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Africa: Internet Advances

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Apr 22, 2005 (050422)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

As of April 2005, the African continent now has its own regional internet registry, AfriNic, with responsibility for assignment of internet addresses within the continent. This long-awaited development has the potential to save some $500 million in fees paid outside the continent each year to registries in Europe and North America. The agency, which received formal approval at an international meeting in Argentina on April 8, is headquartered in Mauritius, with an operations center in South Africa and back-up facilities in Egypt.

The launch of AfriNic is one sign of the emerging maturity of internet operations in Africa, as advances at many levels move beyond conference talk about information technology to practical applications. While gaps in infrastructure and equipment are still substantial, more and more advances now depend on the human capacity to take cost-effective advantage of those opportunities already available.

Illustrations at one level include AfriNic (http://www.afrinic.net) and the plans of the African Association of Internet Service Providers (AfriSPA) to establish new data exchange points within the continent. This week the Africa Network Operations Group (AfNOG; http://www.afnog.org) is holding its latest training session on network technology, in conjunction with the meeting AfriNic in Maputo, Mozambique. At the level of applications within countries, the operations of Schoolnet Namibia, which has provided standard packages of internet-connected computer networks to almost 450 schools around the country in the last five years, demonstrate what is possible.

By relying on open-source software and standard hardware configurations refurbished in their own workshop, this nongovernmental organization working with government and other partners has been able to keep costs low and focus on training and sustainable services rather than just supplying equipment. Staffing for its production workshop at its headquarters in the township of Katutura is provided largely by unemployed youth, who receive training and the opportunity for later employment in exchange for their work.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a news article on the AfriNic launch, excerpts from a 2004 report on Schoolnet Namibia, and several additional links to related information. For additional current information on Schoolnet Namibia, including a current list of schools connected, see http://www.schoolnet.na.

Schoolnet Namibia's interactive Africa map puzzle is used worldwide - test out your own knowledge at
http://www.schoolnet.na/games/map/africa.html

Other recent articles of interest on related issues include

  • an April 7 press release from the African Association of Internet Service Providers (AfriSPA), announcing the award of a contract to establish a network of internet exchange points within Africa, to allow transfer of data within the continent http://www.afrispa.org/NewsDetail.asp?ItemID=9

and

For regular updates on African telecommunications and internet developments, see the weekly Balancing Act:
http://www.balancingact-africa.com

Previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on related issues include:

Africa: Mobile Renaissance? May 6, 2004
http://www.africafocus.org/docs04/han0405.php

Kenya: ICT Policy Debates May 6, 2004
http://www.africafocus.org/docs04/chak0405.php

Africa: Internet Creativity Feb 17, 2004
http://www.africafocus.org/docs04/ict0402.php

Africa: Digital Solidarity Gap, 2 Dec 15, 2003
http://www.africafocus.org/docs03/it0312b.php

Africa: Digital Solidarity Gap, 1 Dec 15, 2003
http://www.africafocus.org/docs03/it0312a.php

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

African Internet Users to Save $500 Million a Year

Highway Africa News Agency (Grahamstown)

April 8, 2005

By Rebecca Wanjiku, Highway Africa News Agency

Mar del Plata, Argentina

http://www.highwayafrica.ru.ac.za/hana/index.asp

[Highway Africa news articles are also available on http://allafrica.com]

It was a moment of great joy and pride for Africa as the Internet Corporation for assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) Board of Directors approved AfriNic as the Regional Internet Registry (RIR) for Africa.

The fouteen member board joined other participants in a standing ovation as Adiel Akplogan, AfriNIC's executive director took the podium.

"This is very rewarding news for Africa and the internet community at large. It is a starting point for more participation by Africans in global internet technology. Having our registry is proof of our seriousness to address internet evolution on the continent," said Akplogan.

As expected, Africa's two representatives on the board, Mouhamet Diop and Njeri Rionge captured the centre stage and took Africa to new heights in the battle to bridge the digital divide. Diop introduced the motion while Njeri seconded.

"I am honoured and humbled to be celebrating AfriNic's approval. We will surely celebrate in Maputo, Mozambique, later this month (April) during AfriNic's meeting," Njeri added.

The approval is the climax of a ten year journey that is likely to save African ICT users U$500 million paid annually to other regional exchanges as "transit fees". The approval will mean faster internet access through local and regional connectivity as well as the allocation of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses according to the size of the institutions.

"Today, Africa pays more than U$500 million annually in transit fees to other regional registries in Europe or America. We want to ensure all that money goes to Africa's technological and information development. Since AfriNic is a non-profit organisation, any excess money raised will be ploughed back into capacity building initiatives," said Pierre Dandjinou, AfriNIC's board chairman.

Though the approval shows that Africa is serious about bridging the digital divide, Dandjinou says the major challenge lies in getting political backing to ensure that the role of AfriNIC becomes well known in all African countries.

Since AfriNic will be delivering quality services comparable with those currently on offer by other RIRs, Dandjinou argues there is need for a major awareness campaign so that more people can take advantage of the newly recognised entity.

