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Eritrea hooks up on IT.

Computers e-mail and the Internet are relatively new concepts to most Eritreans. But, as Jennie Street reports, the country is catching up fast.

When Eritrea won its independence in 1991, there were no computers, except for a few brought in by the EPLF from their time in the field. Now there are about 30 computer companies, and according to Mr Tewelde Ghebreab, Director of the Eritrean Information Systems Agency (EISA), located within the president's office, "on average, computers are being introduced into Eritrea at the rate of about 400-500 per annum."

Although a lot of computers are coming into the country, "computer use is very limited, and even those who use them, are not aware of their capacity," he says.

EISA was established to set standards for computer software and hardware, to design systems and programmes, provide maintenance, and training in maintenance and software use, mainly to the civil service, on a commercial basis. Their greatest success has been designing a system to streamline the business license office. Similar overhaul is being planned for the Ministry of Transport and for the customs and taxation offices.

Mr Menghis Samuel, a communications engineer who returned to Eritrea to develop his company, Ewan Technology Solutions, after 17 years in the US where he worked for AT&T, feels that it is not advisable for a government body to be a service provider. "Programming and other services should be left to the competitive market, after the initial period of stimulating competition."

Because Eritrea started so late, e-mail connections only began in 1996. Ewan serves 250 customers commercially, to promote the technology. "We help business to understand that it is cheaper to e-mail than fax or phone," Mr Samuel commented.

But Eritrea is still not on the Internet. This puts it among the last two countries in Africa not to be connected. The other one is Libya, which cannot be connected because of sanctions.

Mr Estifanos Afwerki, director of the Telecommunications Service of Eritrea (TSE) told African Business that six ministries were about to go on the Internet, being served through Addis Ababa. "I would definitely welcome the Internet, it is not a threat, but we have to build the [telecommunications] network before we can connect to the Internet. What's the use of the Internet if only some businesses in Asmara use it and cannot connect to the rest of Eritrea?"

Mr Samuel is not satisfied with this state of affairs. "We need government to give priority to the Internet. It can be done easily and will not compete with infrastructure spending. It will not lower telecommunication profits. In fact, it will enhance the infrastructure. A study in the USA shows that there are more voice calls after Internet connection.

"Some worry about security, cultural imperialism and things like pornography. I say the Internet is not going to dc the damage that MTV has already done. Even Cuba is on the Internet, and so is Iran, though they filter out all words offensive to Islam. We are a global village and any one culture can influence another, it goes both ways. We must get information out about Eritrea. Part of our government's promotion of trade and business should be to develop the communications strategy, of which the Internet is one part."

The opportunities for investors, therefore, are extensive, according to Mr Ghebreab. "We would like now to have computers made in the Far East, as these are much cheaper, but the bigger companies from the West are better known and provide service with warranty. So we would like to assemble computers here. If there are qualified people who could do it here and supply the spare parts, there is opportunity for responsible companies. We also need more systems developers and programmers."

Returnees bring skills and money

A striking feature of foreign investment in Eritrea is that most is by returnee Eritreans who are bringing back skills, money and knowledge gained in exile. Mr Solomon Abraha returned in September 1991, just six months after liberation, after spending nine years in Italy, to establish Travel House International. In 1995 he broke new ground as the first business (apart from the airlines) to become an agency for the major credit cards. So far, only three others -- all hotels -- in Asmara offer credit card facilities. Mr Endreas Hintsa, based in Sweden, and Mr Russom Araya, based in the USA, are electrical engineers, running ITCCO -- Industrial Trading and Consultancy Company. The are currently negotiating to supply the new contractors of the Hirgigo power plant with equipment. They bring skills and knowledge to a sector that needs major development and renovation.

Sabur Printing Services is representative of another aspect of Eritrea -- the joint venture between the PFDJ and Eritreans in the diaspora. The PFDJ, which owns the antiquated Dogali and Adulis printing presses which print all the government's stationery and publications, has set up Sabur with Red Sea Press of New Jersey, USA, a publishing company owned by Eritrean Mr Kassahun Checole, which produces about 80 titles a year. A third group of shareholders are exiled Eritreans buying shares to help launch the company. Ms Kidan Kassahun, daughter of Kassahun Checole, told African Business: "Eritrea's printing capacity will increase phenomenally. One year's production will now be done in one month. We shall be able to do books, magazines, everything." With the latest technology, Sabur has already had interest from the US, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and will employ about 200 people. "We shall be a full-scale operation," said Ms Kassahun, "from disk to shipping."

With over $20m worth of fully computerised equipment, it will probably take another year to be fully operational.
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Author:Street, Jennie
Publication:African Business
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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