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The State of Research and Education Networking in Africa

Dr Boubakar Barry

Research and education networks (RENs) are dedicated networks for the research and education community. Unlike the “general” Internet, often referred to as commodity Internet, they carry only data related to education and research.

RENs were first established more than 20 years ago in developed countries in Europe and the Americas to support bandwidth-intensive applications in research, when it became evident that using the commodity Internet on demand for these applications, and for moving large quantities of data between institutions within a country, between countries, and between continents was not feasible. An example is the transport of data from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to various research centers worldwide.

RENs have also been places of innovation in networking technologies and have substantially fostered scientific collaboration at national, regional and international levels.

Why are research and education networks crucial for Africa?

RENs have a huge potential for improving the quality of education and research. The gain in productivity through access to high-speed networks for teaching, learning and research activities is obvious. For Africa, access to such networks through RENs is even more important for various reasons:

  • African researchers are isolated. There are very few institutions that have the critical mass of researchers in any particular field to allow them to collaborate and carry out research activities with world standard outputs. Having an adequate NREN infrastructure can enable remote collaboration and the building of the needed critical masses;
  • Resources are scarce in Africa, and some equipment and applications are too costly for single institutions: NREN infrastructure provides a means of sharing such resources. In fact, RENs can even provide a more efficient mean of sharing human resources by using video-conferencing tools for remote lecturing while at the same tile avoiding expensive and sometimes risky travel;
  • Cutting-edge research is increasingly carried out by multiple, inter-disciplinary research teams located in various countries of the world: coordination, data exchange and even experiments are mostly done using the global REN infrastructure. Not being part of this global community means that African researchers cannot participate in such global research projects;
  • In most African countries, higher education faces a big challenge called massification: due to lack of investment in infrastructure and equipment during the last two decades, universities and other higher education institutions cannot efficiently meet the high demand for access to higher education. Here again, REN infrastructure can support e-learning applications and blended learning models that can help reduce the pressure on the universities’ physical infrastructure and address the increasing legitimate demand for higher education.

The state of research and education networks in Africa

The first African RENs emerged in the early 2000s. Today, NRENs exist in all parts of Africa, with of course various levels of development. The existing NRENs can be categorized into the following groups:

  1. Well established NRENs: these NRENs have an organizational structure, a legal status and a physical network, meaning that NREN member institutions are interconnected. Examples include TENET, KENET, SudREN, MARWAN and EUN;
  2. Established NRENs: these NRENs have a legal status and an organizational structure; they are working on establishing physical connections between the member institutions. Examples include TERNET, RENU and GARNET;
  3. NRENs in formation: these are initiatives in various countries where a process has started towards the establishment of an NREN. Such initiatives have been initiated in countries such as Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Togo.

Beside the establishment of NRENs, efforts have also been put into forming regional RENs. To-date, there are 3 RENs that can be considered as RRENs in Africa:

UbuntuNet Alliance: this is the first RREN that was established in Africa; from its initial founding members in November 2005, it has grown up to 13 member NRENs. It’s membership area is Eastern and Southern Africa;

WACREN: the West and Central African Research and Education Network was established in August 2010, but efforts to have it established go as far back as 2006; its membership potential (West and Central Africa) is 22 NRENs, although only 2 NRENs have been formally established in this area;

ASREN: the Arab States Research and Education Network was formally launched in December 2010. Although it embraces countries outside Africa, it is considered as one of the African RRENs. ASREN can be considered as an extension of the EUMedConnect Project network, an initiative funded by the European Union that connected Mediterranean countries to the pan-European network GEANT.

Lessons learned in the establishment of RENs in Africa

The REN Unit of the Association of African Universities has been involved in most of the initiatives that have been described above by providing support for the policy development processes at national or regional level, by providing support at the policy level, by facilitating the dialogue among stakeholders and through capacity building.