Adiel Akplogan, AfriNic executive director confirmed that all data and operational activity has already been and will continue to be transfered effectively. The migration process is being conducted with the support of the other RIRs that had previously allocated IP addresses to African organisations. AfriNic is the fifth RIR and is expected to handle all issues relating to Africa.

The approval was widely expected after the Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA) gave a clean bill of health in its public presentation at the meeting in Mar Del Plata, Argentina. Barbara Roseman, from IANA said AfriNIC policies and technical operations have been satisfactory and all conditions set have been complied with.

Roseman said the public comment forum on AfriNic web site has been the most successful so far. The internet public forum elicited more than 20 positive comments, a move Roseman terms as commendable.

The idea of AfriNic was mooted by a small group of Africans attending a meeting in Canada in 1995. Since then, the journey towards its establishment has weathered many a storm ranging from lack of finances to political goodwill. AfriNic is currently registered and domiciled in Mauritius with other offices in South Africa, and Egypt.


Empowering Youth and Connecting Schools: Lessons from the SchoolNet Namibia Approach

International Network for the Availability of Scientific Information (INASP)

INASP infobrief 2: February 2004

[excerpts: full text of infobrief available at
http://www.inasp.info]

Schools in developing countries are beginning to get computers and access to the Internet. They are using them in teaching and administration; learners also use them to become computer and Internet literate. Resulting from an evaluation commissioned by Sida, this infobrief draws on the SchoolNet Namibia approach and its achievements. It suggests that programmes like this should give priority to the provision of affordable access using open platforms, pay attention to longer term cost of ownership issues, leverage change through partnerships, work closely with governments, involve school principals and teachers, and seek to ensure that necessary capacities are developed in schools themselves.

Quality education for all

In April 2000, the world's education community met in Dakar and affirmed its commitment to six goals leading to Education For All. ...

The emphasis on quality in the Dakar Framework for Action is important. It argues that "quality is at the heart of education, and what takes place in classrooms and other learning environments is fundamentally important to the future well-being of children, young people and adults. A quality education is one that satisfies basic learning needs, and enriches the lives of learners and their overall experience of living". Among the twelve strategies identified to achieve these goals is to "harness new information and communication technologies" (ICTs). In terms of potential benefits, ICTs are expected to contribute towards "knowledge dissemination, effective learning and the development of more efficient education services". They can also help to "improve access to education by remote and disadvantaged communities, to support the initial and continuing professional development of teachers, and to provide opportunities to communicate across classrooms and cultures". Affordability of the ICTs is seen as a key factor to be taken into account.

In the search for quality education for all, numerous ICTs in schools projects have been launched around the world. One very visible model is the "schoolnet" that introduces computers and Internet connectivity to schools. There are now schoolnets in at least 9 African countries, there are also schoolnets in Canada, Switzerland, India, Iran, and Lebanon, there is a European schoolnet, a global schoolnet, and plans for schoolnets in 9 Southeast Asian countries. The latest evolutions in this area are the global e-schools initiative of the United Nations ICT Task Force and the NEPAD schools programme.

This infobrief presents some lessons emerging from one of these initiatives SchoolNet Namibia. It is part of a wider evaluation of Swedish support to SchoolNet Namibia that was commissioned by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and carried out in late 2003. ...

About SchoolNet Namibia

SchoolNet Namibia was established in February 2000 to empower youth through the Internet. Its main objective is to provide sustainable low-cost technology solutions for Internet to all Namibian schools. What does it do? In late 2003, the following main roles and tasks were carried out.

Connect schools to the Internet

In 2002, SchoolNet set up its own Internet Service Provider (ISP) hosted at the Polytechnic of Namibia. Schools gain access in two main ways dial-up over phones using a modem, or via wireless. For poorer schools, the phone access is subsidised using funds from Sida. Under a new agreement, these tasks will largely move to Telecom Namibia which guarantees fixed access rates for all schools, irrespective how they connect.

Acquiring computers and equipment

SchoolNet Namibia provides refurbished computers to schools. Increasingly, SchoolNet buys multiples of standard refurbished computers instead of relying on "trick or treat" containers of mixed equipment that require a lot of work before they can be used. Building, installing, maintaining computer labs

Most schools get an Internet-connected computer laboratory. Configurations differ according to the local situation. The current package is the open source OpenLab application (which includes a bundle of educational content). Most schools still use older Linux (Suse 7.3+) solutions, some "fatclient" labs contain computers with some Microsoft and Macintosh operating systems and usually a Linux server. Until recently, all installation and support was provided from Windhoek. A depot in northern Namibia now provides local support.

Addressing technical queries

Most teachers and learners are computer beginners and they cannot troubleshoot and fix technical problems. When they encounter a problem, they call a toll-free telephone number to register the problem, receive immediate advice, or to arrange for a technician to visit.

Connecting schools to power

SchoolNet Namibia aims to ensure that any school can participate in the programme. This includes schools off the power grid. So far, SchoolNet has provided solar power sufficient for a computer lab in six schools, two of which also access the Internet by wireless.

Strengthening ICT skills and capacities

Local skills are essential if the labs and connectivity are to be used. Some initial training is provided to selected teachers and learners at installation.

