New technologies support collaborative education and research

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By Dr Boubakar Barry

The world is interdependent. We have known it for some time. But with COVID-19, we are now experiencing it. We also know that addressing global challenges requires us to work together.

New technologies ignore borders and can connect the world’s brightest minds to collaborate and accelerate research, drive innovation and enrich education. But, without access to new technologies, African researchers, professors and students could be left out. Africa has not been a significant contributor and user of world research and innovation. Statistics by UNESCO shows that Africa contributes to less than 2% of the world’s research output and has only 91 researchers per million people compared to 4272 for North America and Western Europe. This is largely due to low Internet penetration caused by lack of connectivity; and where there is connectivity, it is usually unaffordable.

That is why AfricaConnect presents a great promise for a more collaborative approach among African research and education communities. It does not only establish high-speed networks to interconnect universities, colleges and research centers across Africa, but also deploys a wide range of services that allow instructors, scientists and students to seamlessly access a wealth of invaluable education and research resources. These include cloud technologies, high performance computing, digital repositories, online libraries, and ODeL (Open and Distance eLearning) as a means for disruptive access to higher education.

The potential of AfricaConnect cannot be overestimated. Africa hosts 38 National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) accounting for around a third of the world’s total. Each NREN serves the ICT needs of its national research and education communities. At an upper level, NRENs are interconnected through regional networks to make up part of the global fabric of research and education networks.

As CEO of WACREN, the regional Research and Education network for West and Central Africa, I work closely with my counterparts in our sister organisations covering North Africa (ASREN) and East and Southern Africa (UbuntuNet Alliance). Together, we implement the AfricaConnect project and, as of today, we connect 6.2 million researchers and students in North Africa, 3.5 million in Eastern and Southern Africa, and over 400,000 in Ghana and Nigeria.

By establishing secure and affordable high-speed network infrastructures, we have helped our members enhance their academic and research services. In Zambia, AfricaConnect has contributed to decreasing bandwidth prices by 94%, thereby accelerating data intensive modelling and mapping to monitor soil degradation and to develop sustainable land management. In Egypt, it enabled scientists to quickly monitor and notify asthma sufferers of sandstorms.

Over the last months, it has also proved critical in the COVID-19 context. In Somalia, as the Ministry of Education, Culture and Higher Education suspended all classes to help contain the pandemic, the Somali NREN (SomaliREN) stepped in and deployed a platform that enabled 11 of its member universities to deliver their classes online. Through the Women-In-WACREN initiative, we have also enhanced the engagement and the skills of women in STEM.

We are therefore proud to provide our members with world-class network infrastructures and dedicated services that facilitate seamless access to a variety of computational resources and tools. By doing so, we strive to make a meaningful contribution to the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Over the years, we have realised however that the task and the needs are huge. More efforts to increase advocacy and raise awareness are key to facilitate policy support and stakeholder engagement in R&E in the long term. Participating in the 2020 Paris Peace Forum is therefore a unique opportunity that we will gladly seize.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

Dr. Boubakar Barry is the CEO of WACREN. He holds a PhD in Nuclear Electronics and a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Physics from the Technical University of Dresden, Germany. He is currently the Coordinator of the Research and Education Networking Unit (RENU) at the Association of African Universities in Ghana, which has largely contributed to the emergence of National and Regional Research and Education Networks in Africa. He is also a Lecturer of Computer Networks and Electronics at the Faculty of Science and Technology at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar (UCAD), and Chairman of the Network Information Center (NIC) of Senegal.

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