Analysis & Opinions - Daily Yomiuri

Net Access for African Universities Would Boost Continent

| May 29, 2008

At their next Group of Eight summit in Toyakocho, Hokkaido, in July, leaders of the world's major countries should commit themselves to helping Africa provide low-cost high-speed Internet access.

African universities could be the continent's gateways into the global knowledge economy for local diffusion of new technologies. But this potential remains unrealized because universities and research institutes in Africa remain digitally isolated from the rest of the world. This is partly because of government neglect and lack of strategic policies on Internet access.

African universities of the size of Tokyo University have the Internet capability of a single Japanese household. Put another way, it is like 30,000 people trying to use a single household connection. This is impracticable and, as a result, most African universities hardly benefit from the abundant scientific and technical knowledge available in other parts of the world.

Access to new information is the lifeline of universities and should be given the same priority as other critical infrastructure services in society such as access roads, power and water supply.

The little bandwidth that exists costs as much as 15,000 dollars a month. And even when universities pay these exorbitant rates, the services are unreliable.

The result is an isolated continent whose faculty and students hardly use the latest available knowledge. Moreover, the isolation prevents African universities from entering into effective partnerships with the rest of the world.

Internet access is essential for African universities due to their limited budgets. High-speed Internet access can provide a pathway to knowledge content that would otherwise be too expensive: textbooks, course materials, research results and international contacts.

Scientific and technical knowledge is doubling nearly every year. As a result, there is considerable pressure to revise textbooks and other teaching material. African countries can reduce the costs of revising textbooks by using the Internet to access existing material.

Universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, are already putting their course material on the Web for free access. There are several other initiatives, such as Project Gutenberg, that are scanning and archiving classic works and new textbooks.

Institutions, such as the Open Library of Science, are providing free-of-charge journal articles through the rapidly expanding open access movement. Such opportunities will soon be extended to primary and secondary schools through the development of low-cost computers and digital readers.

In addition to providing educational and research opportunities, high-speed Internet access will also help improve cultural exchanges and improve understanding between Africa and the rest of the world. It is one of the most effective tools for advancing public diplomacy.

Demand for university education in Africa is exploding, with the highest enrollments anywhere in the world. This new generation of students will be Africa's leaders and drivers of the continent's economies. But their effectiveness as agents of change will be limited by the continent's digital isolation.

Africa is not able to benefit from these radical changes in access to information because of its digital isolation. Africa—apart from South Africa—is linked to the developed world by a single fiber-optic cable along the West Africa coast. Plans to extend to the east coast as well as to the interior of the continent have been slow and frustrating.

The vital role of connecting African universities to high-speed Internet has been left to a handful of initiatives, such as Bandwidth Consortium supported by four major U.S. foundations under the auspices Partnership for Higher Education in Africa.

The consortium works under an agreement with Intelsat, a satellite service provider, to expand African universities access to high-speed Internet. The consortium has played a key role in helping to cut costs.

The consortium started with 11 universities and two higher education bodies in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. Another 18 institutions started using the service last year, and membership is expected to grow. But its coverage is still limited and can hardly cope with continentwide demand.

A more robust response with specific targets on helping to reduce cost and installing communications facilities such as satellite links are urgently needed. The Fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD IV) provides African heads of state, Japanese leaders and the private sector a unique opportunity to adopt clear targets to get Africa's universities into the modern knowledge economy.

Japan should provide leadership in bringing this matter to the G-8 summit for action. The need exists and the technology to satisfy the need is readily available. What is needed is dedicated leadership and practicality.

Providing low-cost, high-speed Internet access to African universities will help Africa build the capacity it needs to solve its own problems. It is one of the most strategic investments that the G-8 countries can make in Africa in the coming few years.

Juma is a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and is a visiting professor at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) in Yokohama. This article is based on his remarks at the G-8 Dialogue organized by the United Nations University in Tokyo earlier this month.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Net Access for African Universities Would Boost Continent.” Daily Yomiuri, May 29, 2008.