[AfrICANN-discuss] Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Mon Aug 13 19:57:13 SAST 2007

For those interested -

Computing and Online Knowledge

   Computers in African Universities

 Are computers necessary for a university education? It is possible to teach
most subjects well and thoroughly without expensive technology. But
computers offer a solution to a problem identified by all the students
surveyed: outdated textbooks and course materials. They are also vital for
much of modern science, engineering, and business. Leaving students without
programming skills may leave them underprepared for graduate school or
unemployable in industry.

Access to the internet is so desirable to students in Africa that they spend
considerable time and money to get it. Many students surveyed, with no
internet connection at their universities, resorted to private, fee-charging
internet cafes to study and learn. The fees are not small: several US$/hr,
exceeding in many countries the average daily income. One student reports
spending large amounts of time walking to the internet cafe because he could
not afford both the internet fee and the taxi fare. (Imagine, by analogy,
U.S. college students walking for hours and paying $100/hr to do optional
reading). Connection to online knowledge is valued enough by students in
Africa that they will make that sacrifice.

[image: Internet cafe in Ghana (image from the BBC World News Service)]

  Internet cafe (Ghana)

-- read this survey<http://www.arp.harvard.edu/AfricaHigherEducation/Essays/essays/Ethiopia_1.pdf>from
Ethiopia for the trauma of trying to write a research paper without
textbooks, research journals, instruction, or an internet connection.

Programming is essential for at least graduate-level science, engineering,
and business: all use computer-based data analysis, modeling and numerical
simulation. Computer use for data analysis can also, if taught well, help
focus science instruction more on problem solving than on memorization of
received knowledge. The students surveyed here, mostly participants in an
international postgraduate program for science and math graduates,
universally report that its chief benefit was practice in scientific
computing. They also cite lack of programming instruction as one of the
chief faults of their undergraduate educations.

-- read this survey<http://www.arp.harvard.edu/AfricaHigherEducation/Essays/essays/SouthAfrica_1.pdf>from
the comparatively wealthy South Africa for the conditions for learning
programming at understaffed and underequipped universities

Hardware. The most common response that students gave to the question "what
can international donors do for African universities?" was "provide
computers." Although lack of instructors in programming may eventually
become an issue, at present the first need of African universities is
hardware. One student surveyed described programming classes where all
programs were written on paper; there were no computers available for
running them. Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria, with 30,000
undergraduates, had exactly 19 computers and 1 printer in its libraries in
2006 (see this study of Nigerian

[image: $100 laptop from the One Laptop Per Child project. The first
production models are now available (early 2007).]

  $100 laptop

One possibility for upgrading African universities' computing facilities at
low cost is to use the $100 laptops designed by the One Laptop Per Child
<http://www.laptop.org/vision/index.shtml>project. The laptops were targeted
at children (6-12 years), and several governments and the UNDP have signed
purchase and distribute them to primary schoolchildren. The OLPC
would be a tremendous resource for university students as well. At minimum
they can serve as e-books, accessing freely available textbooks and other
online course material (see
"Mesh networking" allows efficient connectivity and sharing of material with
any other OLPC laptop within 1/4 mile; an entire university can then be
"meshed" together and can share a single internet connection.

At maximum the laptops could also be used for scientific computing. They use
the same Linux operating system as do scientific workstations and can run
the standard open-source software used for scientific programming and
publishing (e.g. Python, TeX). The laptops have relatively small data
storage and memory (128 MB), but are sufficient for most programming courses
and can be upgraded for more substantial data analysis.

   Online curriculum materials

The students surveyed all mentioned out-dated and overly theoretical
curricula as a failing of their universities. This is a symptom of low
spending (lack of money to buy new textbooks or install laboratories) and of
isolation (professors have little access to science outside their own
graduate training). Both can be remedied given internet connections.

