Personal Computer-Based Communications Training: The Future In African Networking?

Personal Computer-Based Communications Training: The Future In African Networking?


Information Technology (IT) to date has not lived up to its potential to assist social and economic development processes in Africa. One reason is that foreign consultants introduce computer systems with little long-term stake in what they are being asked to accomplish. They have little interest or incentive to learn about cultural norms and social mores that would influence not only how the machines will be used, but also how to successfully adapt and implement training programs to African audiences.

Needed is an "Africanized" approach to curriculum development and training that emphasizes a practical, "hands-on" experience which continues long after the formal training has ended. Follow-up technical assistance and "seed provisioning" of low-cost hardware and software is essential. Initial selection of student "trainer of trainers" would be done through careful analysis and profiling.

Given the ubiquity of personal computers in Africa, a PC-computer literacy module followed by a specially-tailored module for providing low-cost message and file transfer capability using 1) digital radio, 2) low earth orbiting satellites, and 3) telephone-based analog modems is proposed.

This approach could produce in excess of 2,500 individuals skilled in low-cost electronic networking techniques within five years. Compared with the few dozen people currently available, such a number could provide the "critical mass" required for a sustainable indigenous capability, with the capacity for local innovation and invention provided by Africans themselves.

                      Gary L. Garriott, Ph.D.
                      Director of Informatics
                Volunteers in Technical Assistance
                         1600 Wilson Blvd.
                             Suite 500
                        Arlington, VA 22209

                       Paper prepared for: 

                International Networking Conference
                       The Internet Society
                         San Franciso, CA

                         17-20 August 1993



Computers don't clothe, don't cure don't feed. Their power begins and ends with information. Their usefulness is therefore strictly linked to the effectiveness of the information....

Information has an economic value and power, and the ability to store and process certain types of data may well yield significant international and technological advantages. With each passing day, technological advances are further revolutionizing the speed, volume, affordability, and the reliability of globally linking computers and satellites and reinforcing the enormous economic power of information and its close brethren, knowledge. Unfortunately, despite these advances, Information Technology (IT) has not had much of an impact on developing nations' level of development. This is particularly true of African nations for which the challenge of the post-industrial economy has become one of decreasing ever-wider information and technology gaps.

For a poor nation, ameliorating such deficiencies can be more difficult and expensive than the many ill-fated experiences of industrialization. The process of accessing information and disseminating it requires modern computer technology, sophisticated telecommunications systems, and reliable electricity. More importantly than hardware, however, it requires that people be trained to use the available technologies if they are to be able to easily access the information they need. Unfortunately, as sited by Africans themselves, the most significant impediment to information dissemination and a notable reason for the underutilization of information technologies has to do with the way in which ITs are introduced into African societies.

We know that reactions to the introduction of new technology differ given disparate cultural and social settings. Yet, the predominant model is one in which foreign consultants bring in hardware and software (frequently donated) with little stake in what they are being asked to accomplish: consultants show little interest in learning about the organizations they serve. They either do not have the time or are unwill- ing to familiarize themselves with the social and cultural norms of the country. They show little interest in passing on the skills to potential users.

At a time when a plethora of information services and networks-- many of them free or low cost--has emerged in the West, the above model prevails in many well-intentioned attempts to diffuse these in Africa. Foreign consultants are brought in for brief periods for installations and workshops, but little is left behind in terms of a permanent cadre of trained people within an institutional setting that can effectively use these services and networks to close the existing information gap.

As a result, "Africanization" of the new, inexpensive communication technologies (such as digital radio and electronic mail) has lagged. The technology has not successfully been transferred because Africans do not have sufficient knowledge and confidence--based on practical, hands- on experience--to make the necessary adaptations, however subtle, to the imported information technology systems. This in turn bars local innovation and reinvention that is the prerequisite for the successful diffusion of any technology. For technology transfer to be able to successfully take place more intense training must take place.

Africans have repeatedly requested more in-depth training that would allow them to better understand and use information technologies. Training projects need to be devised that will promote the use of personal computers as communication and information dissemination devices through the use of locally-adapted curricula. By providing regularly scheduled training and follow-up services on a continuing basis, such projects will help build up local technological capabilities until a self-sustaining "critical mass" is available.


