypt.
You must have come hoping for grandiose projects and here we're offering you knick knacks. She looked surprised. No!, she said. The big projects are important, yes. But so are these smaller ones. If our people can use these things to better their lives - so be it.
"Minds on the margin, aren't marginal minds"
- says Anil Gupta, Head of the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), sponsored by India's Department of Science and Technology. Over the past twenty four years, the NIF has searched out and nurtured grass-roots innovators from villages across India. Often, they're completely illiterate. But with native intelligence and self-taught engineering skills, they've come up with surprising solutions to the problems around them.
If they can help us win friends in Africa - so be it. NIF is offering Africa those local Indian inventions for use in its own countries. Plus, it's offering to help them set up their own rural innovation foundations, to identify and encourage their own rural innovators. Twenty four years of experience available in one stroke.
Excited delegates crowded around Gupta after his slick power point presentation. And both Mozambique and Zimbabwe have taken up his offer. Why, I asked Venancio Simao Massingue, Mozambique's Minister of Science and Technology, after he signed off on an official agreement. Why bother with small time stuff?
"We don't want scientists with their heads in the clouds", he said. "We need people with their feet on the ground. What NIF offers might not be state of the art technology. But it's creative innovation. We need a network that taps into the knowledge generated at the grassroots and puts it into the hands of all our people. NIF can help us do that".
India will be forgotten
- says Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Karbo, Minister of Information & Communication, Sierra Leone, if it doesn't make its presence felt in Africa. "We are the countries who can give you the push you need at the UN, when you try for a permanent seat on the Security Council". It's a grim reminder of what's at stake, as the world makes a beeline for Africa.
Ben Karbo has repeatedly stressed on quality education, as the key that can unlock the future for his people. It's a feeling shared by Rungano P.U. Karimanzira, Director, Ministry of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe. Universities in Japan and Korea are graded by the number of international students they have on their rolls, she says. It's time Indian universities made a similar move.
The CV Raman International Fellowship for African Researchers instituted in 2010 is a fledgling attempt to meet those hopes. It enables post graduate and doctoral African students to study in India for up to a year. Eighty five students have already availed the facility, another seventy nine will start their courses in 2012. But many, many more are waiting in the wings.
The Common Wealth Connection
- is something quite a few ministers at the conclave in New Delhi hinted at. Large parts of Africa have been ruled by Britain. The entire continent has suffered humiliation at the hands of foreign colonial powers, just like India has - so there is some sense of shared history.
Indians have lived in Africa for decades. They moved there as labourers or merchants in the days of the British Empire and many ethnic Gujarati's have been born and brought up there.
But Indians have also often been accused of being "Economic Looters". Native Africans sometimes perceived them as interlopers, outsiders who take away their jobs and money. Riots have broken out in the past, as resentment bubbles over.
Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi gradually forced out Indians after gaining independence. From 345,000 Indians in these countries in 1968, there were only 85,000 left by 1984, according to a report by the Minority Rights Group.
The worst episode was in Uganda in 1972. Idi Amin, immortalised in the movie The Last King of Scotland, ordered 80,000 Indians to leave his country within ninety days. The huge tracts of land, homes and cars they owned were summarily annexed by the government and redistributed among the ruling class.
It's a lesson worth remembering as India tries to make new friends in Africa.
More about Jaimon JosephI've always been scared around gadgets and software. And in awe of people who're good with them. After three years of science and tech reporting though, I think I'm starting to get the hang of things. Before this, I covered automobiles, health, careers and business, for seven years. Nice thing about technology is, it lets me poach into all those fields once in a while. I love this job. But I'm not sure how I managed to land it. I did my BA in Advertising from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce and MA in Journalism from Madurai Kamaraj University. I wanted to be a cartoonist, a guitar player and a footballer but sucked in all those fields. I can play the flute and harmonica though. And I have an interest in machines that move - it was cars and bikes earlier but considering there's nothing revolutionary happening there, it's military stuff now. I'm the sort who drools over figures. Not the 36-24-36 types. But top speed, acceleration, fuel consumption, drag co-efficient. I drive an Alto though. And usually take the Metro to work.
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- + Rumble in the Jungle: Part 4