International Assistance for Internet Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa

by Wendy D. White

Since 1989, the National Research Council (NRC), through the Office of International Affairs, has had an expert panel on Planning for Scientific and Technological Information (STI) Systems in Sub-Saharan Africa. In June 1996, the expert panel published Bridge Builders: African Experiences with Information and Communication Technology. For copies, write to wwhite@nas.edu or check the National Academy Press homepage at www.nap.edu. This volume, which was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, provided 16 case studies that focused on the impact of introducing information and communication technologies (ICTs) into institutions in Africa and on the lessons learned in designing and implementing projects dealing with STI. Bridge Builders has already had a profound impact on the donor community and on new project managers who are looking for advice on how to design and manage scientific and technological information projects.

The case studies in Bridge Builders reflect a changing ICT scene in Africa. In 1989, when the NRC first became engaged in this activity, the "movers and shakers" in the application of information technologies in scientific institutions were invited to participate in a workshop in Nairobi. There, they shared experiences and heard from the NRC's expert panel about new technologies on the horizon. The Nairobi workshop participants were concerned, in part, as to whether information technologies could be made suitable to their situations. By 1995, this was no longer the question because project managers, such as those featured in Bridge Builders, had proven just how successful the introduction of ICT could be in order to support science and research.

Mike Jensen, who is a leader in introducing the Internet into Africa and who watches developments for the Internet Society, recently reported (1997) that "more than three-quarters of the capital cities in African countries have developed some form of Internet access." This means that 43 of the 52 countries on the continent have at least limited e-mail connectivity. Compare this to 1989, when only Egypt and South Africa were connected. In fact, most capitals now have more than one Internet service provider (ISP) and 11 countries have particularly active markets (Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa.)

There is still much work to be done, however, before African scientists can reap the full benefits of the Internet, the World Wide Web or of information and communication technologies in general. African scientists and engineers still face isolation because of poor or expensive communication channels and because of a chronic shortage of funds, particularly hard currency, for purchasing books, periodicals and subscriptions to international sources of information. There are other serious problems:

In the last few years, Africa has taken several important steps to be a part of the global information economy. There are so many international, regional and local initiatives designed to help build the information highway in Africa that they cannot be adequately covered in this brief report. However, some of the larger, regional projects or those dedicated more specifically to services to scientists and engineers are described briefly in the following sections of this report:
While this list is not comprehensive, I hope that it serves to demonstrate the scope and varied nature of the activities taking place in Africa. For a more comprehensive review of ongoing projects, see Mike Jensen's Bridging the Gap, (1996: IDRC, Ottawa, Canada).

Many of these efforts are just underway and it is too early to evaluate their impact; others have already shown some interesting results. The Internet and other technologies are growing differently in Africa than they did in the United States or Europe. In the United States, for example, the academic and research communities led the way for network development. Only after the networks were well established did the commercial interests begin to grow. In Africa, the Internet is being introduced for the most part as a business. It is taking hold in the commercial sector instead of in the science and technology (S&T) sector. This means that donors and governments will have to give special attention to and underscore the value of S&T. They may need to take special measures to assure continued access to networked information for the scientists, academics and other researchers.

Initiatives from African Organizations
Addis Ababa Symposium on Telematics for Development Held in April 1995, the African Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development brought together 250 government policy makers, post and telecommunications officials, system operators, equipment suppliers, non-governmental organizations, educational institutions, users and donors. Over the course of the symposium, participants learned about and discussed some 50 telematics initiatives currently working in Africa. It was organized and sponsored by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the International Development Research Center (IDRC), UNESCO and the United National Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). The recommendations from this meeting, at which the NRC expert panel was present, led to the Conference of African Ministers (see below), which eventually called for the establishment of a high-level working group to plan Africa's connections to the global information infrastructure.

Participants in the symposium concluded "that unless African countries become full actors in the global information revolution, the gap between the haves and have-nots will widen, opening the possibility of increased marginalization of the continent. This gap will increase the likelihood of cultural, religious and ethnic ghettos leading to regional and inter-regional conflicts."

They recommended, among other things, that the secretaries general of the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) convene a meeting of African heads of state and all concerned international organizations to set the priorities and strategies and to mobilize resources for building Africa's information highway.

African Information Society Initiative (AISI)
After the April Symposium, on May 3, 1995, the Conference of African Ministers responsible for Economic and Social Development and Planning passed resolution 795 (XXX) entitled, Building Africa's Information Highway, which called for the establishment of a high-level working group of African technical experts to explore information technologies and communications in Africa.

