The very end of the beginning: Margaret moves on

By Margaret Ngwira

When we close for the Christmas recess, I end my time with UbuntuNet Alliance.  It is with satisfaction that I go, believing that it is the right time and that this is the very end of the beginning of the Alliance.  Looking back over the timeline to 2005, a remarkable amount was achieved.  A series of events, almost nine years ago, enabled the launch of UbuntuNet Alliance.  First  the Association of African Universities (AAU) Conference of Rectors, Vice Chancellors and Presidents of African Universities (COREVIP) held in Cape Town in February 2005 where an  ICT Task Force was informally established.  I first met Professor Bjorn Pehrson there, at the time when I was feeling great relief at the launch of the Malawi Library and Information Consortium (MALICO) VSAT network two weeks earlier.  Bjorn discussed how the unrolling fibre infrastructure, particularly the forthcoming (East African Submarine System (EASSy) fibre cable could have a huge impact beyond VSATs.

Next was the Open Access Conference in Maputo in May 2005 which gave rise to the search for terrestrial optical fibre commissioned by Southern Africa Regional Universities Association (SARUA), an initiative popularly known as the ‘SARUA Fibre Study’ and the involvement of teams in emerging NRENs that were setting up of national  Internet Exchange Points (IXPs).  There followed a meeting held in Johannesburg in August under the auspices of SARUA where three of the founding Directors were present, Americo Muchanga, Duncan Martin and myself and  the strands began to come together for a regional research and education network for Sub Saharan Africa.  Also present were Steve Song and Heloise Emdon of IDRC, Lishan Adam Bjorn Pehrson and several others.  IDRC made a very significant contribution in organizational and financial terms at the very beginning that must be acknowledged with gratitude.  DANTA – Delivery of Advanced Network Technology for Africa was the name under which the embryonic organization first resided. However it was much more accurately named UbuntuNet Alliance at the Fall Internet2 Conference in Philadelphia in September 2005 reflecting the defining African perception and perspective that the community aspect was conjoined with the technological.  Present then were Duncan Martin, Victor Kyalo, Tusu , Anthony Muyepa  and Don Riley.

On to WSIS in Tunis in November 2005 where the five founding directors all came together for the first time: Albert, Americo, Duncan, Victor and myself.  In addition to a great deal of networking including the first meeting with Carmen Mena-Abela of the European Comnission on the possible AfricaConnect project, we worked on a draft constitution and UbuntuNet Alliance became a tangible entity with 5 founding member NRENs.   In the tough early days where there were few resources, many questions and no clear answers, Victor Kyalo would say with confidence “UbuntuNet Alliance was meant to be!”  How right Victor was.  Over the next few years, the coming of Professor Zimani Kadzamira as the first Chair,  the clarity of the vision of Tusu as CEO, the establishment of the Lilongwe office here with my terrific hard working colleagues, the work on the AfricaConnect implementation with Cathrin Stover, the FP7 projects, were so many steps to maturity.  More recently the recruitment of Joe Kimaili as Technical Manager – the ace has never let up.

Now with 14 member NRENs, an operational network,  the fourth Board of Directors in place, six successful audits, 3rd Strategic Plan, six annual conferences, well developed procedures, a large measure of sustainability, a distinctive identity and a cohesive community of members and friends, the pioneering phase is over and I leave very cheerfully.   For me it has been such a rewarding and amazing period at the close of a long career. I have enjoyed every part of it and often have been inspired. I have made wonderful friends with whom I hope to stay in contact.

I know that over the years sometimes I have been rather carried away in my enthusiasm and singleness of vision and not seen the other point of view. Forty five years in hyper-courteous Malawi has not blunted my Scottish directness!  I do apologise to those on whose toes I may have trodden.  I will continue reading NUANCE and I await with bated breath the transformation in education and research and other areas for our deserving young people and scientists and other practitioners in our membership region that UbuntuNet Alliance and its members will usher in!

Serengeti Broadband Network transforming lives in Tanzania

Lives of people living in the northern part of Tanzania are being transformed for the better. Thanks to the Serengeti Broadband Network (SBN), a project which has helped the community to have Internet services at a low cost. Through the project, introduced some five years ago, people are now able to use Voice over Ip (VoIP), access the world wide web including emails and download information on health and education. Now the project is working on e-health and e-learning applications.