Lecture notes and curricula. There is a growing movement in the U.S. and
elsewhere to make university-level educational materials freely available to
all. A leader in this movement is MIT with its Open
Courseware<http://ocw.mit.edu/index.html>project, in which professors
place their lecture notes, problem sets, exams,
and even videos of lectures online for all to use, reaching 1.5 million
users each month (see also this
summary<http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2001/ocw-facts.html>and articles
MIT <http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2006/ocw.html> and Information
All of MIT's courses will be on the web by the end of the 2007. Other
universities participating in open courseware efforts include Tufts, Johns
Hopkins, U.C. Irvine, Univ. of Notre Dame, Utah State (see
and Yale (see article<http://www.careerjournal.com/myc/school/20070216-chaker.html?cjpos=home_whatsnew_major>).
The Open Educational Resources
Commons<http://www.oercommons.org/oer/oer-categories>also gathers
university course material and videos of lectures and
demonstrations. The movement is not confined to the U.S.: Britain's Open
University, a fee-charging distance-learning university, is now making some
courses freely available (see

Textbooks. The movement to make educational materials freely available
extends to textbooks as well. Numerous authors have placed their work online
for others to use. Wiki Books
<http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Main_Page>includes texts on many
subjects. Individual highly-regarded textbooks
available online include the science text Motion
with 30,000 downloads a year, and others in computer science
<http://www.htdp.org/>, physics<http://www.lightandmatter.com/area1book1.html>,
and many other subjects. Project
Gutenberg<http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page>(2 million downloads
a month), Google Books, and other digital library
projects are placing out-of-copyright volumes online for anyone to read.

   Research journal access

Economics of science publishing. Internet access and open courseware can be
a great asset for African universities, but cannot alone fully connect
African universities to the international scientific community. African
universities would still lack access to the journals in which essentially
all of academic research is published.

The largest item in a university library budget is no longer books but
rather subscriptions to these journals. For a serious research university,
annual subscription costs are now in the millions: MIT paid $4 million in
2006 for science and engineering journals alone. These costs, and their
steep rise (a 150% increase in the last 10 years) are a source of concern
throughout the academic world. (See articles from Brown
Journal <http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA516819.html>). The rise is
not due to publishers' expenses. In 2004 the private journal publisher
Elsevier reported profits of nearly $900 million (and spent $2.8 million
lobbying the U.S. Congress). U.S. universities are cutting back on
subscriptions (e.g.
see also this review<http://www.createchange.org/archive/librarians/issues/silent.html>).
Developing-world universities cannot afford access at all. If African
researchers do publish in international journals, they cannot access even
their own published work. (Note that U.S. taxpayers are in the same
position, unable to read the research results their taxes have paid for.)

[image: A subscription for a single research journal in certain fields can
cost more than total educational costs for six African undergraduates. Image
from the U. of Maryland Health Sciences and Human Services Library.]

$14,000/yr for a single journal <javascript:;>

more here <http://astech.library.cornell.edu/ast/engr/about/car.cfm> and

How can access be opened? One possibility is to persuade publishers to make
journals available at low or no cost to developing-world universities. The
UN has begun an archive for agricultural research
and the WHO sponsors a similar archive for health studies
(See here <http://www.udsm.ac.tz/library/ejournal.html> for e-resources at
the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania; note their use of AGORA). Some
individual publishers have also taken independent steps to open access (see
article about the Royal Society for
But a broader and simpler strategy is to pass legislation mandating that all
federally funded research results must be placed in publicly accessible
archives. The Federal Research Public Access Act of
& Lieberman), introduced in the 109th Congress, would have required
this (see also this
This legislation would force a reshaping of the publishing world that would
have widespread support from libraries, universities in both the
developing world, and scientists themselves. Most people agree that
current system must change, but individual scientists feel constrained to
publish in prestigious existing journals and publishers have no incentive to
release copyright on their articles. U.S. legislation can break this logjam.
Open research access is supported by many groups, including the American
Library Association<http://www.ala.org/ala/godort/godortresolutions/20060626308.htm>and
the Alliance
for Taxpayer Access <http://www.taxpayeraccess.org/frpaa/>.