Under the leadership of the Pan-African Development Information Service (PADIS), this group met several times and late in 1996 issued its report: African Information Society Initiative (AISI): An Action Framework to Build Africa's Information and Communication Infrastructure. This brief document is about "Africa's challenges and opportunities in an information age. It addresses specifically the role of information, communication and knowledge in shaping African information society to accelerate socioeconomic development." (Economic Commission for Africa [1996] African Information Society Initiative: An Action Framework to Build Africa's Information and Communication Infrastructure. Available from PADIS, UNECA, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (http://www.idsc.gov.eg/aii/fstsct.htm)

The AISI Framework is important because it is an expression of Africa's interest in and concerns about its place in the information age. This is not an externally imposed framework but one that was written by Africans, submitted to the 22nd meeting of the UNECA Conference of Ministers in May 1996, and adopted by Resolution 812 (XXXI). UNECA, with numerous and various partners, is trying to implement the framework, and all future STI and ICT projects should look to this document for ideas that are consistent with Africa's goals.

Pan-African Development Information Service (PADIS)/CABECA Project PADIS is a cooperative regional development information system created in January 1980 under the aegis of the UNECA, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Pan-African Documentation Center Network (PADISNET) is a project to link 34 countries into a network of participating development planning centers which exchange databases and information. PADIS has been coordinating the CABECA (Capacity Building for Electronic Communications in Africa) project. Funded by a grant from the IDRC (see preceding article), CABECA builds on the experience gained from a number of IDRC-funded electronic networking projects in Africa. The project attempts to address the problems that have isolated the African region from the international networking phenomenon. CABECA's overall objective is to provide technical assistance to bring about sustainable computer-based networking in Africa at an affordable cost and accessible to a wide variety of users from both the private and public sectors.

To build African capacity for computer networking, a corps of systems operators is being trained to train others in their area and offer continuing support to fledgling users to ensure the sustainability of national nodes with connections to international networks. The project's aim is to offer inexpensive and easy access to local and international information services on systems run by local operators and sustained by revenue from users. They will be able to exchange electronic mail worldwide at a fraction of the cost of fax or telex; they will also have access to conference mail, file transfer and databases. Efforts will be made to facilitate African connectivity to the expanding range of Internet information services.

The G-7 Information Society and Development (ISAD) Conference In February 1995, at the G-7 meeting in Brussels, First Deputy Vice President Thabo Mbeki from South Africa invited the developed country delegates to a meeting in South Africa. The purpose of the meeting was to consider the situation of the "information have-nots" and to discuss ways to advance developing country interests in the Global Information Infrastructure (GII). The main objective of the conference was to launch a dialog among countries with different social, economic and cultural patterns to pursue policies aimed at facilitating the integration of developing countries in the information society.

There were 14 African countries at the May 1996 ISAD conference, along with representatives of the G-7. The conference attempted to demonstrate that the information society is within the reach of developing countries. It described the benefits of the GII in terms of political, social and economic development, while addressing the necessary means to shield against potential risks. Real policy differences between the developed and developing countries emerged during the discussions but, as yet, it is difficult to determine the impact of these discussions. Initiatives from the United Nations and the World Bank

The United Nation's System-Wide Initiative on Africa
In March 1996, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and World Bank President James Wolfensohn launched the United Nations System-Wide Special Initiative on Africa. This 10-year, multi-billion dollar program will provide renewed impetus to Africa's development. A section of this initiative, called Harnessing Information for Development, calls for an $11.5 million program for improving Africa's information and communication technologies. The UNECA, World Bank, UNESCO, International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) are working together as the lead agencies to establish their division of responsibilities; involve other interested donors; and establish a fully collaborative process with African governments. (The United Nations System-Wide Special Initiative on Africa. United Nations, New York, New York. pp. 13-15.) African Green Paper, ITU

The ITU wrote in 1995, and again in 1996, the African Green Paper: Telecommunication Policies for Africa. (ITU, Geneva, Switzerland.) The paper is the result of collaboration among the Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) of the ITU, African Telecommunications administrations, the Pan-African Telecommunications Union (PATU), the OAU, the UNECA, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The African Green Paper was formally approved at the second Africa Regional Telecommunication Development Conference held in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, May 1996. The African Green Paper explores specific themes related to the overall restructuring of the telecommunication sector. It seeks to

The African Green Paper emphasizes the importance of a well-conceived telecommunications policy and a sound regulatory framework. It attempts to take into account the specific and differing situations in each country and asks each country to study the paper and adopt it in accordance with its own national public policy and its juridical, administrative and social framework. The ITU says that it will continue to update the paper so that it conforms with the present status of the restructuring process. The ITU has many projects in Africa that emanate from the Buenos Aires Action Plan. These include rural, community telecenter, health and satellite projects that are being implemented in cooperation with UNESCO, the IDRC, the World Health Organization (WHO) and others.