A. Networking Technologies and Information Services

For at least a decade we have been told that we are in the "age of information." Yet information alone, when applied to development problems, is insufficient to cause changes to occur. Information must be translated first into knowledge and then into action. One way both can be facilitated is by establishing relationships through electronic networks which can "short cut" the information-knowledge track by linking users with on-line experts and by also allowing them to "compare notes" with others who have "been there before."

Networking can be done through ordinary "dial-up" (meaning voice) telephone lines using advanced modems that can carry digital information to many places in the world where the quality of lines is good at least part of the time. Where this isn't possible, new, agile networking technologies and information services are available that can help to bring African development problems into the context of the "information age."

One such technology uses off-the-shelf, two-way short wave radios that can become digital radio stations for the point-to-point transfer of information. Using packet technology, personal computers in distant locations, linked by radio instead of telephones, may be used for digital communications. The technology is portable--meaning that solar and battery power can be used when necessary--so that computers in locations that have no telephones, or even electric power, may be connected terrestrially with other computer facilities in a country. The same technology when applied to inexpensive low earth orbiting satellites can provide linkages with distant points through groundstations. Rural areas not served by other means of communications can thus not only exchange messages but also transmit data--a capacity Third World telecommunications networks often lack. The technology provides for error correction and detection, so that communication is error-free. VITA is currently using a low earth orbiting satellite to carry development information to distant places. VITA is also doing extensive work in stand-alone packet radio systems as well as electronic messaging and file transfer over telephone lines worldwide.

All available technologies can be linked, so that a user on one system can communicate with a distant user somewhere else using a different system. Most communication is asynchronous, meaning that a user sends a message or file and the recipient reads it, both at his/her convenience when they decide or are able to "sign on."

Information services also abound. The Institute for Global Communications provides worldwide conferencing on topics concerning development and the environment. Similarly VITA maintains an on-line development forum which engages questions and answers from a myriad of users worldwide. VITA's Disaster Information Center that provides on- line information on the status of international disasters as well as the offers of donated goods and services is another example of a working information service.

Eventually, all networks lead to the Internet, a gigantic network of networks containing several million people linked by almost a million computers, most of them mainframe or mini-computers. Internet can be accessed through many personal computer-based systems. Once accessed it opens the door to a virtual cornucopia of information resources, most of which are available free or cost very little, including topical interest groups like the Development Forum. For example, the entire card catalog of the University of California system is available on-line for free. The "Thinking Machines" computer company is developing a "wide-area information service" that will allow a student to search databases around the world as easily as the computer at his home library. USENET "news groups" discuss almost any topic under the sun and forward mail to other computers willing to receive (and send) items pertaining to that news group.

B. The Problem

Unfortunately, despite the overabundance of information services and technologies an answer to a technical problem that takes minutes to obtain in Europe can take months to obtain in Somalia or Sudan. To give just one example, a medical advisor in Mogadishu needed background information on excretion of antimalarials in breast milk to help him decide on the details of a prophylaxis program for about half a million people. The agency funding him had no staff in Europe who were themselves qualified to make a thorough search for this information or who knew who to ask to do it for them. The telephone calls necessary to set up and pay for a search through a Western information center would have taken weeks, given the communications problems at that time. The solution was to get a friend who was passing through via Nairobi to pay himself for a search in Europe, personally photocopy the papers concerned, and then to mail the printout and copies of papers to Mogadishu. The total time needed to get the information on this routine enquiry was about four weeks. The program was already underway when the material arrived. This same thing happens in many African projects every day, resulting in hundreds of highly technical decisions affecting huge numbers of people being made every month with a bare minimum of scientific background data.

The information needed by the project in Somalia is precisely the kind of information that can be transferred using low cost digital methods such as the ones described in this proposal and for which adequate "Africanized" training needs to be adapted. It should be noted that the situation described above occurred in 1986. It is obvious that today, following the wholesale disintegration of Somali and other African societies, communication of needs and resources is absolutely critical to the relief efforts occurring there.