   Internet connectivity

The proposals above for strengthening African universities with online
knowledge depend on being able to actually access that knowledge. That would
not have been possible a decade ago: the American Association for the
Advancement of Science (AAAS) found in 1999 that students could not download
research articles from a number of African universities because data
transfer rates were so slow that connections were dropped (see
In 2007, using online resources in sub-Saharan Africa is a possibility.
Still, serious challenges remain.

Explosion of demand for internet connectivity. Internet access is now
possible in all African countries and demand is growing from all sections of
society. The change is recent and steep. In 1996 no countries in sub-Saharan
Africa other than South Africa and Namibia had connections faster than
64Kbps (still painfully slow to U.S. users accustomed to a hundred times
that), and many had none at all. By 2001 the entire continent had reasonable
connectivity and the total number of internet users was estimated as 5-8
million (see here <http://www3.sn.apc.org/africa/afrmain.htm>). By 2007,
users in sub-Saharan Africa had grown fivefold to 33 million, nearly 4% of
the population. (See these data<http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm>;
growth is some 30% per year). Many African universities now maintain
websites (see here<http://www-sul.stanford.edu/africa/africaneducation/african-universities.html>).
The internet cafe is a ubiquitous feature of African cities, along with the
storefront computer training school. Demand for access is high outside major
cities as well: see these articles by a local entrepreneur starting an
internet cafe in rural Kenya
3 <http://startupkenya.blogspot.com/2007/02/cyber-cafe-with-edge.html>).
Maasai students in Tanzania have begun applying to university, because the
internet allows the first to enter a way to send information home to others.

[image: Internet use in Africa, 2007, and growth in usage from 1997-2007
(New York Times, data from World Bank, Miniwatts Marketing Group)]

    Growth of internet in Africa <javascript:;>
(NYT, from 2007 World Bank data)
NYT article: (link)<http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/22/business/yourmoney/22rwanda.html>

High costs. The most remarkable aspect of the rising demand for internet
connections in sub-Saharan Africa is that it is occurring despite the the
highest connection costs in the world. The African consumer (or university)
pays 50-500 times more than an American for an equivalent connection (e.g.
$3,000/month instead of $30/month for a 1 Mbps connection; prices vary by
country). African universities therefore cannot afford the bandwidth they
need to make efficient use of online resources. The average African
university, with tens of thousands of students and faculty, has the same
aggregate bandwidth as a single household connection in the U.S. (see
article <http://www.idrc.ca/es/ev-84498-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html> or this
the Partnership
for Higher Education in
The principal reason for high costs is the lack of optical fiber
infrastructure (discussed below).

Low capacity. High costs unfortunately go hand in hand with low capacity.
Sub-Saharan Africa currently has the lowest data transmission bandwidth in
the world (below even the steppes of Central Asia) and is falling further
behind: its capacity is growing more slowly than in any other region. A 2006
report by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) states:
"Bandwidth is the life-blood of the world's knowledge economy, but it is
scarcest where it is most needed ..." The report also concludes that
sub-Saharan Africa has the world's "highest unmet demand for
telecommunication services". (See report
summary<http://www.africafocus.org/docs06/apc0612.php>or full

[image: Africa has the world's lowest internet bandwidth (data througput) to
North America, and its capacity is growing more slowly than in any other
region: the continent is behind and falling further behind. (Figure from the
International Committee for Future Accelerators (ICFA) Standing Committee on
Inter-Regional Connectivity (SCIC), Jan. 2006] <javascript:;>

    Internet capacity worldwide <javascript:;>

Optical fiber links. Optical fiber infrastructure is the cheapest and most
efficient way of transferring data. Only 14 of 49 sub-Saharan countries have
any fiber connection to each other or to the rest of the world (NEPAD,
2004). The remainder must use expensive satellite or radio connections. A
single cable runs along the West coast of Africa. Few overland networks
penetrate the interior, and East Africa is completely isolated.

