4.1 The research networks in Africa in the early nineties

Il progetto RINAF
The RINAF project
Adriana Lazzaroni
  • We were at the beginning of 1992 and I had just got my degree. I had been working for a few months at the Consorzio Pisa Ricerche dealing with the organization of an International conference set up by CNUCE Institute of CNR.
  • One morning the CPR Director, M. Andrenucci, was called by S. Trumpy, CNR-CNUCE Director. He wanted to know if there was anybody at the CPR that had some experience in international relations and particularly somebody who spoke English and French fluently. When I innocently asked him why he said: "because you are going to have to work with the French and English speaking countries of Africa".
  • I had just done the post-grad specialization in International Cooperation with Developing Countries and so it sounded very stimulating and I thought I would jump at the chance.
  • So one bright morning I went along to Via S. Maria for an interview with Stefano Trumpy, then Technical Coordinator of the RINAF Project (Regional Informatics Network for AFrica).
  • In a matter of a few days there I was, working for the development of the activities of UNESCO's RINAF Project. Its aim was to help the development and spread of Internet in research institutes and universities in more than 20 African countries. These were activities which I was dedicated to for a long time, from 1992 to 1998.
  • That interview was without doubt the starting point for my African adventure. At the same time it was an enthusiastic impact with the world of Internet and of research networks and also the beginning of my working experience at the CNR.
  • Mainly financed by the Italian Government, with a limited contribution from the Republic of Korea, the RINAF project was conceived by UNESCO's Intergovernmental Informatics Programme (IIP) in 1989 and officially launched in Dakar in 1992.
  • The IIP Programme highlighted the role of computer networks as a means of fostering regional and international co-operation, in addition to their function as a medium for disseminating information. The networks could help in reducing the isolation of research institutions in less developed countries, facilitating the pooling of information and experience by specialists, researchers and practitioners.
  • The main project objectives were in fact:
    • " To supply basic network services (e-mail, bulletin boards, access to databases, discussion lists etc.);
    • " To facilitate dialogue and exchange of information between African researchers, academics and between them and the private sector;
    • " To lessen the isolation of African academic and research institutions;
    • " To increase the awareness of the importance of data network services;
    • " To create a group of African technical experts and network operators skilled in the management of network services (capacity building);
    • " To leave an infrastructure and a team of people in place to manage the network services provided by the project even after its completion (project handover).
  • According to the hierarchical structure adopted by UNESCO, the RINAF Project established five "regional nodes", one for each region (north, east, west, centre and south) and ten "national nodes". The regional nodes (Algeria, Kenya, Senegal, Nigeria and Zambia) had the task of managing and coordinating the project activities of the national nodes (Algeria, Egypt, Guinea, Kenya, Tanzania Nigeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Swaziland and Zambia) belonging to the same region, establishing regional connectivity and its connection to the worldwide network.
  • The CNUCE Institute of the Italian National Research Council (CNR) located in Pisa was at that time nominated as technical support agency for project development.
  • In 1992 the members of the CNR Technical support unit were: Stefano Trumpy (Project Technical Coordinator), Laura Abba, Adriana Lazzaroni and Abraham Gebrehiwot.
  • Going back to those years I think I can say that our activity dealing with the spread of Internet technology was truly pioneering.
  • Our mission consisted of various activities: acquisition and shipment of equipment, supplying technical expertise for setting up network connections, organizing regional training courses having to deal with the movement of people and things with not too few logistic and thecnical problems, along with a good deal of red tape.
  • Merely sending a fax to one of these African research institutes, could take up to an hour and I was soon given the nickname by my colleagues of "the fax girl". In fact, I used to spend much of my time at the fax machine, still very much a precious device to communicate with Africa.
  • This was all with the hope of being able to send a few pages to invite our African colleagues to network training courses, to let them know that the hardware and software was on the way, or to inform them that CNR technicians were about to arrive for the installation.
  • From the point of view of setting up and maintaining the Internet connections, I still remember with pleasure the excellent results achieved in countries such as Nigeria and Algeria. In Nigeria we activated in 1994 the first UUCP dial up connection through a commutated telephone line between CNR-CNUCE and the Yaba College of Technology in Lagos, later extended to other Nigerian research institutes.
  • In Algeria we activated an Internet connection from CERIST (Centre d'Etude et de Recherche sur l'Information Scientifique et Technique) in Algiers to CNR-CNUCE by means of a 9600 bps dedicated line from 1994.
  • In addition, my colleague Abraham Gebrehiwot worked on the installation and management of the primary nameserver at CNUCE for Nigeria (.ng) and on the registration of .ng subdomains. At the CNUCE he also managed the primary nameserver for Algeria (.dz). We also dedicated time to managing the project discussion lists (RINAF-L, RINAF-T, RINAF-R) and the RINAF mailing lists (CAMNET, NGR-MAIL, SENEGA-L, GUINEQ-L). These were the blogs of their time through which the local African communities in Pisa were able to keep in touch with their fellow countrymen.