Many lessons have been learned in the various processes, among which the following are highlighted:

Establishing a research and education network (either national or regional) is about putting resources together in order to get more value for money and foster collaboration. Thus, trust matters a lot. Building trust among the stakeholders is key, not the needed resources. If resources are available and trust doesn’t exist among the stakeholders, the initiative won’t last long. One can say that 80% of the efforts have to be put into social engineering; it’s the key for success;

Not all potential members of an NREN or RREN will be ready to join at the same time. There are different reasons for that: lack of awareness, lack of adequate infrastructure (no campus network for example), lack of trust, etc. It’s important to start with those who are ready, but leave the door open for other to join later without discrimination, as and when they feel they are ready to do so. So, the motto should be: “start small, be open and scale up”;

Champions should be identified and supported: research and education networking is new, or even unknown to most of African higher education leaders. It is therefore important to support champions who understand the issues at stake, through provision of awareness raising material, capacity building, etc.;

End-users (researchers, teachers, students, and administration workers) should be involved in the early stage of the REN establishment process. Not only because they can constitute an important pressure community to move the REN agenda forward, but mainly because they must understand the advantage of RENs and be part of the driving force;

Inadequate telecommunication regulation can be a big barrier to the establishment of NRENs, and can even jeopardize the establishment of RRENs. It is therefore important to approach telecommunication regulatory authorities and establish strategic partnerships with them; experiences in West Africa have proven that this can help in removing barriers;

Government involvement: in Africa, RENs can hardly be sustained at the outset if not supported in any manner by government. Having the backing of government, especially the ministries in charge of higher education, research and telecommunications is crucial. Such support does need to translate, in the first instance, to financial support: the recognition of the importance of the establishment of RENs can in itself open many doors. There is enough evidence of this: the World Bank support to the governments of Kenya, Mozambique and Senegal (to name a few) for the support to the establishment/strengthening of the NRENs in these countries; the decision of the Agence de l’Informatique de l’Etat of Senegal and the National Information Technology Agency of Ghana, both managing government networks, to allocate capacity for the interconnection of universities in these two countries, are examples that could and will certainly will be emulated.

Best practices

Best practices are important to share among communities. In the field of research and education networking, the following practices (to name just a few) have proved to be strong factors for fostering the establishment of RENs:

  • Setting up and managing a REN is a full-time job: RENs should appoint full-time CEO and CTO as well as full time support staff as early as possible;
  • Member institutions should value the services of a REN and contribute from the beginning; not necessarily in cash, but alternatively in office and NOC space, staff (even part-time), etc.;
  • Solidarity is a good, traditional REN practice; however, members should be ready and willing to pay for the service they receive;
  • Openness is key for the successful establishment of RENs: all potential member institutions cannot be ready at the same time; in fact, some potential members do even not exist when a REN is established. A good and fundamental practice in the REN community is to be open to future memberships, without any discrimination.

Challenges and opportunities

The challenges for the establishment of RENs in Africa are well known, and won’t be developed here, but just to enumerate a few:

  • Inadequate telecommunications regulatory environment in most countries;
  • Misunderstanding by operators of what REN traffic is, in comparison to commodity Internet traffic;
  • Near-monopoly position of operators in many countries; at continental level, 80% of international traffic is controlled by only 8 operators (need to diversify);
  • Costly access ztechnology still used in many countries (VSAT), but this is changing;
  • Lack of human resources with the requisite skills;
  • Sustainable power supply.

However, there are many opportunities:

  • The growth of sub-marine fibre cables capacity in the continent from 320 Gbs to more than 20,000 Gbs within two years;
  • The development of country and country-to-country fibre backbones;
  • The increasing commitment of governments;
  • The “REN message” that is more and more receptive to governments and the private sector;
  • The increasing support of the private sector;
  • The existing strong African research and education networking community through the AfREN platform and meetings, convened by the Association of African Universities;
  • The just started implementation of AfricaConnect, a joint European Union-African Union project.
  • The support of friends of Africa worldwide.

What can the various stakeholders do?

Universities/Research centers: appoint full time campus network managers; allocate budget for running/expanding state of the art campus networks;

Governments and other political bodies: allocate capacity for universities/research centers interconnection on government backbones, where available; set establishment/strengthening of research and education networks as tool for the development of education and research and for social development as a priority when negotiating with development partners;

Development partners: recognize and support research and education research networks as essential tool for improving education and research and for promoting international collaboration and socio-economic development.


Research and Education Networks are being setting up throughout Africa. Despite the challenges champions are been facing these last years, there are clear signals that the main actors (higher education and research institutions, policy and decision makers, the private sector, especially telecom operators) have become more aware of the importance of RENs for African development. The global bandwidth to sub-Saharan African universities has gone up from less than 1Gbps three years to over 12Gbps now.