SchoolNet also provides ICT learning opportunities to street kids, usually unemployed and with little formal education. Through training and mentoring, they become ICT literate. Many become SchoolNet ICT volunteers and work for a while in schools. Thereafter, some continue working in their schools, some join the staff of SchoolNet; most use their ICT skills to get a job. SchoolNet also sponsors web-based competitions for school teams to produce their own content.

Delivering educational and web content

SchoolNet mainly focuses on connectivity and computers. On the back of these, demands are growing for more content applications beyond games for learners and teachers. In 2003, SchoolNet joined with Direqlearn to include some educational content in new OpenLab 2 installations.

An agreement with the Government's National Institute for Educational Development makes it possible to also include their local educational materials for teachers in the bundle.

Influencing wider policies

In partnerships with Government, the private sector, and others, SchoolNet tests and demonstrates new technologies and new ICT access models.

Results

What has SchoolNet Namibia achieved? In just over two years, it launched an ISP, connected around 120 schools and many other educational groups to the Internet, and set up computer laboratories in these schools. It has also shown how these can be done in rural areas where there are neither telephone lines nor connections to the power grid.

It has pioneered affordable strategies and solutions for schools. Its models combine low-cost refurbished computers, open source operating systems and software applications, discounted access to the Internet, and the offer of ICT volunteers to provide basic ICT support after set up and installation.

It has begun to tackle the lack of ICT skills in Namibia and in Namibian schools. Through mentoring and training, young people have gained computer-related skills that help them to get jobs. In the schools, the pool of ICT-aware teachers and learners has also grown, and these individuals are starting to use computers and the Internet in both their daily lives and in the classroom.

Finally, SchoolNet has become a test bed for technical solutions that challenge more widely used proprietary operating systems. In particular, it offers alternatives that may be more sustainable over time, given limited local funding for ICTs in schools. Beyond technologies, innovative joint ventures and partnerships suggest ways that all disadvantaged schools can begin to use the new ICTs.

Key elements in the approach

Probably the most important feature of the SchoolNet Namibia approach is the focus on affordability providing solutions that will ultimately be within the budgets of all Namibian schools. For cash-strapped schools, it is essential that they can afford, in the future as well as now, their ICT infrastructure and applications. By focusing on affordability and longer-term costs of ownership, schools can avoid some of the dangers of the 'free' market in which, for example, donated computers are more costly than expected. Donated 'free' computers that need licenses to be legal can result in large unanticipated costs.

...

Lessons

What can be learned from this experience? As well as the many achievements, SchoolNet Namibia faces many challenges and issues. After only a few years operating, it would be arrogant and impossible to propose any 'best' practices. Instead, we list some aspects of its experience that may assist others in developing activities in this area.

  1. Sustainability in schools is closely linked to the affordability of the ICTs. To be affordable, it is not enough to provide cheap or free computers and connectivity, the wider costs of ownership now and in the future need to be known.
  2. From a 'supply' perspective, ICTs can be made more affordable, and thus accessible to schools. These include the use of volunteers, refurbished computers, open source operating systems, and providing discounted or free connectivity.
  3. However, a well-informed 'demand' from schools and the wider education system is necessary to ensure that ICTs are sustained in schools. Principals and teachers need to understand the wider potentials of the ICTs and to take ownership of them. This is much more than just becoming computer-literate.
  4. Providing an affordable and open ICT platform in schools is essential. Getting it used is quite another challenge. It requires commitment from the school and probably the involvement of specialised partners in areas like e-learning or content development.
  5. The government has a vital role in this area. Since ICT developments in and around schools often move much faster than ministries are able to determine policy and standards, it is vital that the various actors communicate effectively and work towards common goals and priorities.
  6. The schools are key stakeholders and partners in this type of exercise. Their active involvement in the programme should result in dividends in the future. Seeing them as 'beneficiaries' may miss out on opportunities for the sustainability of ICTs in both schools and of a 'schoolnet.'
  7. There is a tension between installing ICTs in new schools and supporting ICTs in partner schools. Since many schools do not have in-house ICT expertise, the technical support challenge can grow substantially. Without good support, schools and other actors may become disenchanted with the whole programme.
  8. Some tasks, such as providing and supporting Internet access, can be delivered through partnerships with specialised agencies. Getting the attention of the prospective partner requires that the feasibility of the 'market' is tried and tested, that enough credibility is built up, and that a political demand is created.
  9. Ultimately, a schoolnet may see its core tasks evolve from the implementation of technical tasks to a situation where, through partnerships, it enables and mobilises the efforts of others, directing them towards shared goals.
  10. ICTs can contribute to the quality of education in schools. Through schools, they can also contribute to informal and lifelong education and the general empowerment of youth and communities....
  11. The capacities required to make effective use of ICTs in schools should not be under-estimated, nor restricted to technical skills. A wider understanding of ICT potentials by teachers and administrators is also essential.

More information

This infobrief was prepared by Peter Ballantyne as part of a review of SchoolNet Namibia commissioned by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). ...

The full evaluation report is available from
http://www.sida.se/publications or via http://www.eldis.org/ict/.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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