The quick and efficient communication of information is also critical for development projects that have time-dependent information components. The intrinsic value of information means that if it is not delivered when needed, much of its value may be lost. Even more important is the potential loss of scarce human and material resources that may be transferred to other projects or wasted altogether if not used when critically needed. If the "window of opportunity" closes (example: field staff have promised skeptical village leaders information on a new treatment for cholera but have not delivered same), it may be twice as difficult if not impossible to reactivate interest later on. Finally, information inputs into development projects generally take place over time. If a query-response cycle takes weeks or months solely due to difficulty of delivery, project implementation is held up.

Finally, important research and scientific work is fast becoming international in scope. The ability to access worldwide sources of data and other information resources is increasingly important. This is as true for under-funded African scientists and researchers who are desperately trying to learn from industrialized world experience to avoid "reinventing the wheel" as it is for U.S. and European scientists seeking to exchange ideas and "reality checks" with their African colleagues during this period of great need. Of special note are the fields of health, social science, agriculture and environmental science. Without the ability to exchange such information electronically at low cost through networks, the options are to conduct exchanges characterized by great unreliability (the mail) or great cost (long distance voice or fax calls). International exchange on scientific research and experimentation can provide invaluable time-dependent inputs to both relief and development as well as for its own sake; Africa does not have time to waste.

C. The Possible Solution

The ability of African countries to close the "information gap" may in the future be directly related to information processing and communication being made generally available. At the present, only a privileged elite have such access: inherently an information processing activity. Effective buying, selling, brokerage, and transport require a continuous supply of up-to-date information on the availability and prices of numerous goods and services. In the absence of an accessible and reliable telecommunications service such activities suffer a variety of inefficiencies, including the creation of markets in which a few information-rich individuals are able to gain significant advantage over the majority of those who are information poor.

Lester Thurow, Dean of MIT's Sloan School of Management, has pointed out that the traditional rules for generation and accumulation of wealth have changed significantly in recent years. Traditionally, individuals and companies acquired wealth and generated high standards of living by having "(1) more natural resources, (2) more capital, (3) better technology, and (4) a better educated work force than their competitors" .

Today, (1) is irrelevant because the shipment of resources is cheap compared to the value which must be added to create commercially viable products. Japan has the world's best steel industry, but essentially no natural resources. Items (2) and (3) also drop out due to the "global village" becoming a reality, especially the instantaneous "on-line" nature of international capital markets.

The remaining factor (4) leads to the following bold assertion: the 21st century, the telecommunications revolution will assure that in the pursuit of wealth, little will distinguish capitalist countries except the quality of their respective labor forces.

Thus, the human resources aspect of electronic networking deserves attention heretofore lacking. Specific components include motivation, skill (both in computing and telecommunications technology), and overall knowledge of information handling and dissemination. Surveys indicate that computer professionals in Africa generally possess little knowledge of telecommunications technology. The urgent need to train high-level professionals equipped with the skills of both telecommunications and computer applications is apparent. Frequently the inability to set up communication software, modems, and such seemingly mundane activities as preparing cables and connectors limits networking capabilities. Table 1 and 2 on pages 7 and 8 respectively illustrate the need for adequate training programs in World Bank Informatics projects in Africa.

Ideally, training projects will not only develop and implement computer-based telecommunications training for the professional, but also for public (NGO) and private sector entrepreneurs. They will develop "Africanized" curricula based on actual experience and careful step-by-step execution, from trainee selection through follow-up.


A. Description

Africa is generally characterized by a poor communications and information delivery infrastructure. Nevertheless, skilled scientists, engineers and other technical people exist throughout the region. Many calls have been made for Africans to start "building bridges" with each other. But a pan-African electronic network that could promote "bridge building" does not as yet exist. As elsewhere, African computer expertise has been largely disseminated through its universities whose computer science departments have traditionally been built on large mainframe computers. As a result, networking technology has followed the mainframe environment, but in Africa with mixed and mostly unsatisfactory results. For example, in the 1970's IBM funded the initial development of an EARN node in the Ivory Coast, but after its support ended, that node eventually fell into disuse.

