Iman, you have a long list of achievements: Head of the ICT Directorate at the Sudanese Ministry of Higher Education, Founder and CEO of Sudan’s national REN, SudREN, Deputy Chair of the UbuntuNet Alliance, and Sudan’s Country Coordinator at the Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL), among many others. You have also been awarded the 2015 Sudanese “Distinguished Arab Woman Engineer” award. How did you make all of this happen?
My work has always been my baby and I have always given it my time, care, and love.
Balancing between my career, my family, and my social responsibilities was an objective which I managed to accomplish. I certainly got support from my parents, my husband, and my kids. A moment that had a great impact on my career was joining the UbuntuNet Alliance and the AfricaConnect project. I was inspired by wonderful ladies, such as Mrs Margaret Ngwira, the co-founder of UbuntuNet Alliance, who was always full of hope and love for Africa. I was also lucky to work with and learn from Mrs Cathrin Stöver, Chief Communications Officer at GÉANT, who was always energetic, well organised, and a successful leader with her nice character. They both were role models for me. I got real support and encouragement from Dr Francis Tusubira, the former CEO of UbuntuNet Alliance with his optimistic character. I learnt from him that being strong and self-confident is the key to success. I also got support and learned a lot from Dr Duncan Martin, the former CEO of TENET and Prof Meoli Kashorda, the CEO of KENET. All these people generously shared with me all the knowledge and experiences they had to help me build a successful NREN for Sudan. And I could not forget the young ambitious staff at the UbuntuNet Alliance, Beatrice Ng’ambi, Tiwonge Banda, and Hastings Ndebvu. They have worked there from the very early stages of the network and contributed greatly to its success.
Can you tell us more about your role in establishing SudREN?
In 2007, Prof Abdelrahim from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Khartoum invited me to participate in a meeting of the UbuntuNet Alliance, where I saw for the first time the UbuntuNet map with the network connections between NRENs in East and Southern Africa. It was also the first time for me to hear about the AfricaConnect project and to see how it connects the continent’s networks to the global research and education community via GÉANT. There I gave a presentation about the Sudanese Universities Information Network (SUIN) and everyone was surprised to hear that the network connected 27 public universities via an old copper technology served with a very poor Internet speed in kbps, with a technical staff of only two engineers!
Prof Bjorn Pehrson of the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology, who was working in the first feasibility study for the AfricaConnect project, gave me a list of requirements for SUIN to join the project. I realised at that time that SUIN was not a real NREN, and a lot of work would be needed for it to become one. So, I returned to my country with a dream and a vision for SUIN to be at the level of TENET in South Africa or KENET in Kenya and to join the project. I took that list of requirements, and I submitted a proposal to the head of the Universal Fund Department to get a governmental fund for establishing the last mile connections for all Sudanese Universities in an optical fiber network. The request for that fund was approved immediately! Then, I went into a series of negotiations with the Telecom companies and got an offer for a fifth of the commercial price for the Mbps/month, which was affordable for the universities. Thanks to the AfricaConnect project, my staff joined a series of training sessions, and eventually contributed to the improvement of the network. At the end of 2009, SudREN was born and registered as a NGO under the Association of Sudanese Universities!
For the next eight years, SudREN was a membership-based organisation, with a board elected by its member institutions, with 13 qualified members of staff and a sustainable business plan. Its membership reached 102 member institutions comprising all the Sudanese public and private universities, research institutions, colleges, and academies. In 2015, SudREN was classified as an operational NREN in the maturity model in the World Bank report by Michael Foley.
Then in 2017, it was taken over by the Sudanese government and eventually lost its success factors, such as its governance model and highly capable technical staff. SudREN is now a governmental organisation that adheres to restrictive regulations and laws. In my opinion, it is not an easy task for SudREN to be revived successfully, as it requires the dedication of significant resources and project management, and certainly the goodwill and support from its member institutions and the government.
As Sudan’s Country Coordinator at EIFL, you have been advocating for a collaborative relationship between NRENs and library consortia. How have libraries become so crucial for the African research and education community and what is their role nowadays?
NRENs and their member institutions in Africa and across the globe work to address their end users’ needs and provide them with the necessary services they require. Librarians can help with this because they already have direct contact with the very users NRENs want to reach – students, researchers, and academic staff – and already work to build a strong and vibrant community. So, there is no doubt that libraries are crucial for the African R&E communities, and they should build a strong partnership with them.
SudREN joined EIFL in 2007 and since then its member institutions have been able to access various commercial e-resources for free via the IP addresses deployed by SudREN, and that was one of the most important services provided to the members. The libraries in Sudan also benefited a lot from EIFL’s Open Access program and training workshops.
Given my experience with the librarians’ community and as former CEO of SudREN, I was invited by Omo Oaiya to join LIBSENSE. Libraries are crucial for NRENs, and the LIBSENSE initiative advocates for a great model. It aims at building a community of practice for Open Science and to provide free access to scholarly content. I believe that this great project is a good example of collaboration between libraries and NRENs and that it is making very fast steps towards achieving its goals through its working groups focusing on policies, infrastructure and capacity building.
In a previous interview published in CONNECT20, you say that the community needed “a human network with the same goal, the same ambition, the same dream” and that AfricaConnect2 would have provided that. Now that the EU co-funded project has reached its third phase, what progress do you see?
Today, after 12 years from the first project phase of AfricaConnect, I can say that most of our dreams came true! The connectivity map shows the amazing progress in covering most regions in Africa and the Arab world, and the project is providing shared services with high speed and reliable internet connectivity. It is also wonderful to read about the continuous successes in strengthening the human resources capacities at different levels across the NREN community even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All these achievements are evidence of the successful collaboration between the project partners: the European Commission, GÉANT, and the three regional partners in the continent – the UbuntuNet Alliance, WACREN, and ASREN – with the collaboration of regional and national support bodies. Although the partners come from different corners of the world and therefore have cultural differences, they share the same goal, ambition, and the same dream which led to building one big family that works together with dedication to achieve the goals of the project. That would not have happened without good leadership. I believe that the pioneers of the AfricaConnect project – Cathrin Stöver and Francis Tusubira – and the CEOs of the three RRENs – Prof. Madara Ogot of the UbuntuNet Alliance, Boubakar Barry of WACREN, and Yousef Torman of ASREN – played a vital role in these achievements.
You are a true female role model in STEM. Tell us, what is your secret?
In Africa and other regions in the world, women undertaking a career in STEM are facing significant societal challenges. Studying to become an engineer, for example, is considered a threat to the stereotypes of women being at home handling household tasks. However, I believe that any woman in STEM is responsible for changing that misconception and can build an image for herself and plan for her life accordingly! I also believe that the image you build for yourself in your own mirror is the image that others will come to see!
So, I advise young women in STEM to always think of themself as a successful, powerful, self-confident, hard-working, and well-organised woman and work to make it become a reality. Then, success will certainly follow.
To learn more about the current phase of the AfricaConnect project, visit https://africaconnect3.net/