[image: Submarine optical fiber cables around the world. Color of cable
denotes bandwidth. Note how poorly Africa is connected, and the total
absence of cables to East Africa] <javascript:;>

World submarine optical cables <javascript:;>

Absence of a $200 million investment in an East African cable is likely
hurting local economies many times over. Interest in building such a cable
has however risen in recent years. The first proposal, made in 2002, would
be funded by a consortium of private operators (the East African Submarine
System, or EASSy). As of July 2007 four separate proposals for East African
submarine cables are in play; the expectation is that one will succeed. (See
Fibre for Africa). Only one of these proposals is based on an
open-access model. No international donors have offered majority funding to

Lack of guaranteed open access is a concern because a single cable operated
as a private monopoly will not generally reduce costs for the consumer.
Although West Africa is now linked to Europe by optical fiber (the SAT-3
cable), communications costs there are generally no lower than via
satellite. In the absence of strong regulatory agencies, the consortium of
investors who funded the cable have kept bandwidth costs prohibitively high.
The SAT-3 pricing strategy has been termed "high cost, low volume":
bandwidth is sold for $4500-$12,000 per Mbps/month and the cable is
underutilized. (Prices differ by country; the $4500/month figure was
obtained only after a 2-year court fight in Ghana). Even the low Ghana price
is 20 times higher than could be offered by a non-profit cable (less than
$250 per Mbps/month, estimate by Eric Osiakwan of the African Internet
Service Providers Association <http://www.afrispa.org/>). The original SAT-3
operating licenses expired in June 2007 and are being renegotiated, possibly
opening an opportunity to drop communications costs for W. Africa. (See article
<http://www.cipaco.org/spip.php?article903> and commentary
<http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/eric/2006/11/07/open-access-sat3/>). The
of African Universities <http://www.aau.org/index.htm> has pleaded for, if
nothing else, special rates for universities (see

Note that predatory pricing by the SAT-3 monopoly consortium is not a purely
African problem. Although many of the SAT-3 consortium members are African
telecoms, the three largest investors were non-African: in order of stake,
TCI (at that time a subsidiary of AT&T) + AT&T itself (U.S.A.), France
Telecom (France), and VSL (India/Singapore). The U.S. stake in the cable may
now have passed to Comcast. (SAT-3
is carefully guarded).

The E. African cable proposals, also consortium operated, have raised
similar concerns about monopolistic pricing (see commentary
and here <http://www.ralden.com/C1/EASSy/default.aspx>, analysis by
the APC<http://fibreforafrica.net/main.shtml?conds%5B0%5D%5Bcategory........%5D=%27Why%20we%20need%20affordable%20international%20bandwidth%27&als%5Bselect%5D=4051582&als%5BMYALIAS6%5D=Why%20we%20need%20affordable%20international%20bandwidth>,
and the APC report<http://www.arp.harvard.edu/AfricaHigherEducation/Reports/open_access_EN.pdf>mentioned
above). (EASSy consortium
AT&T (USA), Verizon/ex MCI (USA), France Telecom, BT (UK), Saudi
Telecom, VSNL/Teleglobe (India), and Etisalat (United Arab Emirates), as
well as 29 public and private Africa-based telecoms). A single East African
cable operated on the SAT-3 model would yield no price benefits for E.
African consumers, would provide minimal economic benefits and would leave
E. African universities isolated. Either multiple competing cables or
regulated or non-profit operation are necessary to lower costs for African
internet users.

both SAT-3 and E. African cables are posted by Fibre for Africa. The
subject is also frequently covered in the online newsletter Balancing
Act<http://www.balancingact-africa.com/>which reports on telecoms and
internet in Africa.

Reverse Subsidies. An additional factor raising connectivity costs for
Africa is a perverse pricing structure in which African users subsidize all
data transfers to and from the continent. (Imagine that you paid telephone
charges on both incoming and outgoing phone calls, while your neighbor paid
for neither). These charges alone nearly double the cost of African internet
usage, costing Africa between $250-500 million/yr. They also further
entrench the stalemate: the African market remains small, investment in
infrastructure is discouraged, and the companies that provide international
bandwidth (IBPs) can continue to insist on predatory pricing arrangements.

