Reaching Africa’s remotest

infraThe development of Africa’s communications infrastructure reflects many of the complexities inherent in the situation of the Continent. Any examination of it must deal with matters of scale: the Internet is a fractal network spread over vast and minute distances, linking landmasses, countries, towns, villages and people across the world. On the continental level, there are the
satellites and the undersea cables which, since 2008, have connected most of the coastal states, and many of the landlocked ones. However, a connection to one of these cables, while hugely beneficial to a country on an economic and political level, is no guarantee of Internet for all: and it is in the diverse ways individuals connect to the Internet that we see the richness of “local innovation” that has been identified as a key topic for this year’s eLearning Africa conference.

By Alasdair MacKinnon

Turbulent developments have hit the east coast in recent weeks: events which demonstrate at a stroke the fragility, but also the potential, of the existing Internet infrastructure. SEACOM, the majority African-owned undersea fibre company that supplies broadband to East Africa, has been dogged by a series of cable breaks off the coast of Egypt and in the Mediterranean with multiple cuts bringing outages and congestion to the entire seaboard last month. The exact sequence of events is too long to narrate, and their causes are not yet clear; while SEACOM described the possibility of deliberate intervention as unlikely, reports came in from Egypt that three divers had been arrested while sabotaging the Telecom Egypt cable – their motive remains unknown. This catalogue of incidents unfortunately came soon after the announcement, by SEACOM, that it was planning a wide-ranging upgrade of its Southern and Eastern networks to support the boom in African connectivity services.

This sudden expansion in east African infrastructure, whose resilience has been sorely tested, is being spearheaded by Kenya. The Kenyan government, whose $4tr investment in undersea cables since 1999 helped bring the country to the forefront of the digital revolution, published its national ICT master plan in mid-February this year. “Connected Kenya 2017” is an ambitious undertaking seeking to establish Kenya as a leader of the knowledge-based economy. The plan is structured on three key pillars: the development of businesses, the strengthening of ICT as a driver of industry and commerce, and the enhancement of public value. By dividing out their goals into these strands, the project leaders clearly recognise the issues of scale involved in infrastructure development.

Alongside proposals for new legislation and large business developments – such as the building of the Konza Technology City, “a sustainable world-class technology hub with a vibrant mix of businesses, residents, and urban amenities” – the government also intends to connect over 90% of Kenyan society through Internet-based health, education, agriculture and social initiatives. “Education is the foundation of knowledge for all”, the report states; it is through personal access to public amenities that it hopes to include all citizens in its growth and development plans.

Increasing Internet penetration to such a level requires the provision of last-mile connectivity: the linking of scattered individuals, rural populations and remote settlements across Africa to the cables which have reached its ports and capitals. This is an entirely different endeavour to that of laying and maintaining the intercontinental connections themselves, and one which requires the solution of local problems in innovative ways.

Some of the most interesting ways people access the Internet do not involve direct connectivity at all. In 2005 a UNESCO report by Jean-Michel Cornu, scientific director of the Next Generation Internet Foundation, uncovered some of them in a close-up look “at who Africa’s Internet users are, or more precisely, [those] on whom the Internet has an impact“. In remote villages in Burkina Faso, for example, email couriers operate – a driver going into the city will take messages from the villagers to be sent from an Internet café, bringing back printed replies upon his return.

An even more far-reaching system of information dissemination, and one which overcomes the problems of illiteracy and language barriers, is the RANET system (Radio and Internet for the Communication of Hydro-Meteorological and Climate Related Information). Weather information from co-operating offices is collated by satellite, allowing meteorologists to give more accurate continental weather forecasts; the same satellite, equipped to broadcast radio, then distributes this information to local radio stations, where it is selectively translated and transmitted to farmers in the local language, who listen in on solar-powered or wind-up radios.

That the solar-powered radio should have become a farmer’s network connection is remarkable. But since the time the report was written solar power has become one of the major tools for providing Internet access in places not connected to the power grid. Across rural Uganda, UNICEF has installed 50 of its digital drum units, solar powered computers loaded with educational content and constructed for durability out of metal oil drums. There are mobile solar clinics and solar schools touring South Africa, and, in the township of Alexandra, an entirely solar-powered Internet café, offering free access to students and subsidised prices to adults, even during the frequent and long-lasting power-cuts. Established by South African entrepreneur Peter Graham, the shop is housed in a converted shipping container, making it not only independent of the grid, but also mobile.

Benefiting from the enhancements brought by ever improving international connections, it is these local innovations – using readily available materials and sustainable energy – that are the really exciting developments in African infrastructure.

To help its participants stay on top in the ever-changing world of infrastructure and innovation, eLearning Africa offers several talks on subjects related to it, under the overall title of New Hues for Connectivity Blues. From the e-Schools Network in South Africa, Jenny King will talk on the introduction of high-speed broadband into rural, underserviced schools, Getaneh Woldeyesus Woldemariam of the Addis Ababa University Institute for Peace and Security Studies will deliver a presentation on Moodle and its use in areas where Internet connectivity is, in his words, a “pain in the head”.

More information on these talks, and on the rest of the conference, is available on the eLearning Africa website.

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