by Tony Hall

A conference, even an encounter between hi-tech networkers and bureaucrats about telematics, is really about people. Here are just a few of those who made the issues come alive

There's no confusion in the way Edem Fianyo spells out Senegal's priorities, both in how to connect, and in how to use the highway. For her, the hardware and software strategies are clear, and complementary.

She Works at ORSTOM in Dakar, helping researchers to develop applications, and as one of two people who maintain RIOnet in Senegal. "We take care of nodes in the country. When an organisation wants a connection, and if they agree to the conditions, we go to install the software and hardware.

"The system is e-mail for the moment. We are moving towards direct connection with Internet, first of all locally, in Senegal by implementing the PPP protocol, because PPP can work on the phone line, so it's cheaper - X.25 lines are more expensive. At the main node, it's possible to reach the Internet world by TCP/IP on X.25. But it's too expensive for users generally in Senegal.

"We want all the networks in Senegal to collaborate towards having a direct link with Internet, which will make it cheaper. When will that be? I think it must happen within two years, if there are no setbacks. Sonatel is the organisation in Senegal which maintains the X.25 line, and if they work with us, it will be possible to have good links at 64 kb per second without too much expense. It's up to all the networks to coordinate their approaches, and Sonatel will respond."

Fianyo, now 25, finished her computer science course two years ago at Ecole National Superieur in Dakar, and was taken on by ORSTOM after she developed an application for them. "There aren't too many women in Senegal in computer science, but those who are in it, are doing well. The women have to struggle harder."

Connectivity is not only a technical matter: "One of the dangers of the Internet is that all the information comes from the north," she says. "If the highway comes through without Africa being ready, it's going to be one-way traffic coming down. That's why we want to implement PPP first, to develop local databases. We can move towards full connectivity at the same time, but it is important not to forget the construction of our databases, that's why we want to implement a local protocol, to develop databases from a national point of view."

Will the superhighway roll over existing local networks in the general enthusiasm for getting on to TCP/IP and full Internet connectivity? This is something which concerns Riff Dan Fullan from Web in Toronto, one of the partners, like Green Net in London, in the Association of Progressive Communicators (APC).

Fullan himself has been a strong backup to those initiatives. He is one of the founders of MangoNet in Zimbabwe. At the symposium he's been demonstrating and giving out free, to the two dozen FidoNet system operators gathered here, a new software he has developed called NetBill, a very automated system which will allow FidoNet node operators to manage their billing processes much more easily.

"Obviously TCP/IP connection is a useful goal," he concedes, "because it will eventually allow much easier and cheaper information transfer though there are some technical issues, for example the bandwidth that will be available on the Internet connection.

"But what needs to be considered is how it will be implemented because there are already indigenously created and supported networks, using various technologies, bits of software and means of connecting, that have built up user bases and local expertise. They serve a real need they provide ways for people to connect by e-mail with their colleagues internationally through the Internet. The people involved in those networks must be incorporated into the new process there's a wealth of local expertise, and it would be a huge waste to create something that is going to undermine their viability and sustainability.

"In a lot of cases people running these systems are putting in their own personal time, to train users, to maintain the network. They're very instrumental on a human and personal level.

Says Fullan: "You can have as many bells and whistles as you can afford, but if you don't have people who are dedicated to making sure that new network is reliable, you won't have a viable system anyway."

Agnes Katama's current speciality, editing "grey material" like scientific treatises and technical proceedings into real, saleable books, makes her a good bet, as one of the rapporteurs, to put the most interesting spin on the record of this symposium.

Her hopes for plenty of debate after the first couple of days settling in, may not have been realised, but she felt that this gathering may be the one occasion "to take me out of my cynicsm" about the futility of so many conferences and seminars. "In this case, in the kinds of people being brought together, there's a real chance for action." She felt that participants are in fact players, "people really doing things in their own pragmatic ways - not just the policymakers, people who are technically aware and adept. And there's an openness about the way people are dealing with the issues, a frankness that does away with overcautious diplomacy."

Katama thought there were two main things to be achieved. One, to sort out the disarray in information efforts. "Everybody's got a little project going, everybody is lobbying for a donor - how long are we going to do things piecemeal, isn't it time that we pool our resources, as they begin to dwindle, and focus a lot more on strategy and priorities?"