Why does international connection cost matter so much to local users within
Africa? Because the lack of optical fiber lines and local data aggregation
points means that even traffic within Africa is typically routed through
Europe. An email sent from the Central African Republic to nearby Kenya, for
example, is routed through London via two satellite connections. One means
of remedying the pricing inequity is an international trade agreement.
Another is to build up local land-based networks and regional aggregation
points to reduce the need of European connections in the first place.
Aggregation also pushes the international providers to come to Africa
instead, after which they would bear connection costs equally.

Current actions. Many governments in Africa are now planning and building
infrastructure to reduce the need for intercontinental traffic. East African
countries have been most aggressive in pursuit of this goal, with Rwanda as
the strongest leader. Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda are all constructing inland
optical fiber backbones (Uganda with funding from the Chinese government).
Tanzania is at least in the planning stage (see report "Optical Fibre for
Education and Research Networks in Eastern and Southern
Connectivity Africa <http://www.idrc.ca/acacia/ev-87391-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html>,
sponsored by Canada's International Development Research Center, has also
done preliminary work on aggregation in six countries (South Africa,
Mozambique, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania). A coalition of African
Internet Service Providers has proposed a broad outline for regional
aggregation and cost reductions (the "Halfway
And the United Nations and the Rwandan government are sponsoring a
telecommunications conference in Kigali in October 2007 to bring together
African governments, businesses, and global telecommunications firms to
discuss infrastructure and regulatory changes to boost connectivity ("Connect
Africa" <http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/connect/africa/2007/summit/index.html>).
Note however that all of these efforts still depend on construction of an
East African submarine cable. It is difficult to orchestrate any solution to
Africa's connectivity problems if the continent remains digitally isolated.

Additional factors for universities in particular. One additional factor in
connectivity costs that may affect African universities in particular is
lack of capital to buy equipment that would result in eventual savings. A AAAS
study <http://www.aaas.org/international/africa/oljreport/recs.shtml> of
connectivity in African universities in 1999 found, for example, that
Makerere University in Uganda paid steep monthly phone bills for a dialup
connection because they could not afford a one-time cost of $18,000 for a
radio link. These kind of situations may or may not exist in 2007.

Helping universities in Africa. Several organizations work with African
universities to help use existing bandwidth more effectively. The U.K.
Network for the Availability of Scientific
Publications<http://www.inasp.info/programmes/>works with African
university libraries. The eGranary
Digital Library project
<http://www.widernet.org/digitalLibrary/index.htm>places widely used
free academic materials on local servers in African
universities so that they can be accessed with only a local connection.

Many organizations are working to lower bandwidth costs for universities and
increase capacity. Several countries in Africa have formed National Research
and Education Networks (NRENs) seeking high-speed and affordable connections
for universities, and have organized as the UbuntuNet
(Participating nations are Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda and South
Africa). The target goal is university connections equivalent to those of
the developed world: 1 Gbps or more. The Partnership for Higher Education in
Africa <http://www.foundation-partnership.org/index.php?sub=about>(including
the Ford, MacArthur, and Rockefeller Foundations) has helped a
consortium of 13 African universities to lower connectivity costs. The
Partnership has donated over $5 million
<http://www.fordfound.org/news/view_news_detail.cfm?news_index=155> to make
satellite bandwidth available to the consortium at $2330 per Mbps/month
instead of $7300 (see also
This effort will be welcomed by students and researchers. It is not a
long-term solution, however, and some local connectivity activists argue
that giving subsidies to foreign satellite firms actually hinders long-term
solutions. Even with the Partnership's support, universities would pay over
$1800/month for the same household-scale connection that Verizon advertises
in the U.S. with an introductory rate of $9.99/month. Purchasing the
bandwidth of a normal U.S. university (1 Gbps, the UbuntuNet target) would
cost an unaffordable $2.3 million/month. The digital divide will ultimately
be bridged only with optical fiber, and those investments are large in

  Last update: July 23, 2007

Anne-Rachel Inne
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