UNDP/Sustainable Development Network Project
Over the last three years, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has focused on impacting sustainable human development (SHD) by creating and supporting the Sustainable Development Networking Program (SDNP). A direct result of the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit), the SDNP has linked together government organizations, the private sector, universities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals in 24 developing countries through electronic and other networking vehicles for the express purpose of exchanging critical information on sustainable development.

SDNP provides seed money, typically for two years, to enable each node to build its own user community and shift from external to domestic financing. Every SDNP is regarded as a service organization that must be demand-driven to survive; consequently the long-term viability of each SDNP rests on the entrepreneurial skills of its national coordinator, a steering committee which supports and promotes their policies and the nourishment by a user community whose interest is in SHD.

UNCTAD's Trade Points Program
This commerce-oriented project of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development is making Africa a priority region for the next few years. It seeks to increase the international awareness and effective application of information technologies to trade and to promote the use of models capable of reducing procedural costs in international trade. The objectives of the program are as follows:

A Trade Point is a facilitation center, where participants in foreign trade transactions (e.g., customs, foreign trade institutes, chambers of commerce, freight forwarders, transport companies, banks, insurance companies) are grouped together under a single physical or virtual roof to provide all required services for trade transactions. It is also a source of trade-related information that provides actual and potential traders with data about business and market opportunities, potential clients and suppliers, trade regulations and requirements. All Trade Points are being or will be interconnected in a worldwide electronic network and equipped with efficient telecommunications tools to link up with other global networks.

UNEPnet and Mercure
UNEPnet is an international environmental network developed by the United Nations Environment Program using cost-effective modern data communications and designed to meet the needs of developing countries for timely and comprehensive environmental information. Mercure is a suite of 16 earth stations providing global telecommunications via the Intelsat system. Much of the data that measures status and change in the environment is being gathered by automated systems - such as satellites - and being fed electronically into various networks. The ability to use this data to inform decisions about sustainable environmental management depends on the ability to locate and access, combine, compare and collate it and on collaboration and communication between the data gatherers and data users. UNEPnet and Mercure will provide the means for UNEP's constituents to participate in and benefit from these processes.

UNEPnet will

Mercure will enable UNEP to enhance both internal communication and its users' and constituents' access to UNEP-based and -facilitated environmental information. It is unique in its dedication to environmental information and its ability to extend the so-called environmental information superhighways into developing countries which otherwise would have limited access to such information.

The RINAF (Regional Informatics Network for Africa) project was conceived by the Intergovernmental Informatics Program (IIP) of UNESCO and financed by a grant of the Italian government and by a contribution from the Republic of Korea. The goal of RINAF is to bring basic data communication services to a number of African countries in order to improve the communication capabilities among African research institutions and with the worldwide research community. RINAF enables scientists and practitioners to exchange information, knowledge and experience through existing computer networks. Since computer networks involve link-ups with institutions in both North and South, they are the starting point for the establishment of information highways in the South. The plan is to establish five regional nodes and ten national nodes.

The Information for Development Program (infoDev) is a global program managed by the World Bank to help developing economies fully benefit from modern information systems. Its goals are to share worldwide experience with, and to disseminate best practices to, governments and key decision-makers, both public and private, on the economic development potential of communications and information systems; to channel policy advice and other technical assistance to governments in developing economies on privatization, private entry and competition in the communications and information sectors, and on improving the policy, regulatory and business environment for investment; and to conduct feasibility and pre-investment studies and to prepare experimental applications in communications and information systems.

U.S. Government Initiatives
The Leland Initiative
Also called the Africa Global Information Infrastructure Gateway Project, the Leland Initiative is a $15 million cross-cutting project managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It seeks to bring the benefits of the global information revolution to people of Africa through connection to the Internet and GII technologies. It is the core element of USAID's Africa strategy, "Empowering Africans in the Information Age." The project emphasizes a public/private partnership approach both in Africa and the United States to bring full Internet connectivity to as many as 20 USAID countries in sub-Saharan Africa. USAID will achieve Leland Initiative goals by creating an enabling policy environment; creating a sustainable Internet service provider industry; and enhancing user applications for sustainable development.

AfricaLink is a project of the Productive Sector Growth and the Environment Division, located in the Sustainable Development Office of the Africa Bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It targets the end users of information technologies, in particular scientists and policy makers who are members of USAID partner networks in the agricultural, environmental and natural resource management sectors. Within the context of each country's existing infrastructural and regulatory environment, AfricaLink works with network leadership to implement simple strategies for Internet access, especially access to electronic mail. Initiatives from Non-Governmental Organizations

African Networking Initiative (ANI)
In November 1995, Bellanet, UNESCO, IDRC, the UNECA and ITU agreed to collaborate on a study of the planned information infrastructure building projects in Africa. The ANI commissioned Mike Jensen, an African telecommunications expert based in South Africa, to identify ongoing activities and to make recommendations on how donors and other interested parties should collaborate.