Secondly: "none of this is going to make any sense whatsoever unless governments are ready to make the real sacrifice of foregoing their tariffs, the telecommunications revenues they are making. Whoever comes up with a demonopolising of these systems is really joining the front runners. [Uganda President Yoweri] Musevenei has gone full market, full liberalisation and you can't imagine the young brains it has attracted who have decided to go all out.

"In much richer economies, for instance Kenya, there's a dearth of information compared to Uganda. I've heard talk that some people are simply driving the six hours from Nairobi to Kampala at the weekend, getting things done through e-mail, and going back."

Katama, based in Nairobi herself, did bachelors and masters degrees in journalism at the University of Navarre in Spain, with telecommunications as part of her thesis. She worked in Price Waterhouse Nairobi in publications marketing, then as a consultant for IDRC and Rockefeller, developing information transfer systems, in one case turning scholarly publications in West Africa, into saleable books at the end. Now she's a publishing manager involved in an IDRC environmental project, "looking at grey literature becoming books, saleable for money to sustain a network, in three countries as a pilot." Also, with the Rockefeller Foundation, she is coordinating a project called the Africa Forum for Children's Literacy in science and technology.

Marcelino Tayob is a national telecoms man turned regional. He joined the Southern African Development Community (SADC) transport and communication commission three years ago, on release from Telecoms Mozambique, where he spent more than ten years in planning and development.

He is positive about the meeting, but speaks cautiously about any dramatic policy changes. This is indeed the first time that telecommunications policymakers and managers in Africa have got together, but will people in charge of policy come round?

"I think so... Policy change is a process, it takes time. But by coming together, both parties can understand each other. PTOs can show why things are as they are, and the users can show the PTCs how much the tariff issues and other barriers are stopping their development, and mechanisms for change can be found."

The public telecommunications operators, the PTOs, have a role in development, but they are also faced with the challenge of commercialisation, to run their organisation on a profitable basis. "It is fundamental for telematics people to make their voices heard by PTCs and not only PTCs, I would say by regulators as well." While PTOs are in charge of commercial operations, governments are setting up independent regulatory bodies, to make sure consumers and well as national interests are protected. So the regulator has a policy role to play.

The key, says Tayob, is to regulate prices by competition, where the size of the market allows. "Within SADC we are making tremendous efforts to harmonise economies of scale... The answer is in going commercial, and that's going to happen. Some are talking about privatisation. Telecoms of Mozambique is going in for 50 per cent joint ventures with the private sector in eight different lines. The core business may be liberalised, and the tariffs may then be revised."

Iyabo Odusote has a very positive story to tell about the support in Nigeria for networking, and progress towards the Internet, from top authorities in all communications fields. Odusote is a systems operator and an academic: technical coordinator of UNESCO's RINAF project in Nigeria, and head of the computer department at Yaba college of technology in Lagos.

"We want to be able to deliver full Internet access to Nigeria, but we started off with an e- mail connection, and we have a UUCP node at the college, where we are called by RINAF in Pisa once or twice a day. We have the store and forward system.

"After hearing about Fido here I'm considering trying it out. It operates basically on DOS machines and it's said to be better in terms of negotiation with bad telephone lines which are quite unreliable in Nigeria, though recently we've started getting digital lines. We're also told that the Fido uses less time in transferring mail. UUCP is supposed to be close to TCP/IP, which we want to start developing some expertise in, but if we have the Fido which can network users right across the country, then I have a UUCP-Fido gateway, which I might be able to pick up from Karen Banks at GreenNet, then we'll see how that works. We may have the better of both worlds.

"Ours is the only national network, funded through UNESCO and the Nigerian government. But we have a number of individual ones across the country. CABECA is supporting a Fido node in the University of Ibadan. Recently another node was opened in Lagos with a private firm, which has requested a connection on a commercial basis with GreenNet.

How does the institution feel about all the extra time she gives to the network? "I cope with quite a lot, though I can delegate some tasks in administering the node. But my institution is very interested in promoting this project, the management wants to be in the front line in terms of networking and is very helpful. For instance it's not normal for a head of department to have an official vehicle, but anytime I need transport, I get it. I was allowed to come here, even though exams are going on back home."

