Science/Technology Communication Networks: Africa

Science/Technology Communication Networks: Africa


The decision to hold the African Academy of Sciences (AAS)/American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) "Workshop on Science and Technology Communication Networks in Africa" was based on the recognition that undependable telephones, an unreliable postal system, vast distances, and expensive airfares all serve to isolate African scholars and hinder communications among themselves and with their colleagues outside the region. These difficulties thwart their ability to conduct research and share data and results, stay current in their respective disciplines, and contribute to solving development problems faced by their countries. The advent of computer-based electronic networking has provided an enabling mechanism towards a solution to this predicament.

Electronic networking, which refers to any of several forms of information exchange between two or more computers through any of several methods of interconnection, is rapidly spreading throughout much of the world as a fast, reliable, and, in most applications, inexpensive form of communication. It is inexpensive because it is fast, and it can use existing public phone lines. Multiple messages can be sent in a single phone call, lowering their average cost. In "packet-switched" systems, there is no need to establish a real- time circuit, as in a telephone call. Instead, information can be sent in "packets" that are encoded with their source and destination(s). Error-correcting modems can ensure reliability of transmission.

The most common network application is electronic mail (e-mail), whereby messages originating from one computer can be sent via some medium to another computer or computers that are connected to a network and have an electronic address. The medium may be the public phone lines, private dedicated lines, or a radio frequency. It is also possible to use networking to transfer lengthy files between computers, and to "log on" to a remote computer in order, for instance, to search a database for information. These specialized functions are dependent upon the particular network protocol used, may not work between protocols, and can be quite expensive (particularly time "on-line" at long distance).

Other common applications include "bulletin board systems," (BBS) where multiple users access a common message area and are able to upload and download files, and "conferencing systems," where multiple users post messages that are seen and responded to by multiple other users, usually organized around some common theme or themes. A BBS is a "many accessing one" configuration, generally used for the posting and obtaining of information items, whereas an electronic conference is a "many accessing many" configuration wherein an ongoing conversation takes place. This is actually a rather crude differentiation, since BBS and conferencing systems generally also include built-in e-mail functions, and a BBS can contain conferences as well.

Electronic networking is an evolving phenomenon and it has its drawbacks. For example, there are those who have concern about the privacy and security of their messages; although security-enhancing technologies exist, there are no absolutely impenetrable systems (one might add, however, that the same is true for all other forms of communication). Also, messages tend to be relatively informal which is also often a benefit but insufficient sensitivity to wording or etiquette in the absence of physical cues can lead to misunderstandings in the quick give and take, for instance, of an electronic conference "conversation." There are also other political, economic, social, and technical challenges in networking that vary in relative importance depending upon the part of the world one is considering (many of these that are relevant to the African context are highlighted below).

The essential benefit of electronic networking is that it provides a powerful and efficient way for communication to occur and for information to flow, cheaply and rapidly. In some cases networking supplements or enhances other forms of communication and makes the flow of information faster and more convenient, and in other cases it actually fosters new communication, creating and strengthening communities of common interests and making possible exchanges of information that otherwise simply would not take place. For scientists, among others, electronic networking can now truly be called an essential tool.

Thus electronic networking, already integral to the conduct of normal science in the developed world, holds great promise for reducing the isolation of African scientists and engineers. To date, however, this technology has been only tenuously established within the African scientific community. There has generally been little institutional support, equipment may be difficult to obtain, maintain, and repair, overall familiarity with computers is relatively low, the need for training of users and technicians is great, and, although operating costs compare favorably with such alternatives as faxing, it has nevertheless proven a challenge to make e-mail self-sustaining in Africa, free from dependency on donor support.

The purpose of the August workshop, which was attended by some 40 participants who represented a majority of existing noncommercial electronic networking initiatives in Africa and included a mix of technical experts and system users, was to review both positive and negative experiences with African scientific/academic networking and to address significant policy issues. These issues include: regulatory environments, government-mandated equipment procurement and licensing procedures, and human resource needs related to planning, installing, promoting, using, managing, repairing, and maintaining the electronic network, and the ongoing need for training in these areas. Although many of the issues raised were relevant to electronic networking in general, the focus of the meeting was on formulating recommendations to guide future actions of African universities and research institutes with respect to all aspects of participating in such networks, expediting the rationalization, coordination, and expansion of the existing array of networking projects. The workshop was also designed to facilitate productive donor-recipient relationships in this area.

The workshop was supported by a grant to AAAS from the Carnegie Corporation of New York as part of its science and technology information (STI) initiatives, under the Program for Strengthening Human Resources in Developing Countries. A list of workshop participants, and their affiliations and paper topics, is attached. A more complete report, including the text of the prepared papers, is being published jointly by AAS and AAAS.

