Interviewed By Fidelis Pegue Manga [Originally published in The Post]
Cameroon-born Victor Wacham Agwe Mbarika is one of Africa's foremost experts on Information and Communication Technologies ICTs. He has been described as being in the forefront of academic research into ICT implementation in Africa, and has provided a theoretically informed framework for understanding ICTs in less developed countries. His work has focused on ICT infrastructure in Africa, and it provides an excellent base from which to begin to understand the contextual differences that dictate information systems research in less advantaged environments.
Dr. Mbarika's research interests are in the areas of information infrastructure diffusion in developing countries and multimedia learning. He is a Professor of E-Business in the Department of Management, Marketing, & E-Business, at the Southern University and A&M College College of Business. On one of his visits, he paid The Post a courtesy call and granted an exclusive interview. Excerpts.
The Post: Dr. Mbarika, welcome back to Cameroon. What was your impression when you came back?
Dr. Mbarika: I must say I see a lot of changes, changes for the good. I still see a lot of poverty; a few people getting richer while the majority get poorer and poorer. There are some positive developments, which are very encouraging. I also see changes in terms of infrastructure and development in information technology.
How long have you lived out of Cameroon?
About 13 years. I have been ten years in the United States and two and a half years in Kenya.
Your PhD thesis was titled Telecommunication, Professionals, Stakeholders and Strategies to Tackle ITC… what are the obstacles in overcoming the problems in Africa?
We don't have the kind of infrastructure that can support the most complex kind of information technology application. For instance, if you wanted to run an education system using information technology in Cameroon, you would need the kind of backbone infrastructure that can support that kind of transaction. Like the kind of projects we have in Ethiopia, you must develop backbone infrastructure that has the kind of lines needed to support the connectivity in the country before you start building all these complex applications.
So, how can that be achieved, given that we are living in a developing, heavily indebted poor country?
First of all, government policy must be enacted with full participation from the technocrats. Politicians cannot enact technology policies because they don't know about them. They need to get the involvement of people who are in the telecom and the ITC industry who should be able to enact such policies.
I have been invited by the government of Ethiopia to do this and what happens is you have politicians who give their full support to some of us who are in the ITC to come and help put together sound policies that are realistic to the technology we are looking at.
If you want to develop electronic converts in Cameroon, you have to bring in those who are versed with electronic converts to help develop policies on electronic converts. You have to bring telemedicine experts to develop policies on telemedicine. You cannot just have general information technology policies; they must be specific.
The second thing is moving to build the infrastructure. For instance, we cannot neglect lamplight, which is limited to wireless and satellite. We need the manpower; the expertise. The issue here is that we have to pay the experts. If you don't pay them, they will run away.
When you look at Cameroon, how do you rate it? Has there been any remarkable progress in terms of telecommunication infrastructure?
Sometimes we can only talk a lot of negative things about the country but Cameroon has been one of the leaders in the sub-Saharan African region in terms of technology. We are far ahead of many other countries in Africa. Cameroon was one of the first countries to have import duty free policy on computers.
Well, that is a great policy and I recommend the government for that. The only issue in it is that when you enact a policy like that you have to train the people who have to implement the policy to do the right thing.
What should be done to make it even better?
Cameroon, like other sub-Saharan African countries, must look for local investors. Right now foreign investors own the telecom sector in Cameroon. While everybody in the village can have a cell phone, where is the profit of that cell phone going.
When you sell the incumbent, that is, the Cameroon Telecom that was normally run by the Government and you have only foreign companies that are purchasing it and/or building network infrastructure for the country, when the profits come out, those profits are not to build Cameroon, they are invested abroad.
We have to look for a way to encourage Cameroonians at home and abroad to be able to come and invest here in the ITC sector. I have done some investments in the ITC sector here but they kill me with the taxes and it is discouraging.
You seemed to have been hired by other countries; you have been to Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda. Has the Cameroon government made any attempt to hire your expertise?
