Dr. Jabulani Dhliwayo
August 4, 2013
Many African researchers, including those of us in the Diaspora, have long been seeking avenues by which all African educational institutions can be connected to one another and to other institutions in the world. My colleagues at NEPAD Council have in the past approached France Telecommunications and reviewed the feasibility of establishing such a network. This was all out of the realisation that connected research and educational institutions enable easy sharing of research activities, findings, resources and can even enable sharing of professional expertise within institutions.
But before we can even think of a continental Research and Educational Network (REN), individual countries in Africa should start by establishing their own National RENs (NRENs) that interconnect tertiary institutions in their countries.
A significant number of African countries have either established NRENs in their countries or are in the process of establishing them. Some of the more progressive governments in Africa have supported their NRENs by providing the much needed funding. The Kenyan government, for example, offered a $20M grant plus STM4 (620Mb/s) capacity on the The East Africa Marine System (TEAMS) undersea cable to KENET.
One key challenge in African research is the lack of visibility of research work conducted by African researchers in Africa. It is very difficult for African researchers to get their work published and become visible in any African scholarly journal. This is because such journals are either non-existent or they are published irregularly. In some cases, African research journals are quickly discontinued because of the high cost of publishing and distributing hard copy journals. Consequently, most African researchers end up seeking to publish their work in overseas journals in order to get recognition for their hard work.
The establishment of an African REN, coupled with the establishment of African online journals, can enable the visibility of the work of African researchers throughout Africa. Online journals are significantly less costly to produce than hard copy equivalents and they can be shared easily online throughout the African research community if a robust continental REN exists. By connecting an African REN to other RENs throughout the world, African online journals can become more visible throughout the world and make publishing in African journals more rewarding for African researchers.
A number of initiatives are already under way to at least interconnect regional NRENs to one another. Perhaps the most successful of these initiatives so far is the Ubuntunet Alliance which is connecting at least 15 East and Southern African NRENs. Through the AfricaConnect network, the Ubuntu Alliance has so far initiated the connection of Eb@le, EthERNet, iRENALA, KENET, MAREN, MoRENet, XNet, RwEdNet, SomaliREN, SudREN, TENET, TERNET, RENU and ZAMREN.
The West and Central African REN (WCAREN) is another initiative to interconnect West and Central African NRENs. WCAREN was established in 2006 and is making some inroads in connecting the RENs of that region. GARNET, GabonREN, MaliREN,NigerREN, ngREN, snRER and TogoREN are all members of WCAREN.
It is very feasible that one day every country in Africa will have an NREN connected to a regional REN and that the regional RENs will eventually be connected together into a seamless continental REN. Given the development of terrestrial fibre optic network backbones in almost every African country, there will be no excuse why an African REN cannot be established.
Moreover, because of the improvement in infrastructure, the cost of bandwidth is falling significantly. By 2008, African Universities in the Eastern and Southern Africa were spending more than $1.2million/month on less than 700Mbps of bandwidth – or an average of $1,700/Mbps/month. Today, the costs have dropped to $130-$900/Mbps/month for some NRENs, and the cost is expected to continue to decline as more infrastructures is developed.
We call on all African governments, the African Union and the African ICT industry to support the establishment of NRENs, interconnection of regional RENs and the eventual establishment of an African REN.