At government level, support is strong. "There was a tremendous response last month, to calling a workshop of people in government relevant to what we are doing. A lot came and they were quite impressed with what we are doing. A lot of the permanent secretaries are aware and supportive. We formed the Nigeria Internet group at the end of the workshop, consisting of people in decisionmaking positions concerning networking in Nigeria. The three that matter, the Ministry of Communications, Nigerian Telcoms, and the Nigerian Telecommunications Commission, were all present, as was the highest computer body in the country." USIS helped to catalyse the workshop, with funding and the venue. The Central Bank was also present. Everybody rolled up.

Odusote has been widely networking the networkers. She talked at the Addis symposium to a Mozambican counterpart who has been through a similar process in getting full Internet access. "We've been in good rapport with South Africa; with Mike Lawrie, and I've known Mike Jensen since 1992, in Pisa. I've been in touch with Kenya, which doesn't seem to have gone to the level Nigeria has. VSAT is in Nigeria, so is INMARSAT. I've spoken to a person from Zambia, who is coming to Nigeria next month. I'm in touch with Wendy White from the US, and with Karen Banks."

She says the panels at the symposium are covering a lot of ground. "But the only fear that I have is that there are too many recommendations, and you wonder where they'll be channelled at the end of the day. If you end up with a thick sheaf it becomes impossible for policymakers to read. They want one or two pages. So it might still mean that each group will have to extract something they know should be addressed to their government or particular organisation. She agreed with others that the proceedings hadn't allowed enough lively debate and discussion. "I felt the panels were too many, and people kind of have an impression that they must say everything. In the panels were people presented for no more than five minutes, people could talk afterwards. Though some of these panels are quite technical. But we could have had more chance to listen to problems and how things are being done in some other countries.

"All the same it's been well worth while, with a lot packed into a short time. One thing I liked about the programming is that you have an opportunity to tune in on every panel discussion."

Back to Nigeria: things may be moving nicely all round towards reaching the highway but how's it going to be in carrying relevant databases? In Nigeria there's a national databank and they're working with Malaysia, in the G17 group to build a database, to be shared South-South.

Can you look up anything you want to know about the world famous Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri or about say, Benin bronzes? "For now, I'm not sure you would be able to. I'm not sure, right now, if somebody's working on it." But in late April there's a conference of all librarians in Nigeria, at which Odusote will present a paper on the Internet. Some libraries are starting to put their hard copy databanks on to computers.

Meanwhile, the great writers may still be literary prophets without database in their own land.

Peter da Costa is a constant reminder at this symposium that telematics for development, is about what information you get across rather than how you carry it. His organisation, the InterPress Service, has a long and honourable record in disseminating South-South news and views round the world. And IPS could have no tougher a champion of its mandate than da Costa, as its director for Africa.

For him, as a journalist concerned with development, information is a resource, not a commodity. And the people who provide it in Africa, the journalists need support and quality training, with funding from wherever he and IPS can broker it.

"If you treat information purely as a commodity, it means some people can't afford it but they should still have access. And if they don't have the equipment to access it, they should be able to get it through other people who have the equipment.

"Information empowers people. Once they have it they know best how to lived their lives, or how to go about lobbying. There are agencies which sell information of a certain type because they know there is a market for it, rather than selling information which is actually accurate."

What's the scenario for the future development of African journalism? "You always find that Northern organisations look for African journalists, send them on courses, then back to Africa to produce publications. But Africa is restricted by the political reality, a lot of journalists are only just emerging out of the cloud of state censorship. Also, there was a time when the only trained journalists were trained by the state, and the used information services as propaganda, with journalists trained to think in one way. So there's a transformation going on.

"Training should also involve the technical, because most news agency journalists work in archaic conditions. They don't have access to a PC, they have to write stories by hand, or old typewriters. A lot of people use tickertape telexes. Yet they're expected to disseminate information about technology, about telematics! So at IPS, every time we train our own and other journalists, in reporting environmental or human rights issues, we also train them in using computers, and we get them involved in discussion about the information superhighway, so they understand the implications of it, and go away empowered to get themselves hooked up.

"But how many journalists earn enough money to buy a computer? Hardly any, unless they work for an international organisation which usually sends its own journalist from Europe or America to cover the story anyway. So there's not much cross- fertilisation. What we wrestle with is giving them access to hardware so they can do their job better. When we get EU funding to train people, there's a hardware component, so the computers we use in the training programme end up with the journalists. We give them software and an element of responsibility. And they can file to us, much faster and cheaper.