Common Workshop Themes

Through the presentation of case studies and the ensuing discussions during the workshop, certain key, instructive commonalities and differences among the various networking experiences began to emerge and coalesce into "themes." Here they have been organized into five categories: Leadership and Participation from Planning through Implementation; Human Resources Development and Training Issues; Network Needs and Uses; Hardware and Software; and Costs, Marketing, and Sustainability. The lines between the categories often blur; for example, costs and sustainability are largely determined by the user base, which is itself variously determined by the quality and availability of training, satisfactory hardware and software, effective leadership, and so on. Nevertheless, the five categories represent coherent issue areas that lend themselves to policy solutions, at least in part. Within each category, an effort has been made to construct a logical order out of the many points raised; inevitably, however, an element of arbitrariness may remain.

I. Leadership and Participation from Planning through Implementation

The question of electronic networking and communications (EN&C) needs to be considered in the context of broader national information policies.

The issue of setting up national bodies, committees, focal points, or clearinghouses to coordinate electronic communication programs and projects was raised. These committees should have clearly identifiable functions that address issues of policy (ownership, access, training, pricing, regulations, etc.) that are critical to the development of electronic communication.

In setting up national coordinating bodies, there is a need to involve government agencies, PTTs (Post, Telegraph, and Telephone, the government telecommunications authorities), universities, and private or commercial agencies involved in electronic communication programs/projects. It may also be helpful to include many such agencies in the marketing of the technology and in sensitization programs directed toward governments and potential users. It is not, however, always necessary and the point was made that it can be counterproductive to involve PTTs in order to initiate network connectivity.

Communication problems and issues should not be left to government institutions alone. The role of professional societies, such as computer societies, was stressed.

It was noted that within any project there were key players who profoundly affected the likelihood of success. It was also deemed important that project objectives should be made clear at the outset and periodically reviewed.

Along these lines, it was noted that the active participation of Vice-Chancellors in any university network improved its chances of success.

It is often helpful to a network's success, though not absolutely essential in all cases, if directors of projects are also network users. They then tend to become champions of network utilization. High-level administrative changes, however, can delay or sidetrack a project.

II. Human Resources Development and Training Issues

Training is essential, but relevant target groups and appropriate individuals must be identified first, after which they should be given training designed to suit their particular needs. In training, it is essential to provide a broad overview on the functionality of the technology before actually teaching its usage. It was stressed that obligations on the part of computer communications users should be taught in addition to the rewards that the systems can offer.

The need for training at various levels was also emphasized training in use of software, handling the technology as a whole, and equipment maintenance. Experience has shown that technical expertise is required at every host. As far as possible, local expertise should be exploited. The issue of training trainers was also emphasized. Along these lines, the importance of training on site and then using these people as local resources was stressed. Donors often bypass local expertise when implementing projects, and this subsequently creates problems of maintenance and support services. Training is a process, the costs of which must be factored into projects.

Various training methods were identified. These include hands-on demonstrations during installation, and training workshops and seminars. It was noted that it is very important to sustain the training over a period of at least several months, if not continually, then intermittently, perhaps by a regional trainer or trainers who would make regular site visits for weeks at a time. Without a capacity for "hand-holding" and troubleshooting, it is likely that the network site will fall into disuse. The importance of securing and using repair manuals and other illustrative materials was emphasized to ensure that maintenance and repair can also be managed locally, providing an important supplement to sustained training.

There is enough basic expertise on the continent, but it needs upgrading and exposure to new or emerging technology trends. There is a clearly demonstrated need for more "information on information," e.g., a periodically updated network directory/user's guide with instructions on accessing each network, information on its software and hardware requirements, and specifics on system interconnectivity.

Sub-Saharan African universities should expand opportunities for advanced work in information and communication technologies, as expertise in these areas is very much needed by the private sector, governments, research institutes, and the universities themselves. Addis Ababa University's School of Information Studies for Africa is a model for training in the information sciences at an advanced level, but there should be better communication and complementarity among university programs in this field. It was pointed out, however, that plans may need to have different emphases, as seen by comparing existing programs in Addis, Ibadan, and Botswana.

In spite of the tremendous cost advantages of e-mail versus faxing, cabling, telephoning, telexing, express mailing, and so on, inadequate budgeting can sabotage the computer communications effort. There must be on-the-ground commitment for sustainability. This can mean full-time staff support, if necessary. These expenses should be considered normal operating costs, not luxury items; it should also be remembered that use of e-mail should offset other, costlier forms of communication, rather than add on to their costs.