The project was executed via the “Learning by Doing Model” where majority of the work was done by MSc students, either in the System Design Course at KTH in Sweden, or as part of their theses work. It started as an infrastructure network, using wireless technology to extend the existing optic fibre network owned by the power utility company, Tanzania Electric Supply Company Limited (TANESCO) to connect schools, Health centers and local government. Initial funding was for  4 years. Funding came from different organizations: Sida (Swedish International Development Agency), supported the infrastructure as well as capacity development for one PhD and eight MSc students were sponsored. Partners on the ground were the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Dar Es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) and Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH).

The Manager of the project, Dr Amos Nungu of Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology, who is also the CEO of TERNET the Tanzanian NREN said, “Serengeti Broadband Network project was conceived with an aim ofimproving people’s living conditions by promoting efficient service delivery in education, health and governance. Today we see one of the sites is using the internet to find information on the use of drugs and medicines.”

Being a rural and remote area without proper infrastructure such as stable power supply and majority of the community is poor, commercial providers do not see the benefit/profit for their investment. In this case the SBN project is filling the gap.  The Government has shown interest to use the pilot sites as models for extending the national backbone into other municipalities. For the future, discussions are underway to organize similar pilots in other parts of Africa.

High-speed Internet links for research and education in Afghanistan announced

Despite the media spotlight on the progress and challenges of the peace process and reconstruction in Afghanistan, a series of Internet network initiatives are quietly underway that are transforming education and research within the country.

Jointly funded by NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Programme and the U.S. Department of State, the SILK-Afghanistan project currently connects 18 Afghan universities which will benefit further from a national fibre optic network programme currently under construction.  A new organisation, AfgREN, is being set up to manage a dedicated national research and education network (NREN) for the country, a model successfully proven around the world.

This article was published by GÉANT a pan-European research and education network that interconnects Europe’s National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) and the full article can be accessed here.

Image courtesy of NATO

Cloud computing key to improving literacy in Africa

By Camila Ruz

There is enough choice in the TPH Bookshop in downtown Dar es Salaam to confuse even the regular customers. Books in both English and Swahili jostle for space on the display tables and the shelves are stacked with textbooks on every subject from semi-conductive systems to clinical dentistry. But bewildering as the variety might seem, there are at least plenty of titles to choose from.

Outside of the traffic of Tanzania’s major cities, however, the choice can be more limited. “Getting the books out there is hard, it automatically means that people are going to be reading less,” says Sophie Lafayette, who works for a local publishing company. Sending books away from the city means transporting bulky boxes by road, which is rarely economical for publishers.

Going digital could help solve the distribution problem, but tablets have low penetration in Africa. In fact, with three quarters of the world’s 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions found in developing countries, it is the humble mobile phone that has the potential to become the world’s most popular e-reader.

A book app launched by Worldreader, an education and literacy charity, is trying to access this potential. The app contains thousands of free books, from romance novels to mathematics textbooks. But rather than running on the latest smartphone, it is designed for the feature phones and overcrowded 2G networks of much of Sub-Saharan Africa. The app can be accessed through biNu, a free mobile software platform that gives users access to cloud-based internet services and apps.

Moving as much of the processing to the cloud’s servers, rather than on the phone, allows biNu to work at a speed which the company claims is ten times faster than regular mobile web browsers. After rendering graphics and text on the cloud, the data is sent back over the network as tiny images. Each image contains instructions of where it should go on the screen and the complete mosaic comes through to the phone as only one or two packets of data of up to one kilobyte each. Information is never sent twice, as the servers remember what has been sent before and provide only the new instructions needed to change the content on the screen. Sending the data as images also has the advantage of allowing the text to be displayed in any language, regardless of what the phone was programmed to handle.

This article was published by iSGTW.

Image courtesy Erik Hersman

Taking stock on eInfrastructures and NRENs in Addis

In common with IST-Africa, the Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT is a conference where you network with  people involved in ICT issues from all  disciplines  across Africa and Europe. Normally, issues discussed range from ICT innovation to policy. This year, the forum was held at the African Union Conference Center in the heart of Addis Ababa , the political capital of Africa. The theme was “Teaming up for strengthened and coordinated approach to foster Euro-African cooperation on ICT innovation.”