"If we can't give them access to hardware, we get hold of an NGO, for example ENDA in Senegal, which helped us do the training of 40 journalists, accessing their FidoNet node, to get information and then to file to us by e-mail to Harare."

What about changing the old Northern approach to what a news story is? "We always had this Northern-led news agenda, as it's called. I myself was trained in England...but our method at IPS has always been to teach people to turn the story inside out not to report it from the perspective of the northern reader; not necessarily to quote the talking heads most other agencies do.

"We go for a diverse range of sources. Policies affect people, but most of the time you don't get wind of the affect on the masses. So, for example, with the CFA devaluation, instead of reporting just that 12 African heads of state collaborated with the French and the IMF in devaluing the CFA, we also get alternative economists, people not necessarily working in a Bretton Woods institution, to analyse the situation. We get hold of NGOs who also do policy advocacy.

"Then we take it a stage further by looking at the impact on ordinary people, through stories, analyses, colour pieces, for example the barmaid in Senegal who couldn't work only as a barmaid, she had to look after her family. And with devaluation, she has to go on the streets and become a prostitute. Those kinds of stories. Micro-stories about macro-policies.

"That approach is also married with IPS' commitment to global issues. We started reporting environment issues, for instance, in the 1960s before it was fashionable. We're faced with another global issue here: take the fact that AT&T a putting a fibre-optics cable around Africa, but do Africans have a say in how it will be used? With Satellite TV we're already seeing a proliferation of US programmes in African, so imagine what's going to happen then.

"We're also doing upgrading of news agencies we computerised PANA, SHIHATA, ZANA...we were the first agency to give AIM, the Mozambican news agency, computers, to teach them how to use them, to network them, using leased lines. But very few people know about this.

"We're using MISA, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, which is an incredible organisation which we helped to grow and diversify. MISA delivers IPS copy to all its members, at least 12 of which are newspapers, and also to universities, beyond Africa. They've delivered the service free on a trial basis, up to now."

Robert Stephen Owor is a networker's user-friendly PTO - as chief of computer operations in Uganda Posts and Telecoms. Some sectors of telecoms are already liberalised, like mobile cellular, paging, VSAT. And the government is in the process of liberalising the centre by seeing how to restructure the PTT itself. Owor says there are a number of options, either selling it completely or having a joint venture, or having a billed operator transfer kind of arrangement. "Certainly it will take on a new shape. They've advertised for a coordinator who is going to oversee this process."

In the meantime the regulatory framework has been greatly liberalised already, in terms of fees and licensing procedures. "Right now the licensing is very easy, there's a company licensed recently which is providing VSAT and some others have been licensed, a payphone service, paging, and vodaphone... They wanted to privatise the whole information sector, because the media has already been privatised. There are four private TV stations and two private radio stations alongside the state ones."

How is it that Uganda took this road so comparatively easily? "I think we have a very progressive government, which began by setting up structures, right from the bottom level, so people were able to express their views about what they wanted. So a number of decision in the country have been taken quickly, because of people's participation, being able to speak out."

There must have been a vision to put this choice to people, because there is a potential loss of revenue at public sector level? "I think the vision has really been provided by the President, who wants to modernise the country. And because of increasing investment in the country, the existing information infrastructure was unable to support new investors. At the same time, investors were invited to come in to the communications sector."

How are other PTOs reacting to what Uganda is doing? "There are varying views. In some countries the fear is that the level of telecommunications development is still so low, there is a need for government to bring it up to a certain level. Other still fear security which to me is not really an issue, I think. I mean you can still use facilities to communicate whatever you want anyway.

"The main concern of many is the rural sector, because obviously an investor won't go to a rural area to make money. But I think governments can set up appropriate policies to ensure rural areas are taken care of, using technologies like radio communications, in conjunction with NGOs, and government itself putting in some development.

Other Participants

Nashua Abdel-Baki is EUN Technical Manager for the Supreme Council of Universities based at the FRCU Computer Center, Cairo University. Abdel-Baki is manager of one of Africa's few fully connected Internet nodes. The only countries in the continent with full Internet connectivity are Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Zambia, and South Africa.

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D.
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