Opportunities exist today to provide Africa-wide networking capability via ubiquitous personal computers which are more adaptable, affordable, and maintainable than the mainframe and mini-computer varieties. However, since networking didn't really "catch on" in the mainframe environment, computer communications were never included either formally or informally in computer science curricula which still derive from the earlier experience.

Training projects proposed herein will promote the use of personal computers as communication devices through the use of a locally-adapted (even if initially "imported") curriculum. By providing regularly scheduled training and follow-up services on a continuing basis, the project will help build up local technological capabilities until a self-sustaining "critical mass" is available. Sustainability will be enhanced because trainers will themselves be users of the networking technology in which they have received training. The follow-up activities will provide access to "value-added" services which will continually expand the trainers' own technological horizons and capability, such that new students will be part of a dynamic development process fueled by these built-in incentives. A list of possible value- added services is provided in Appendix A.

"Hands-on", practical training is an important concept in the approach described. At least three sets of hardware/software, appropriate to each of the three subject technologies, could be "awarded" to an organization represented in the initial training provided in the first year. The award would be based on such criteria as immediate applicability of the technology set to needs, the demonstration of which has the potential of attracting additional users and investment in more such systems (and thus additional training courses). Trainees would be selected from academic, non profit, government, and entrepreneurial sectors and the award made without prejudice toward any of these sectors. Certainly the university host to the training would presumably find its self-interest enhanced to be so awarded, but competition amongst the trainees should provide for a more dynamic training and follow-up experience. The project will attempt to find support for other successful trainees who are not initially awarded and are unable to procure the hardware/software on their own. (Note: the award of radio-based systems may be naturally skewed toward those organizations already familiar with the licensing requirements in their country and/or who hold existing authorizations).

B. Critical Elements

Such a plan seeks to make these benefits available to Africans both as individuals and as organizations through an innovative approach to training preceded by substantial research for user selection and an aggressive follow-up strategy.

Prior to beginning a project it might be helpful to conduct a literature search and background study for collating available knowledge on user profiles and to relate this to specific African countries when possible. For over two decades, worldwide research has been conducted relating to access and use of computer networks. These studies help predict participation and success based on variables such as region, gender, level of education, manual dexterity, technological background, education, disciplinary bias, urban versus rural orientation, and entrepreneurship. While results of these studies will not contradict subjective judgement on who should and should not be invited to take part in the training, they will nevertheless guide the selection process itself. They may also assist in site selection and curriculum development.

Once the literature search and background study have been completed, a pilot curriculum would be developed for each of the technologies appropriate for inclusion as a formal course offering in computer science degree tracks at African universities and research institutes. This curriculum would be heavily "hands-on" oriented and so can be easily adapted into non-formal training situations as well. The idea is to bring credibility to electronic networking as both an educational and career-enhancing tool. The "hands-on" applications will emphasize development-related technology and information resources as outlined above. The curriculum consists of a two-part course, each lasting two weeks, taken consecutively, and designed for offering on a regular rotation (one month total). Part one would deal with computer literacy as applied to electronic communications. Part Two would be selectable among modules designed either for telephone-based, terrestrial digital radio, or satellite digital radio networking technologies.

The three pilot curricula could be distributed to appropriate African venues identified for offering and evaluating each of them. Venues should include both formal and non-formal situations. Curricula will be revised and documentation published for distribution throughout Africa and elsewhere. Documentation could also include "how-to" video tapes on the three highlighted technologies. These products will be produced only in English during the life of the project, but translation (including software) into French and Spanish and possibly other languages would be encouraged and could come later.

Graduates of the training courses could be individually "tracked" to assist them with establishing and/or using networking technology. Since trainees will be carefully selected on the basis of their potential for creating and/or using networks, they will in effect become the trainers of others. Technical assistance will be provided to these "trainers of trainers" throughout the life of the project including sources of financial assistance identified when requested.

A hoped-for secondary result of the project will be to dramatically increase use of existing network services and/or the creation of new ones immediately following instruction. This result can be measured since traditional criteria involving numbers of users, breadth of use, and volumes of messages are appropriate figures of merit.

C. Impacts

A curriculum will have been developed for three "hands-on" oriented courses combining basic computer literacy with the file and mail transport capabilities of (a) low-cost digital radio systems, (b) low- cost telephone-based analog modems, (c) low-cost low earth orbiting satellites. Curriculum development could include the production of documentation and video tape series adaptable for informal training situations.