Giving the keynote address to the forum, Tusu, the CEO of the Alliance presented new opportunities that are availing themselves to the research and education community in Africa as the regional Network co-funded by the European Union and beneficiary NRENs, UbuntuNet ,is rolling out. He presented the challenges facing the African research community and emphasized the need for African researchers to work together in teams because research has gone global and collaboration is the norm.

The two full days were rich in exciting and engaging presentations and discussions on issues of ICT innovation, entrepreneurship, technology transfer, joint Africa-EU ICT research.  There were parallel sessions on ICT for learning & education; ICT infrastructures & NRENs; ICT for government services; ICT for Agriculture; ICT for environmental sustainability & energy; ICT for health; cyber security; mobile applications and many more.

Networking conferences like these always present a great opportunity to meet and greet and take stock of progress made in the various initiatives. Of particular importance to the NREN community was the ICT infrastructures & NREN session, which was chaired by Professor Bjorn of KTH and Siju Mammen of SANReN. The session attracted the largest  number of participants. The UbuntuNet network, financed within the framework of AfricaConnect, was discussed including prospects of a second phase of the project. Beyond that, the work of developing certification Authorities and Identitity Federations was also presented and their roles were emphasized.

The 2013 Africa-EU cooperation Forum on ICT was the 6th annual conference organized by the EuroAfrica-ICT initiative. Last year the forum was held in Lisbon, Portugal where the AfricaConnect project was launched in Europe following a similar community launch in Dar es Salaam weeks earlier.

Rest in  Peace Tata Madiba

The year 2013 has ended on a reflective note as we look back on the massive inspiration and contribution of Nelson Mandela; the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa, the gallant son of Africa and world. Tata, the father of nation, died at the age of 95 on the 5th December 2013.  After the news was released about the death of the Tata Madiba, messages started flowing through the UbuntuNet community. Below are some of them.

Professor John Ssebuwufu, the newly appointed Chairperson of UbuntuNet Alliance said, “It is right and fitting we pay tribute to him who I can describe as a freedom fighter and true lover of humanity regardless. Mischievous death has robbed us of an irreplaceable icon. He was incredible, simply the best. Let the father of the rainbow nation rest in perfect peace.”.

“He was an inspirational leader whose impact and legacy will live on, a giant in Africa and the world and debunked the myth that African leaders are by nature corrupt or unethical. The best way to celebrate his life is simply to follow his example of leadership humble, ethical, and respectful of all and yet doggedly firm in his convictions,” wrote  Meoli Kashorda, the Chief Executive Office of Kenya Education Network (KENET).

“Nelson Mandela was an inspirational leader whose impact and legacy will live on. I have been following his twitter account for months. It’s full of inspirational quotes that I always find very useful, not only for me as African, but for the whole humanity. He was the voice of voiceless and a great leader who demanded freedom without war,” commented Iman Abuel Maaly, the CEO of the Sudanese NREN, SudREN.

Cathrin Stover,  Chief International Relations and Communications Officer of DANTE & Project Manager of AfricaConnect said, “Mandela was present in Europe as no African leader has ever been present; he became part of our lives and education and a regular positive influence. A leader to look up to, standing for humanity, integrity and compassion. With a personal humility which left no one untouched. He spread hope and optimism. And he never let go of his convictions. For this he was admired. He taught the world a lesson that we must ensure is not ever forgotten, I will not forget.”

“It is indeed a sad day, and it has been truly humbling and inspiring to see just how much impact Nelson Mandela had on the world at large. Having also grown up in the Eastern Cape I have many memories of the late 80s and early 90s when I was still so young, and it gives me a true perspective of just how much Mandela did, because without his calming influence who knows where South Africa would be today,” said Andrew Alston, Head of IP Strategy at Liquid Telecommunications Ltd.
“Nelson Mandela is dead, but the inspiration he has been to many of us in this region and around the world lives on.  We can honour him in only one way: rededicating ourselves to achieving the African renaissance and, in our different areas of work, never letting go of both the African dream and the racial harmony he espoused, so that our continent can look back at our times with pride. We join the people of South Africa in celebrating his life,” said Tusu, CEO of the Alliance.

 

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