Sometimes I would travel all the way helping other African countries but not doing much for my own country. I must confess it is very disappointing for me. I have made attempts to involve some entities here in Cameroon but I guess I might not have been meeting the right people.
Recently I received a grant from the US government, which I want to use to develop ITC in this country. The money is going to help students interested in ITC research. That way, I can contribute to my country whether or not it embraces me.
It seems you are very much focused on sub-Saharan Africa. Does it mean North Africa is fine and the telecom infrastructure out there is the best?
I have travelled to North and the South Africa Republic. They are way, way ahead and in fact we should call them Western countries. I have been to Cairo and their infrastructure is very advanced. And one thing they do is their policies. What the Egyptian government does is loan out computers to their citizens and their citizens pay in instalments.
When they finish paying and want an upgrade of the computer, they get upgrade and they continue to pay for the upgrade. They have gone really far in IT area. I don't involve them in our research because they are totally different from sub-Sahara Africa. A lot of countries in the sub-Sahara Africa share a similar socio-economic and political structure, which is so different from the North African countries, so I concentrate on sub-Sahara Africa.
Have you made an attempt to approach the Government of Cameroon, let's say the Prime Minister while on your visit from the US; maybe try to impress him with what you know and what you can do for your country?
I have never met the current Prime Minister but I met the former Prime Minister before he became Prime Minister. But it is now with this new grant from the US that I am going to establish such contacts with the Cameroon Government. Currently I have some contract with the University of Yaounde I.
I would like to have contact with the University of Buea while here. You know, in Cameroon, it is difficult to get such contacts. I left this country at the age of 19 and at that time I did not know many people in the government, it is now that I am trying to establish such contacts.
You are abreast with the grading system at the University of Buea. Are you sure taking a bold step in creating such a system would be setting a standard?
I have been trying to take students from the University of Buea to my home university and one of the main problems is that the grades look poor as compared to the American standard. The grade of 2.5 in Buea is just as good as the grade of 3.5 in the US, including the top universities in America.
I know that in a way the professors here in Buea do that because they want to keep a high standard but that is killing the students. Every country is giving its students good grades for their efforts not only for free.
For example, if a student comes from the University of Buea with a 2.5 and a student comes from America with a 3.0, the one from the University of Buea is definitely a stronger student. Why would an American professor sitting on an admission board for a Masters programme, who does not know about the University of Buea, admit a student from the University with a 2.5 and not admit an America student with a 3.0 grade?
It is only when some of us are in those campuses that we might influence the admission. I have influenced it but there are lots of students who apply to other universities where they have somebody to influence such admissions. The system in Buea is difficult, so it kills the students.
If there is something I would want to recommend to the University of Buea and other universities in Cameroon it is not to bring down the standard but to better the grades of the students' efforts. They can do that without bringing down their standards.
So, if you were to propose solutions to these problems, what would they be?
Just be a little more lenient in your grading. It does not kill a professor to be a little more lenient. It doesn't make a professor tough if he fails students. Of course, students would have to fail if they do not work hard but those who are making an effort should be given a chance.
Those who plan to leave the country and apply for scholarships should be able to get admission. I have a friend in my university who came from the University of Buea with a fairly low degree but he just finished his Masters as one of the best in his class in my university.
Are you saying Cameroonians are doing great?
They are doing super even when they are coming with low GPAs but it is first of all difficult for them to get admission. If at all they go to any university, they end up going to low-level universities. The Cameroonians in my university are doing great. We have four who are doing PhD and we are hoping to recruit more.
Would you say you have achieved your American dream?
No, I don't have an American dream. The term is very common in the US and I am a child of God and I am satisfied with what He is giving me. I come from a very blessed family here in Cameroon and I have never lacked anything so being in the US was never really like wonder for me because God has blessed my father.
He is a very hardworking man. He has his own company and some businesses here in Cameroon. I am satisfied with what I have and use the most I have to serve God by serving people.