One hundred five carefully selected persons are trained and follow- up training assistance provided to them for the mplementation/use of networks appropriate to their require- ments.

Three sets of networking software/hardware (one for each technology) are awarded to institutions or organizations judged best to implement and expand network usage.

An impact evaluation including the hypothesis that a comprehensive "Africanizing" process of selection, relevant training with a "hands-on" emphasis and follow-up technical assistance results in a significant increase in network creation and usage with measurable results in problems solved, initiatives started and sustained by Africans.

Distribution of curriculum materials to a carefully selected number of two hundred African universities, research institutes, NGOs, business promotion groups, entrepreneurs, African-related development and relief organizations.

D. Conclusion

If each of the one hundred and five trainers train on the average twenty-five more student trainers, over 2,600 individuals could be skilled in electronic networking within five years. Moreover, this "critical mass" should begin to feed off itself and make for a sustainable pan-African "electronic movement" without constant external inputs to keep it functioning. Collective expertise will make itself strongly felt in government, and the private and public sectors across Africa. The existing number of Africans that have received similar training and are currently actively using electronic networks, in spite of enormous effort through past projects and programs valued at many millions of dollars, are probably fewer than two dozen.

VITA believes that only through the practical and comprehensive approach outlined will information technology and communications begin to make the kind of positive development impact Africa so desperately needs and deserves.

Acknowledgement: The author wishes to thank Ms. Vicki Tsiliopoulos, Assistant President, Volunteers in Technical Assistance, for her work in editing and formatting the manuscript.


The following information is taken from Steve Ruth, "Using Academic Networks in Developing Nations: A Value-Added Services Perspective," International Information Systems, July 1992.

Strategic, focused investments in node services and connections, especially powerful super microcomputers or minicomputers to act as "servers" for the network. (One node can eventually be responsible for thousands of users.)

Continuing updates on new affiliated networks and their operating procedures. Examples include ECONET, PEACENET, and INTERNET.

Online trouble-shooting services with the capability of checking with BITNET in Washington, DC, IBM, or VAX hardware or software services as needed to maintain confidence in the robustness and dependability of the net.

Direct "hand-holding" links with users and prospective users. Includes planning systems and delivering training proven useful in other data communications environments.

Hands-on classes in logging on and off the system, as well as the full range of network services. Target audience: professors, administrators, and students who represent disciplines that are often ignored in early stages of electronic messaging implementation.

Connecting individual disciplines with colleagues and counterparts in the network throughout the world (a "Yellow Pages for the academic community).

Aiding in human engineering of screens and other dialog services. It is relatively easy now to customize screens and local software to make a system's use less threatening (Gronterad & Peterka, 1991).

Establishing links between BITNET/INTERNET/EARN connections -and other value-added services, especially CD-ROM and micro-imaging. It is frequently possible to combine the ease of network communication with the simplicity of CD-ROM at the same personal computer at low unit costs.

Performing ombudsman services with respect to proposed new linkages. Aiding in the formation of direct connection to online search services like the powerful Grateful Med network (Hsieh & Gamboa, 1991).

Helping to import or export files, including text files, graphics, and other digitized data. It is still difficult to send graphics files on BITNET, but instructions on successful transmission techniques could greatly assist the process.

Giving advice on the use of current technology in training, including auto-didact materials. Hundreds of these materials exist and can be of direct help in user training.

Giving advice or guidance on "best practice" in networking, message management, and selection of data communications equipment.

Assisting in the maintenance of existing bulletin boards and the start-up of new ones. As part of the value-added services in Czechoslovakia, it has been possible to develop a LIST SERVER network centered in Prague, instead of the more typical case where an American university becomes the central point of a list server for an Eastern European nation. For example, a list server for Hungary is operated from the University of california, Santa Barbara, nine time zones from Hungary.


This was the only one of the INET '93 LDC papers that was in plain ASCII.

Date: Fri, 15 Apr 1994 10:55:08 -0700
From: Arthur R. McGee 
Subject: GDA.Garriott

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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