ERCIM News No.36 - January 1999
Development of Research Networking in Africa
by Abraham Gebrehiwot and Stefano Trumpy
It is in the interest of the whole world for the African continent to become a full player in the global information society. In order to achieve this, consistent efforts and support are still needed from the more technologically advanced nations. CNUCE-CNR (previously) and IAT-CNR (now) have been strongly involved in such activities.
The RINAF (Regional Informatics Network for Africa) project was launched by UNESCOs Intergovernmental Informatics Programme (IIP) in 1992. Mainly financed by the Italian Government, the project has aimed at supporting the interconnection of academic and research institutions within Africa and their connection to the international research community through the provision of computer equipment, basic network services and the organization of training activities for technicians and end-users. The CNUCE Institute of the Italian National Research Council (CNR) was nominated as technical support agency; the newly constituted Institute for Telematics Applications (IAT-CNR), created from a department of CNUCE, is now responsible for project activities.
The original UNESCO-planned structure had the mandate to establish five regional (north, south, east, west and centre) and ten national nodes. The regional nodes (sited in Algeria, Kenya, Senegal, Nigeria and Zambia) had the task of managing and coordinating the activities of their region, establishing both regional connectivity and connections to the world-wide network.
In a recent meeting of the RINAF co-ordinators, held during the CARI Conference in Dakar, October 1998, the support unit established at IAT-CNR, Pisa, presented their views on the major problems to be solved in the African Continent if research networks are going to be maintained and improved after the termination of RINAF activities. These views are outlined below.
The Data Communication Infrastructure
Communication costs are by far the most expensive part of a research network. Other expenses are the acquisition of the necessary hardware devices, the software procedures for providing the end-users with telematic services, and the costs of running the services, providing assistance to users and carrying out training activities. With respect to more technologically advanced countries, the cost of manpower in the African continent is significantly lower, while the cost for the communication infrastructure is normally much higher.
It is harder to run research networks in Africa than in Europe, since governmental authorities do not support them, neither do they provide adequate support for the telecommunication costs of the local universities and research institutions. A number of African research networks are thus going commercial in order to maintain the service infrastructure; this means they rely on commercial services, provided by local PTTs or local Internet Service Providers, for the transport of data.
The situation in Africa is very mobile with respect to the data communications infrastructure; a number of efforts are currently working on fibre optics cabling throughout the continent in order to connect, as a first step, the capital cities. It is expected that, in the short-medium term, the strong pressure directed towards making Africa part of the global Information Society and, in particular, the commercial interests involved will allow the national research networks to gain from more efficient and less expensive data transmission capacities. The reality in Africa is that, in many cases, international links only reach the capital cities and some main urban centres while the rural community is left isolated. For this reason, radio links and satellite connections are needed to overcome the lack of local communication infrastructures.
Africa must take advantage of the Internet data transport protocols. The advantages are:
- adoption of standards which are widespread, low cost, interoperable, scalable, etc.
- employment of low cost entry level solutions which are robust and supported by the main providers
- insertion in a global technological effort thus opening up commercial opportunities to the African ISPs.
Increased capacity building is needed; universities and research institutes should be assisted to maintain services and to pay adequate salaries to the most qualified staff. Different models for capacity building should be considered; the most successful are those developed by the Internet SOCiety (ISOC) and by the TransEuropean Research and Education Networking Association (TERENA).
When organizing training courses, particular attention should be given to the selection of trainees. Ideal candidates are highly motivated with an adequate technical background, and with an established position within their network organization once they return.
RINAF has dedicated a considerable part of the funds allocated for the first project phase to the organization of regional network training courses (held in 5 different African sub-regions). Other training courses will be organized at a national level.
So far, not much has been done in this respect in Africa. From now on, a programme aimed at encouraging and guiding the local content development to prepare to play a relevant role in the Information Society is needed. The technological gap today does not only regard the telecommunications infrastructures but also the information produced and made available.
The RINAF experience suggests that, in the interests of Africa, content development should:
- promote knowledge and cultural Internet activities as opposed to commercial ones which are taking off without the need for incentives
- promote communication between African nationals and expatriates in order to favour technology transfer and create the conditions for the return of expatriates to their home countries
- support the set up of web services
- promote projects aimed at supporting the interchange of data and the set up of common knowledge bases between a number of African countries.
It is very difficult to define a suitable funding model for a continent like Africa. Nevertheless, some general principals can be laid down:
- each country needs an organization involving the key players responsible for running the national research network
- each country needs a realistic programme based on available internal funds and on financial contributions from external sources
- Africa should set up organizations to coordinate international affairs/services and should become an equal partner of similar European research networking organizations (TERENA, DANTE, RIPE, CCIRN etc.)
- last but not least, a coordinated approach with the international funding bodies is needed.
Abraham Gebrehiwot - IAT-CNR
Tel: +39 050 593 336