Interview by Silvia Fiore, GÉANT
For the 10th anniversary of the AfricaConnect project, we interview Cathrin Stöver, Chief Communications Officer at GÉANT and F. F. “Tusu” Tusubira, former CEO of the Ubuntunet Alliance.
Cathrin and Tusu played an instrumental role to get AfricaConnect off the ground together with representatives from the former European Commission’s Directorate General Information Society and Media (now Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology) and the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation.Back in 2011, AfricaConnect set out as a recipe for the continent’s transformation. Cathrin, Tusu, can you tell us why we needed it?
More than the recipe, it was an essential ingredient! I’ll leave it for Tusu to mention UbuntuNet Alliance’s history, but it is important to understand that projects like AfricaConnect don’t just appear. The conversation between the African partners, GÉANT (at that time still called DANTE) and the European Commission started around 2005/6, when GÉANT’s global connectivity map became busier every year. We were connecting Latin America and Asia, but in Africa we only had connectivity to the South African partner SANREN/TENET and North African National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) via EUMEDCONNECT. So, a dialogue started to improve the situation for sub-Saharan Africa. By 2011, the UbuntuNet Alliance was already flourishing and several East African NRENs had negotiated connectivity on the submarine cable systems that were launched in these years on the African East coast.
“Tusu said it very correctly at the time: it was the right moment for NRENs in Africa. The generous funding received through AfricaConnect was simply an accelerator.”
Cathrin has said it right. It has always been my personal conviction that sustainable success must be driven by a fire within, not heat from outside. The UbuntuNet Alliance started before AfricaConnect, before 2011. We had a POP, with equipment donated by Cisco, hosted at no cost by DANTE in their LINX cage in London. Our mantra at the time was that the Alliance would succeed regardless of whether we received external support or not, but that such support would make the job much easier. AfricaConnect made the job easier – much, much easier, and for that, we extend appreciation to the people of Europe.In 2011 would you have ever imagined that 10 years later, AfricaConnect, thanks to its partner NRENs and their infrastructures and services, would have brought lasting changes to the community and made things like remote surgical support and WiFi connection at a bus stop a matter of daily routine?
My answer is: Yes! I had project managed the Latin American ALICE project between 2003 and 2008 and the one thing that I learnt during those years is that projects are all about people. Dedicated people, let’s call them champions, make the difference. When you add to that a common purpose success will come. We had a lot of champions with endless dedication and commitment in AfricaConnect.
It is always the visualisation of the end that makes current barriers surmountable. That visualisation creates the internal fire, the energy that recognises no obstacles. A mother sees their baby as a grown up, married, with children, before the baby can even walk. The lasting change we saw and still see is “one more hill” away, but will certainly be achieved: parity with the rest of the world in intellectual output and development impact. AfricaConnect is the high-speed vehicle in which we are now traveling, but that vehicle does not define us. It will take us to a point, and from there the journey must continue.We often hear that NRENs face challenges in bringing awareness of their role to the end users and institutions. Can you tell us more about what these challenges are for Africa and how does the AfricaConnect project help in this regard?
This is a challenge for NRENs around the world, so my answer would be a general one. NRENs provide essential infrastructure and they deliver reliable services. They build, operate, upgrade and maintain these infrastructures year on year. This requires a constant source of funding. But very often, connectivity, as it can happen to any other infrastructure is taken for granted and overlooked. So, there is a need to continuously show the impact – at GÉANT, we tell these stories on our impact.geant.org site.
Indeed, they do. The challenge is both internal and external. The internal challenge is that NRENs are peopled by very smart engineers, programmers, and techies of all sorts who speak a different language from the rest of the world, and they cannot understand why policy makers cannot see the obvious. The external challenge is that those who need to use the vehicles provided by technology think those vehicles are the business of engineers. Communication experts have started, at last, entering the picture, and they are able communicate across the groups. While this has made a big difference, the conversation is still the same. We have to rethink: what is it about the mobile phone that has made it a mass sell that RENs do not have?Key to the success of the project has been its collaboration feature, especially the financial and strategic contribution from the European Union. How do you see this partnership benefitting the African research and education communities? What has it meant to be partnering with the EU for 10 years?
