AfricaConnect: a past, present and future success story for African Research and Education

At the end of 2019and following the success of predecessor projects EUMEDCONNECT, AfricaConnect and AfricaConnect2, Africa’s three Regional Research and Education Network organisations (RRENs): the UbuntuNet Alliance (UA) in Eastern and Southern Africa, the West and Central African Research and Education Network (WACREN) and the Arab States Research and Education Network(ASREN), in partnership with GÉANT, signed a €37.5 million contract agreement with the European Union (EU) for a successor project, AfricaConnect3. The project will extend the reach of RRENs and continue to provide high-speed internet connectivity and a broad range of e-services to NRENs and their communities across Africa. With Africa’s 38 NRENs accounting for around a third of the world’s total, the potential of AfricaConnect3 cannot be overestimated.
The EU’s contribution of €30 million falls within the joint EU-Africa agenda. As Stéphanie Truillé-Baurens, International Cooperation Officer at the European Commission, said: “With AfricaConnect3, the European Union is proud to reaffirm its commitment to support NRENs in Africa. Since 2004, significant progress has been made in improving access of African higher education and research institutions to affordable and secure broadband connectivity.  Under AfricaConnect3, the partners will further exploit the potential of digital technologies as transformation tools for quality education   and   science   collaboration   between   the   EU   and   Africa,   in   line   with   the   EU Digital4Development strategy.”
A continuing success story...
Between  2011  and  2014,  the  EU  co-funded  AfricaConnect  project  helped  establish  the  UbuntuNet backbone, a regional gateway for collaborative research and education in Eastern and Southern Africa operated by the UbuntuNet Alliance.
In 2015, the successor project AfricaConnect2 supported the creation, development and use of high-capacity Internet networks for research and development, adopting a pan-African approach including the  two  other  regions,  West  and  Central  Africa,  and  North  Africa,  alongside  Eastern  and  Southern Africa.
As  a result  of  AfricaConnect  and AfricaConnect2,  19  countries  are  currently connected  to  the  three RRENs in  Africa:  Burundi,  Kenya,  Malawi,  Mozambique,  Rwanda,  Somalia,  South  Africa,  Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe as part of the UA; Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo, members of WACREN; as well as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia under the ASREN umbrella.
Since its start, AfricaConnect has changed the status of connectivity and enabled countries to be active members of research networks. 
  • In Uganda, it has enhanced academic services and the entrepreneurial skills of the country’s youth. 
  • In Tanzania, it has connected university students and staff while enabling collaboration with sister higher education institutes (HEIs) around the world.  
  • In Kenya, AfricaConnect provided remote training and knowledge exchanges to strengthen geoinformatics expertise to support sustainable development.
  • In Zambia  it  accelerated  data-intensive  modelling  and  mapping  to  monitor  soil  degradation and  to  develop  sustainable  land  management.  It  enabled  scientists  to  quickly  monitor  and notify  asthma  sufferers  of  sandstorms  in  Egypt  and  opened  up  career  opportunities  for women in STEM across Africa.
  • AfricaConnect projects have made connectivity more affordable by decreasing bandwidth prices by 94% in Zambia and 60% in Somalia since 2011.
The  achievements  of  AfricaConnect  and  AfricaConnect2  serve  as  a  basis  for  the African  partners  to  further  expand  the  regional networks  under  AC3.  As Boubakar Barry, CEO of WACREN says, “With AfricaConnect3 our target is to connect six more countries. At the end of the project,   we   aim   at   covering   around   700   higher   education   and   research   institutions   with approximately 5 million users”. 
WACREN is also leading two initiatives key to AfricaConnect’s expanding   community:   Women-in-WACREN,   which   has   seen   300   women   trained   in   ICT-for-development, and the Library Support for embedded NREN Services and e-infrastructure (LIBSENSE) aimed at establishing frameworks for scholarly communication and research infrastructures.
As  AfricaConnect3  calls  for  more  collaborations  worldwide,  Leila  Dekkar,  GÉANT’s AfricaConnect3 Project Manager, explains the organization’s role in facilitating R&E community expansion: “GÉANT has been supporting and advocating for research and education networks globally for more than two decades, and we are pleased to contribute to the further expansion of our R&E community in Africa. Today’s science breakthroughs are shifting and are more and more the result of international research collaborations.  At GÉANT we firmly believe that by providing high quality, affordable and dedicated bandwidth and services to researchers in Africa, they will be able to contribute to the world greatest innovations.”
The    African    partners    have    empowered    NRENs    through    capacity-building, knowledge-sharing and participation in regional and international fellowship programmes, connecting 6.2 million researchers and students in North Africa, 3.5 million in Eastern and Southern Africa, and over 400,000 in Ghana and Nigeria. With the new phase of the project, “AfricaConnect3 will also create more opportunities to train more university campus and NREN engineers as well as facilitate 
NREN  staff  exchange  visits  to  enhance  the  sharing  of  knowledge  and  best  practices  within  the region”, in the words of Matthews Mtumbuka, CEO of the UbuntuNet Alliance.
With all North   African   NRENs   re-joining   the   international   R&E   networking community, ASREN sees AfricaConnect3 as an opportunity to allow a wider development of user and community-based services. Representing African RRENs, ASREN will continue leading the engagement with user communities in Africa with a focus on AfriGEO and GMES and African communities.  As Yousef Torman, Co-Managing Director ASREN says, “We will pay more attention to the needs of national and regional communities in terms of connectivity, access and services.  We will promote open science and open access in the region, make use of the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) and coordinate with the African Open Science Platform”.
AfricaConnect3 differs from the two previous phases of the project in that it introduces a novel aspect to the project: advocacy and donor engagement. GÉANT, UA, WACREN and ASREN collectively aim to support the project’s regional partners in raising awareness around the benefits of NRENs and RRENs to various stakeholders and to simultaneously attract new donors and re-engage with previous ones. In previous phases of the project, the African partners received different level of support. This new aspect of the project seeks to tackle this hurdle and will priorities stakeholder engagement and outreach. Similarly, the project intends to reach out to European NRENs alongside other aid institutions in order to coordinate project funding. European NRENs and other organisations have previously shown their commitment to the development of NRENs in Africa, with CIRAD, DFN, NSRC, GARR, GRNET, RedIRIS, RENATER, CyNetand SURFnet being associate partners of in the AfricaConnect3 project. Above all, GÉANT will adopt a supportive role and will primarily seek to amplify the voices of its partners and their respective NRENs.