  • At that time, a number of projects were starting under the initiative of different governments, companies or institutions of the more developed countries; some initiatives were also set up by the African countries themselves.
  • For these reasons, we decided to invest the funding available in cooperation, whenever possible, with the initiatives, starting in those years, contributing to Internet development such as: IDRC/ECA (Cabeca Project), ITU, UNDP, USAID (Leland Initiative), World Bank, IDRC, RIO-Orstom, HNET, REFER etc. In some cases the project supported the initial costs for the start-up of connectivity to the Internet through the local ISPs and, in order to facilitate the deployment of network connections, we made agreements, not always easily, with the very few local service providers available at that time such as: Africa Online (Kenya), Padis and Ethiopian Telecommunication Agency (Ethiopia), Orstom Rio and Sonatel (Senegal), AUPELF-UREF (Ivory Coast) and Socatel (Central Africa).
  • The project succeeded in obtaining substantial results in almost all 15 countries selected in the first phase, although the regional topology adopted by UNESCO was not always effective, sometimes causing delays in the achievements of project goals. This was mainly due to the lack of commitment of certain nodes to play a regional coordinating role, that is promoting interregional communications.
  • Given the difficulties mentioned above, we decided to encourage, from the beginning, the establishment of direct Internet connections for the most advanced focal points, providing technical tools which allowed users to interact in the best cost-effective way with other network users, regardless of the physical path followed by the data. This approach proved at that time to be particularly positive in almost all cases.
  • From 1992 to 1998 the African countries directly supported by the CNR technical unit in Pisa were: Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Zambia, Swaziland, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Niger.
  • A further financial contribution from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs enabled the continuation of the project activities, the so-called RINAF Project Extension, in four other countries: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Angola and Nigeria. In order to carry out the project objectives we interacted not only with African research institutions and universities but also with UN organizations and with local government bodies in charge of the development of ICT in the various countries, and this was undoubtedly an enriching experience for everyone.
  • On the other hand, a certain political mentality sometimes represented an obstacle to the project development.
  • Capacity building and training of local technicians and personnel was one of the priorities, achieved with the organization of ten regional and national training courses held in various African countries. In this way we were trying to get across the idea that focussing on Internet was essential for sustainable development.
  • The organization of these training sessions was a real trial and very demanding in terms of the time and logistics needed.
  • Moving tens of young Africans from 20 different countries on the continent meant at that time facing significant logistic and diplomatic difficulties. The project budget available, about a million dollars, also implied the optimization of costs and collaboration with the local authorities and with local telephone service providers when organizing courses.
  • It was in this way that 20 years ago, in November 1992, we organized the first RINAF training course for System Operators and the following year the same course was held in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, in April 1993, and later in another 8 different sites.
  • In those same years we supported the participation of African tecnicians and network operators, belonging to different universities, at international networking conferences and events in order to introduce them to the big picture of the Information Society and of its latest developments. At that time the Internet Society had started the organization, within the frame of the INET (International NETworking Conferences), of specific Workshops for Developing Countries which offered a very good occasion for the African representatives and technicians working for RINAF to exchange ideas and to become integrated in an international networking environment.
  • From CNR we organized the participation of several African delegates at: INET91 (Copenhagen), INET92 (Kobe, Japan), INET93 (San Francisco, USA), NSC 92 Network Services Conference (Pisa, Italy), and to HELINA 93 - International Conference on Health Informatics in Africa (Ile-Ife, Nigeria).
  • Recently, along with some colleagues working at that time for RINAF, on the occasion of the Internet Governance Forum 2011, to an international Workshop called "African Internet oldies to share with the young".
  • This was organized by the Kenya Internet Governance Steering Committee by iHub Kenya in Nairobi last September. The event was attended by Vint Cerf and some of the main actors in the development of Internet in Africa since the early nineties. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to share our experiences with an audience of young Kenyans (digital natives, IT specialists, entrepreneurs, iHub operators, and end users) and relate the birth of the first network connections in Africa and what it meant at that time.
  • A question I was asked most ofte -, one which can really put you in a corner - was: "What is there left of that mission"?
  • But the answer came straight away: "We set up reliable Internet connections in universities and research institutes, but above all, we tried to contribute to raising the awareness on the importance of Internet for the development of a country".
  • I can in fact affirm that the organizational and economic efforts made at that time were well repaid.
  • Today we know for sure that there are African researchers and technicians who are working for government organizations and for universities in their countries also thanks to the training received through RINAF, even more than twenty years ago.
  • Having contributed to this has been undoubtedly a reason for satisfaction for all of us and a very enriching experience
Happy Birthday ISOC