I would rather say that the key success factors have been people and relationships first, followed by mutual benefit. How people get along can make or unmake an initiative, regardless of funding. Relationships create trust. Trust lubricates the engine and enables rapid progress. When I look down the path of history of AfricaConnect up now (I have remained in touch), I can see speed and progress where trust has been high, and challenges and slow-down where it has been low.
All the early years of the Alliance and the first phase of AfricaConnect is what I have directly experienced: trust and goodwill were core. There was trust among the African partners. In Cathrin, we found a friend who was willing to listen and learn to understand us, while advising and guiding and bringing on board her experience. She was our advocate at the European Commission and really took a chance by literally betting her career on us and what we believed. The second is mutual benefit: once this is removed, the relationship dynamic changes, and the relationship is lost. Even if one party is contributing more funding (the European Commission in this case), it must still be approached as a partnership. The African NREN partners may contribute only say 20%, but that is very significant portion of their income.
You are both well-established figures in the R&E networking community with over 40 years of experience combined. What keeps you motivated to work alongside NRENs?
“This is a partnership for development that benefits Africa, Europe, and the world.”
Clearly the people in the global community and their ongoing commitment. NRENs around the world support global research, education, innovation and the sharing of knowledge. It is clear to me that as humans we have to work together around the world to tackle the challenges we are faced with. NRENs provide the essential infrastructure and the access and thus facilitate the collaboration. That’s good enough for me.
First, I must admit I have always been excited about change for the better, and I always see endless possibilities. My continuing driving interest is however a complete transformation and modernisation of research, and education at all levels, in my country, in Africa so that we have a sustainable platform for addressing poverty and its multiple heads (I am heavily involved in Rotary and working with communities). RENs are really not about research and educations institutions: those are just vehicles to generate solutions to the challenges people and the planet face at all levels. Like Cathrin says, that’s good enough for me!When in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, NRENs demonstrated how fundamental they are in supporting online learning for higher education institutions in Africa. They stepped up to offer to their member institutions video-conferencing tools, discounted bundles, wi-fi connection outside university’s campuses, among many other advantageous services for students and researchers. How do you think that the NRENs and the wider project should use this momentum to better establish themselves and deliver innovative solutions?
Something exciting indeed did emerge out of the COVID-19 lockdowns: a realisation at all levels nationally and internationally, including development agencies, of just how important connectivity was as a vehicle for social services – health, education, social welfare. Lockdowns meant that campuses lost their physical boundaries, and that main connectivity was idle on campuses. This was an opportunity for NRENs that were responsive to change. NRENs like TENET in South Africa, MoRENet in Mozambique, KENET in Kenya, and RENU in Uganda, extended connectivity nationally through zero-rated WiFi hotspots or access to mobile networks for those accessing learning and online resources through eduroam. In Uganda, RENU, working with the regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission, started rolling out connectivity to secondary schools, with more than 62 connected to date. COVID19, tragic as the pandemic still remains, made a strong case about the need for education connectivity. It is now up to the NRENs to seize the opportunity and sustain the momentum of change.As we celebrate AfricaConnect’s 10th anniversary and its incredible accomplishments, if one big leap could be achieved in the next 10 years in the Africa’s digital and educational landscape, what would that be in your opinion?
NRENs are ever evolving. I would hope that by 2030 all African countries have full access to data-communications infrastructure and services at par with the rest of the world and that there are specific entities (such as today’s NRENs) ensuring that the requirements of the scientific and education communities are fully matched and we have a truly global scientific community collaborating across all borders. I would hope that there is at least one POP in Africa where the three RENs (ASREN, the Ubuntunet Alliance and WACREN) interconnect to ensure that African traffic really stays in Africa without the need for exchange in Europe.
I would also hope that there is such a thriving market for telecoms services that prices on the entire continent will have dropped to levels we see across most other parts of the world. This requires engagement and commitment from policy makers and regulatory bodies across the African continent – for me that would be the real game-changer.
We have just concluded a study for the World Bank Group about the feasibility of connecting all African universities to high-speed internet. I will just quote the vision we have put forward after consultation with especially African NREN CEOs: We see “an African continent where all higher education institutions achieve global parity in intellectual output and development impact through access to, and exploitation of broadband connectivity at capacities, quality, and costs comparable to the rest of the world”.