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‘Collaboration is the key to success’

Hussein O. Farah, RCMRD, Kenya
Dr. Hussein O. Farah
Director General, RCMRD

The use of geospatial technology in Africa is witnessing rapid growth and RCMRD is playing a crucial role in ensuring the rise of this growth curve. Dr. Hussein O Farah, Director General, tells us about the organisation’s latest initiatives, capacity building activities and its role in promoting the use of geo-information services in Africa

Tell us about the mandate and activities of the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD).

RCMRD is a governmental organisation, which is owned and managed by a group of nineteen countries from across eastern and southern Africa. The organisation’s mission is to promote sustainable development through the generation, application and dissemination of geo-information and allied ICT services and products in the member states and beyond. Our aim is to promote the use of geo-information in all sectors that are related to national development.

Recently, RCMRD’s functional programmes have moved away from a service technology framework to problem solving applications in natural resource and environmental management. The organisation is now focussing on providing service on demand driven basis and in a business-like manner.

One of RCMRD’s main mandates is capacity building, so that we can give that capacity to national institutions and, in turn, help them to improve their production. Besides, it is also very important to know how to use information, which is already there in order to develop training programmes.

Please tell us about your ongoing projects and new initiatives

One of our main projects is the Modernisation of our Geodetic Reference Network. At RCMRD, we interact with the whole of Africa and also chair an initiative that is mandated to put up GPS networks, so that surveying and mapping can be done more easily and cheaply.

The African Monitoring of the Environment for Sustainable Development Programme is another major project, which was conceived as a pan African programme to promote the use of earth observation technologies in support of the development of policies in the management of the African environment and for sustainable development of natural resources. The main objective of the programme is to establish operational information services, to assess land degradation and to monitor land cover changes in natural habitats and to improve policy and decision-making processes in the IGAD region.

As a member of the GSDI board, what is your perspective on the development of SDI (Spatial Data Infrastructures) by various African nations?

The uptake of SDI has been very slow in Africa and in fact across the world. While it is not a very favourable situation, there are many reasons for the same. In Africa, since the 1990s, the idea of SDI had been discussed initially by environmental institutions who wanted information on environment for their projects. So, the development of SDI was limited to that extent up to a long time.

One of the major problems that hindered the further growth and development of SDI was that in terms of the availability of tools or technology, we were not ready. The ICT tools, internet connectivity etc were not up to the mark. Also, the government has to put in place the required legal framework and policies to create a favourable environment for data sharing, which has been done in a few countries, off late. So, I believe that now we have the enabling environment for SDI, and some countries now are at a really advanced stage. South Africa already has the legal framework in place as well as they have the required tools and infrastructure. Amongst others that are really enthusiastic and moving quickly in this direction include Rwanda, Malawi and Kenya.

Is it the lack of awareness amongst government that is hindering the uptake of SDI initiatives in Africa?

Throughout history, the way the institutional arrangements are and the way that African governments as well as a lot of other governments work is to make everybody believe that data is secret and meant only for the government; that idea is still there. In some Africa countries, even when buying a topographical map, you require approvals from the highest levels. So, it is engrained in the functioning of government institutions that in order to get information, you should go to the highest authorities to get approval. However, new technologies and ease of access to information has helped to change this scenario and evoke the people’s interest in mapping and sharing.

What are the major challenges facing Africa and how can geospatial technology help address those challenges?

There are many challenges facing the African continent today. However, we are lucky to have such advanced technologies such as GIS, remote sensing, mapping etc that can help to solve our challenges easily and effectively. The technologies are easy to use for everybody including the government institutions, citizens, NGOs etc. Thus, I think that one of the biggest challenges with regards to the availability of technology has been solved and what we require now is adequate training to some of the government institutions in order to help them adapt to these modern technologies.

Can you tell us something about the capacity building initiatives of RCMRD? How successful have those initiatives been?

Capacity building is one of RCMRD’s main mandates. In fact, seventy percent of all our activities and time are related to capacity building. We have a lot of training programmes aimed at capacity building. As of now, we have not done any kind of evaluation to gauge the effectiveness of these programmes, but this is a thing that we are now planning to do. The impact has not been so great for government institutions because in the case of government, it is not only the training that is required but also the creation of favourable institutional framework and policies. The technology is required to be put in place, so that the person who is trained with the skills is able to put that to practice. So, the two must go in tandem. While we may be successful in training, we may not be so successful in enabling the trained person to put into practice the skills that they have acquired. For example, during the last three months, we have done training in data sharing tools for Malawi and Rwanda. Now, all those people have acquired the skills and what is required is to have the policies and framework in place.

What would be your advice to the countries that are looking to create their SDIs?

For countries planning to create their SDIs, I would like to tell them that it is extremely easy and simple to do so. Today with ICT technology, it is easy to setup a data sharing mechanism. I think the biggest advice that I give to institutions is to have a cooperative mechanism which allows you to openly and truly share. So it is no longer the technology that is the only requirement, but the policy and issues that matter. I think that a working group of like minded people must be formed and together they should work on the idea of data sharing. To put it in simple words, we must remember that collaboration is the key.