III. Network Needs and Uses

There is tremendous demand for pc-based linkages for universities for administrative, research, and other purposes. It was indicated that networking progress can and often should be made using existing infrastructure, rather than waiting for PTTs to improve their facilities or building new networks. The Association of African Universities (AAU), for example, whose Vice-Chancellors meet on a regular basis, has decided not to form its own communications network, but to make use of existing networks to link member universities. AAU has therefore been cooperating with the Pan African Development Information System (PADIS) of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, which is already involved in developing networking in Africa.

There is a significant lag in terms of networking progress in West African universities. Thus, there is a demand for a special focus on that sub-region's electronic communications needs. With the exception of the "RIO" network, which links French researchers (in Africa and elsewhere) associated with the organization ORSTOM, communication networks among universities and institutes in West Africa are virtually non-existent, a situation that stands in contrast to the progress that has been made in some East and Southern African institutions.

Network needs should determine placement of equipment. For example, using libraries as a network point would be especially appropriate for institutions interested in using their electronic networking capability to ensure access to scientific information.

HEALTHNET in Zimbabwe is an example of satisfaction of user needs generating support for a network. Health care practitioners were already exchanging information via other technological means (fax and voice communication). It was not difficult to convince them of the benefits of e-mail. In addition, there was adequate technical support in place to deal with problem solving.

There was considerable discussion (and some confusion) concerning different EN&C modalities in terms of optimal usage, i.e., the relative capabilities and appropriate uses of e-mail, file transfer, remote login, and conferencing and bulletin board systems.

Potential network needs include:

+ noninteractive searching on networks at low cost. This includes CD-ROM, although CD-ROM is not necessarily an effective technology for multiple users in large numbers.

+ further information on and investigation of how to affordably access databases worldwide, including university twinning arrangements, or the possibility of developing software that might combine e-mail capability with automatic keyword searching, so that one could send a search request as a message and receive a reply without the need for human intervention.

+ documentation on usage patterns and costs and benefits to demonstrate empirically the advantages and potential of electronic networking. The International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) has done some such documentatation based on its experience with CGNET, analyzing the number of connections made over given periods compared to a suggested optimal scenario, and attempting to discern associated "true" and "excess" costs. It would be useful to have additional, similar studies, and, where possible, to include comparisons (cost, speed, reliability) to other methods of communication.

+ ways to improve communication across national borders and across significant distances, as required for many research programs. Noisy lines and the need for packet radio technology are two technical issues of concern. Additional points to consider include provision of FBM (frequency band modulation) as lines improve and UNIX-based systems as users increase.

+ promoting electronic conferencing for research and education. The advantages of conferencing include: teaching and seminars, scientific collaboration in research and writing, the concept of the virtual student, reduction in time necessary for communication. The following drawbacks to conferencing were noted: the unmet need for interpersonal relationships (students/teachers), the lack of privacy in making comments (although most conferencing software includes provision for private messages akin to e-mail), the large volumes of information to digest, lack of familiarity with electronic conferencing in Africa, the varying complexity of hardware needs among target users.

IV. Hardware and Software

Participants raised the issue of using technology that is appropriate to what else was going on in the country of operation. For example, in the RINAF (Regional Informatics Network for Africa) project, which aims in part to coordinate, integrate, and upgrade African networks and their overseas connections, different approaches will be used in different countries, using X.25 lines where they are available, strengthening Fidonet links, or using satellite links where appropriate, and so on. In the RINAF scheme, each regional node (with an Internet connection) would control at least one country node.

Equipment is sometimes under-utilized because of a lack of appreciation of its full potential. It is necessary to experiment and explore to the limit what is already in place. In addition, too often people believe that high tech is essential, whereas a "lower" technology can sometimes accomplish the same ends.

There was considerable discussion concerning Fido software. It has proven quite resilient to problems associated with poor telecommunications infrastructure in Africa. Nevertheless, some workshop participants, particularly those in West Africa, have experienced difficulty in using Fidonet because of poor documentation and lack of on-site or on-line support. Moving from a Fido to a UNIX-based system has to be justified by need and the number of users. Once Fido has reached 200 users, it is feasible to go to UUCP (UNIX to UNIX Copy Program).

There was also some concern over the possibility that Fido software is a "third world software," whereas in reality it is used widely in North America by individuals and small groups. BITNET and Internet, on the other hand, are to be found in the university sector. The issue of Internet connectivity was raised several times: who needs it, how to get it, and how to pay for it? (It should be observed that, in any case, there are gateways to allow e-mail interconnectivity between Fidonet and other networks.)