With the start of the implementation of AfricaConnect, a truly regional network will start rolling out. It is certain that African universities and research institutions will soon connect regionally and globally at a level that has never been experienced before, for the good of collaboration between Africa and the rest of the world and for the good of humanity and development.

8 Responses to “The State of Research and Education Networking in Africa”

  1. Maggie McPherson

    As an ICT in Education researcher, I have been privileged enough to work with HEIs in Ethiopia.  Having seen the state of the ICT infrastructure in that country,  I am very interested in the REN work and to find out what we in European universities can do to support African partners in these endeavours.

    • Jan Deurwaarder


      Do you have current data on ICT integration / use in TVET in African countries? I am currently in contact with TVET teacher training institutions in Zambia and Kenya who want to develop a 'educational technology' course for pre- and in-service TVET teachers

      • Dear Jan,

        There is alot happening in Kenya through KENET, the national research and education network. Please visit their website and make contact (www.kenet.or.ke). Zambia is also starting out through ZAMREN who are also going to get support from NUFFIC. They are still in early stages of developing the national research and education network.

    • Thanks Maggie. EthERNet, the Ethiopian NREN, is one of the members of the UbuntuNet Alliance. With its extensive roll out fibre, it presents opportunities to both the universities, research and the rest of the education community as well as to regional networking and collaborattion. We certainly hope this study will bring to light the opportunities and especially point to ways in which these can be exploited.

  2. We have been researching how to get educational Institutions to use less paper in their

    classes both both lectures as well as homework assigments.

    We know even the most advanced Universities are still using massive amount of paper and most still handing out paper based homework assignments in spite of the availabilities of online contents and tools. Lecturers have to spend umteen hours evaluating and collating marks etc. At the end of the year , massive amount of papers to be recycled.

    We hope to work with Universities in the world to look into reducing massively such use of papers through the use of more e-learning tools and contents. We hope to prove through the use of Offline tools and contents , a solution can be found.

    We find that many Universities in spite of having very high speed Internet access and very good online LMS etc are still very paper based.

    We can provide the tools to enable this and would like to offer Universities as many as hundreds of free licences for both the lecturers and students to test it out. If successful, we hope to expand this globally and thus really make Universities greener and more efficient use of time and money.

    Any Universitiy wishing to collaborate with us to make it greener and perhaps save millions in annual paper cost for free , do contact us at contact@paperlesshomework.com. If this is successful, we can then move on to the schools.


    We are aiming for a less paper world …. to save the trees.

  3. Hi Jan,

    There are some useful resources being published, but you could start by looking at the report of the 5th Annual UNESCO-UNEVOC TVET Summit (held during the eLearning Africa Conferences, May 2011 in Tanzania: http://www.elearning-africa.com/programme_table.p…. This has several downloadable presentations available at: http://www.unevoc.unesco.org/wiki.html?&tx_dr….

    Secondly, although not specifically focusing on TVET, the following Organisation for the Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Publication may be of interest – "Assessing the Effects of ICT in Education: Indicators, Criteria and Benchmarks for International Comparisons", available at: http://www.oecdbookshop.org/oecd/display.asp?sf1=…. In particular, Ch.2 "What do we know about the eff ective uses of information and communication technologies in education in developing countries?" may be helpful.


  4. Abdullahi Hussein

    An interesting and to the point piece on African NRENs. The part about the lack of telecommunications infrastructure i the NREN's respective countries, and the challenge this poses to the NRENs is something most of the members in the UbuntuNet Alliance relate to. But on the other hand, the lack of a fundamental factor for the success of a REN inspires creativity and innovation. The adoption of open source technologies and affordable networking gear has a lot of potential in having NRENs establish their own infrastructure.
    But then, there is the lack of sufficient technical expertise and full-time technical staff makes this task an insurmountable one.

  5. Hi all devoted

    i just visited Finlands virtuals. It was demanding task to see , hear and share all knowledge there. Finns are devoted to digital ecosystem. Nice.
    But i want to share that when MKFC started to offer : "everything, everywhere, everytime" students did not have laptops, internet, other digital devices. But they had in communities places as libraries, cybercafees and so on. we all learned not to wait but act now.
    Moodle is opensource learning environment – a good one. look at it. remember opensource can be different in different places. its about to find best practize. i found it in Finland. 400 different tools can be embedded. Content can offered even thru memorystick. in that way you dont need to have internet all the time. Everything means that the method is the crucial tool, method of learning from students angle is the best way to go for me. what do you think ?


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