Prof. Madara Ogot Discusses NRENs and What They Should Expect From UbuntuNet Alliance in an Interview With GÉANT.

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In an interview held by Silvia Fiore of GÉANT, the UbuntuNet Alliance CEO was able to give an insight into the plans and initiatives that the organization intends to carry out in the future. Here are some of the questions that Prof. Madara Ogot was asked along with his responses.

Prof. Ogot, you have an impressive portfolio of experience of almost 30 years in the African academic world, but also more globally in the advisory boards of several international academic institutions. Over these years, how have you seen African NRENs  evolve and bring benefit to the continent’s institutions and learners?

Coming from a background in academics, I have seen first-hand that faculty and staff at universities very often have no idea that regional and national R&E networks exist. They are familiar with the services that are provided within the institutions but do not know where they are coming from. Let me give you an example: one of the difficulties that universities have had throughout the years is in the area of journals. Going back to a few years ago, most African universities were still ordering print journals, libraries were running out of space to put those journals, and the journals themselves were expensive. Now, articles and papers are all available and downloadable online and hence very few people still buy printed journals. What universities and students do not know is this is only possible because the NRENs exist, and they are the reason they can access online resources relatively easily.

So, I would argue that the existence and development of the NRENs are contributing to a tremendous transformation of R&E institutions by substantially helping university students and staff enrich their research and their teaching and learning experience.

Working at the University of Nairobi as well as at other African academic institutions, you have always been in contact with students. Can you share with us an example of how tangibly African NRENs have impacted the institutions and the students you have engaged and worked with?

Let’s start by making a distinction between postgraduate and undergraduate students, as their needs are fundamentally different within the academic setting. Most of postgraduate students are now able to access educational resources and research anywhere thanks to the NRENs and their work towards the digitalisation of libraries. When I was doing my PhD, I had to go physically to the library to look up books and I did not always find what I was looking for! Now, you can read research from anywhere, on campus or at home! For undergraduate students the most significant change that NRENs have brought is the administration of their universities. In most institutions, students are able to login on their university’s portal, register for their courses, see their grades, and do a lot more! All of this was not possible just a few years ago. You had to walk to the admin office and line up to get what you wanted. These are just two simple examples of what the NRENs have made possible across the African continent, starting with enabling universities to get more affordable connectivity, and user-dedicated engineering assistance for their networks.

Earlier this year, you were appointed Chief Executive Officer of the UbuntuNet Alliance, the regional R&E network for Eastern and Southern Africa. How do you see your new role in the region?

When I joined the UbuntuNet Alliance in 2022, I was not new to the community. I am coming from the consumer world, a university. One of the elements that have been advocated in the region is that R&E networks need to start off by having the needs of the consumer in mind. We know that providing affordable, high-speed and reliable connectivity is a given, so we must focus on what more we can do: what applications and services will we make available on the network we provide?

I am very passionate about the idea that with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of the regional and national networks become ever more evident. For the past two years, around 95% of our network traffic was incoming. This means that there was not a lot of content created and shared within the continent, but our students and leaners were seeking it from outside Africa.

We have made this a priority at the UbuntuNet Alliance, to help institutions regionally and locally to create more content that can be provided on the network that we built.

From your point of view, what does it mean for the UbuntuNet Alliance to be part of the global R&E community?

To us, it means being able to access and work with researchers from around the world. And by work, I mean co-create, co-develop, co-author, co-everything! To some extent, regional R&E networks have been glorified data collectors in the continent, using the network to collect and move large volumes of data, but then the data analysis happens outside the continent because we lack the tools to do so. The hardware and the network are present across the continent, so why can’t we have the tools too? We need to advocate for global collaborations more than unilateral work.

Can you tell us in a nutshell what your region, but also the wider African R&E community, should expect from your upcoming work? What are your priorities for the near future?

Our number one priority this year is to upgrade our network to 10Gbps  minimum and potentially to 20Gbps in the next few years. At the moment, our network is at maximum capacity, which is insufficient to the needs of the region, and we have not even connected all the countries!

We also want to create content in collaboration with our partners and members. We are already working on Utafiti Africa, a project which is up and running and aims at providing funding opportunities, free of charge, and relevant to research on the continent. We are also partnering with the Association of African Universities to change the way journals are published and papers are presented. Now, if you are a researcher and have sent your paper to a publishing platform, you will need to pay to access it or make it freely available. Instead, our concept will distribute the costs among universities and access to papers will be completely free to the authors, the students, and the researchers. Finally, we are also looking to set up a Kindle-like platform for available African textbooks. The UA will pay for the licenses upfront and then make them freely accessible to students, while the institutions will pay a nominal subscription. This will be game-changing as now African universities fully rely on the lecturers due to the lack of accessible and affordable textbooks for the students.

The roles and scope of NRENs are constantly expanding across the African continent, where the community’s needs and the technological trends are ever evolving. How do you imagine African NRENs progressing in 10 years from now?

My take has always been that, at the academic level, the African continent is still trying to address very basic needs, in comparison to the Western world. In this context, I see the regional and national networks as crucial actors committed to addressing their needs and a lot of this is being done through content-based collaboration. Without innovative content solutions and applications, an NREN is just another ISP providing connectivity, hence the urgent need to help institutions create content by providing them with platforms which enable them to do just that.

Let’s think outside the box for a moment: imagine for example that for every student around the world it is an academic requirement to take a basic course in economics for example and these courses are all taught face-to-face. Why not develop this together and offer it in a blended format? RENs and NRENs can create platforms where these courses can be freely accessible to their members. This would enable institutions to free up resources to invest in other projects. This is what I envision NRENs doing in 10 years from now. Today, we are stuck with the model of universities that has been there for centuries, and nobody says it cannot be shifted a little bit to make room for improvement.

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