There was some concern over problems associated with computer viruses, which were widespread on computers on which new communications software were to be introduced. It is important to scan any new disk or executable program with an anti-viral program before using it; however, it is not possible for someone to infect your system with a virus sent via the network unless you activate an executable program containing a virus. Viruses cannot be hidden in text files.

V. Costs, Marketing, and Sustainability

Sustainability was discussed throughout the workshop. Economic factors must be thoroughly considered at each and every stage. The point was made that projects must strive to become independent of donor support. Users of networks should pay for utilization of network facilities. This can be done through charging for highly desirable services, such as maintaining mail boxes and conducting off-line database searching. Accounting software has been developed to facilitate charging. In one case involving Fidonet, it has been estimated that a base of 50 users, charged US$10.00 per month and 50 cents per message, will result in a self-sustaining system. It should also result in satisfied users, since very few messages, particularly long-distances messages, would likely be necessary to make this cost structure cheaper than faxing or telephoning.

Sustainability can be self-generated if user needs are satisfied. Both sustainability and marketing issues will be simplified if there is user satisfaction. Requirements for user satisfaction are meeting user needs and delivery of services, i.e., solve the technological and human resource problems such as those mentioned previously. It is essential to get adequate feedback from the users in order to satisfy their demands adequately.

The need to demonstrate concretely the effectiveness of any electronic networking project was also highlighted in order to convince governments and other potential users that the system can work. The need for redundancy to keep systems operating was stressed. It is important not to raise expectations unduly. This was pointed out in the experience of the Ghana project, which is reluctant to market itself widely until technical and other problems are resolved.

There is a need to ask the PTTs to improve services and review their policies in such areas as pricing, control and approval of equipment, and licensing procedures. Involving the PTTs at the earliest stages of planning and implementation, as noted above, might serve to make them more receptive to policies that would facilitate networking. It was proposed that African groups controlling regional PTT policy should be actively encouraged to try and improve communications within the continent, and that the S&T community should become more involved in promoting information services to policymakers.

Costs might be lowered if computers could be assembled on the continent rather than imported. The problem is not one of technical capability, but generally related to lack of contacts, documentation, and foreign exchange.

The Internet Society has demonstrated a commitment to developing country issues. Although full Internet connectivity is likely to remain too costly for some time, messages through the Internet hold promise as a powerful grass-roots vehicle for identifying expertise, technical assistance, and possibly other resources, such as second-hand computers and modems.


Electronic networking continues to hold great promise as a boon to the African scientific and technical community, with downstream potential to benefit the social and economic development process. Initial efforts to establish such networks in Africa have met with limited success and have served to identify key positive and negative elements that contribute to a project's relative success or failure.

Perhaps the most important condition for success and sustainability is to have a group of enthusiastic users. Even a small group of enthusiastic users or one extremely enthusiastic user (a local "champion" of networking) can be instrumental in attracting other users, resulting in a larger group of users who could, by the payment of affordable fees, sustain the network. Satisfaction of user needs thus becomes the paramount issue, which is why adequate training is the first priority. Training, in order to be adequate, must be targeted at all levels of networking, involve local expertise, and be ongoing so that competence can be solidly established, maintained, and then propagated. Documentation to guide users is also a critical, and heretofore largely lacking, element.

The costs of networking represent another significant issue that is related to the user base. Having more users lowers the marginal cost of messages and helps make the system more affordable to operate. At least until a sufficient user base is established, it is helpful to have someone "poll" the system for mail from outside, where calling rates are cheaper and/or lines may be more reliable. There are also costs, as well as delays, associated with government regulations and policies, some of which can be targeted for reduction by policy change; likely candidates include tariffs on computer equipment, the requirement of government approval of type of equipment, time-consuming and often expensive licensing requirements, and telecommunications price structures for nonprofit organizations. There are also intransigent costs such as those associated with online remote database searching; these are likely to remain prohibitive for the foreseeable future, but cooperative arrangements can be made, via e-mail, with colleagues within Africa and overseas. It is possible, for example, to send a search request as a message to a colleague who would perform the search locally and send the results back by e-mail. Such cooperative arrangements should be encouraged, and there is also potential for the creation of software that could perform this operation automatically.

All one needs in order to participate in networking, technically, is a computer, a modem, and a transmission medium. Networking can be made more successful and affordable by such means as mentioned above, and these means can be facilitated by the support of institutions such as government agencies, universities, and commercial organizations. The adoption by such institutions of policies that encourage networking would accelerate Africa's participation in the information age and enhance the contributions of African science and technology to development.

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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