HealthNet is an information service, operated by SatelLife, that connects health care workers around the world. SatelLife is an international not-for-profit organization whose mission is to improve communications and the exchange of information in the fields of public health, medicine and the environment. SatelLife initiated the Library Partnership Program to facilitate access to medical literature for libraries in the developing world. HealthNet uses the most affordable and appropriate technology to offer electronic mail and conferences as well as access to several electronic journals and publications. It also provides access to databases and experts. For its Internet users, HealthNet offers pointers to useful health mailing lists, World Wide Web homepages, Gopher and FTP sites on the Internet. HealthNet is currently operational in the following African countries: Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

The Internet Society
This professional membership organization plays an active role in training African systems operators from countries that are either not yet connected to the Internet or are in the process of developing and enhancing an initial national Internet. Among the organization's goals are to

Acacia Project -- IDRC
Another promising program for Africa is the Acacia Project developed by the IDRC. See "International Assistance for Networking in Less-Developed Countries: The IDRC" in this issue of the Bulletin for details. Initiatives from the Private Sector >AFCOM International
The U.S. - Africa Conference on Telecommunications, Broadcasting and Informatics (AFCOM International) is an annual conference providing an opportunity for African ministers and high level public and private sector delegates (such as heads of African PTOs) to meet with ranking government officials and business executives from the United States and Europe. Conference participants have traditionally used the venue to discuss partnerships and joint ventures aimed at developing telecommunications, broadcasting and electronic networking in Africa.

AFCOM not only acquaints African countries with telecommunications and broadcasting resources available in the United States and Europe, but also educates U.S. and European companies about the unique needs and environment of the African communications sector. At the most recent AFCOM meeting, participants discussed policy issues, financing, cellular developments, satellite technology, future joint ventures and a host of other topics related to the development of telecommunications, broadcasting and informatics in Africa.

AT&T's Africa ONE Project
Africa ONE is a planned network that will encircle the African continent with 39,000 kilometers of state-of-the-art fiber optic cable. The Africa ONE concept was formulated in response to a request in late 1993 by the ITU for a means of developing Africa's telecommunications infrastructure and for providing the continent with improved connectivity to the global information network. The network is supported by both the Regional African Satellite Communications Organization (RASCOM) and the Pan-African Telecommunications Union (PATU). AT&T is not proposing to finance the $2.65 billion project itself, but is trying to mobilize capital from a number of sources, including the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the governments of the 40 or so countries in Africa that might be interested in using the network.

Motorola's Iridium Project
The Iridium system is a satellite-based telecommunications system that will provide communications via hand-held wireless telephones and pagers. Beginning in 1998, 66 non-stationary satellites in low-orbit will carry voice, data, facsimile and paging messages. The system will complement terrestrial wireless and landline networks and can connect with the local cellular system.

Teledesic Project
Backed by telecommunications pioneer Craig McCaw and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, and scheduled to begin service in 2002, the Teledesic Network will provide two-way, broadband connections for applications such as voice, data, videoconferencing and high-performance Internet access. Teledesic will use a constellation of several hundred low earth orbit satellites to provide this service.

Indigenous Private Ventures
Not all efforts to build Africa's information highway are funded by large multinational firms. In fact, a number of African entrepreneurs have seen opportunities to supply information services and technologies to both the public and private sectors. Many of these local companies also supply goods and services to the multinational companies, NGOs and donor agencies within their countries.

Nii Quaynor is a businessman from Ghana who set up that country's first Internet service provider. Like many other entrepreneurs, he got tired of waiting for the government to do something and so set up the Internet node himself. The case studies in Bridge Builders written by Moussa Fall in Senegal, Charles Musisi in Uganda and Neil Robinson in Zambia show a similar entrepreneurial spirit.

Other Initiatives
ORSTOM, the French research agency, is active in establishing African networking connectivity through its RIO network. Rionet is an international electronic network that links 25 Unix hosts in 10 countries, with approximately 80 access points (standard terminals or local nodes). In sub-Saharan Africa Rionet provides e-mail connectivity from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Niger, Senegal and Togo. It offers e-mail, file transfer, mailing lists and user directory. It also provides all users a gateway to the French Minitel network.

The Government of the Netherlands is keen to assist with developing high bandwidth Internet connections to universities in eight African countries and the Association of African Universities. It is also in the process of establishing an African Communications Institute which will focus on many of these issues.

Through its RAPIDE project, the Pan-African News Agency (PANA) plans to provide access in 21 African countries by the end of the year.

Wendy D. White is director of the Committee on International Organizations and Programs at the Office of International Affairs, National Research Council (NRC). From 1989 to 1997, she was senior program officer for the NRC's program entitled STI Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa. She can be reached at wwhite@nas.edu