In 2015, the World agreed on a common direction: create a better and more sustainable world, through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 193 countries, meeting at the UN General Assembly, agreed to make the world a better place by 2030. The SDGs have since become a benchmark for measuring the efforts of countries and organisations towards making the world a better place to live. The tick of the clock shows that the World has seven years left to attain the 17 Global Goals; and the interests of policy decision-makers and funding organisations have heightened.
Though many global watchers have predicted that the world will not have ticked all the boxes by 2030, Research and Education Networks (RENs) in Africa, both national (NRENs) and regional (RRENs) have been contributing their best efforts to the achievement of the SDGs by helping to tackle urgent social issues and thereby creating value in a number of fields, including education, climate change, gender equality, economic growth, and innovation. Unfortunately, this contribution has been largely underreported.
In an effort to contribute to remedying the situation, the AfricaConnect3 Project Communications team, in partnership with the wider African research and education community, embarked on an initiative to discover and share evidence of the contributions and enhance the visibility of the work done so far by the RENs. By highlighting such contributions and showing that their activities are SDG-tailored, African RENs will be more viable for funding and also wield greater advocacy power.
Steady Efforts, Great Impact
For more than a decade, NRENs in Africa have increasingly fostered quality education across the continent. They have been providing much-needed, reliable, affordable, and high-speed internet connectivity, e-infrastructure and advanced services for knowledge discovery, use and dissemination, not only within Africa but the rest of the world. This support reached a crescendo during the COVID-19 pandemic. NRENs became the lifeline for many research and education institutions across Africa, as they provided alternative options to the normal learning approach. The Ugandan NREN has been making waves in the field of off-campus Wi-Fi connection with metro eduroam and eduroam on the Go. Both allow researchers, lecturers, and students to connect to eduroam, from the comfort of their locations. ZAMREN (Zambia), TENET (South Africa), SLREN (Sierra Leone), MARWAN (Morocco), GARNET (Ghana) and CCK (Tunisia) also provided free access to video conferencing tools and platforms for Learning Management Systems to help academic continuity at the height of the pandemic. Hundreds of higher education institutions (HEIs) and research centres in over 35 countries have impacted the education of more than five million people in the R&E ecosystem in Africa.
African women are still the minority in the research field and academics of science, but the national networks in Algeria, Tunisia, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe have women at their helm. Other RENs and their member institutions in Ghana and Sierra Leone are levelling the playing field for all genders, in terms of employment, capacity building, and education. For many years now, the ICT4Girls Hackathon run by Eko-Konnect in Nigeria and the Women-in-WACREN program have given females in the sub-region the impetus to advance in their STEM ambitions. It is also worth noting that in 2022, Makerere University in Uganda, which is a member of RENU, has become the first public sector institution in the country to enrol in the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Equality Seal Initiative, designed to promote accountability for gender equality and women’s empowerment in public sector institutions.
African RENs’ efforts at achieving SDG 4 dovetails with efforts towards Goal 8. RENs actively offer online training and workshops to raise the capacities of their staff and that of the African community at large. The knowledge shared allows the beneficiaries to access a plethora of information from anywhere in the world. As the human capital development in African countries rises, many students and young professionals are equipped with tech-related skills and eventually have better employment opportunities. For example, the young female participants in Eko-Konnect and WACREN’s ICT hackathons and workshops have imbibed ICT-related skills for entrepreneurship and the world of work. Some final year students in Kyambogo University, taking advantage of reliable high-speed connectivity, developed a suite of management software – Zeenode. Today, this innovation has now metamorphosed into a full-fledged business employing professionals across Africa. Similarly, every year, RENU runs a hands-on Industrial Training Program for undergraduate students to immerse them into REN operations and activities.
RENs are fostering the spirit of innovation in students, ICT professionals, and researchers in Africa. In Nigeria, for instance, a group of student-interns developed a campus security system to detect intruders. RENU made headlines when it powered a remote surgical operation between two hospitals on its high-speed backbone. These two are just few of the many available examples. By leveraging on economies of scale made possible by the global network created between GÉANT and the regional networks in Africa (the UbuntuNet Alliance, WACREN, and ASREN), NRENs have been providing internet connectivity at more affordable rates, better than private sector players and hence enable a more inclusive and fair research environment. From the inception of the AfricaConnect project, backbone expansion and infrastructure upgrades have led to more and more countries being connected and more users benefitting from the seamless delivery of content, data, and services. In the context of open science, RENs have been joining the LIBSENSE initiative which is building a community of practice across Africa to advance open science and open access by enhancing advocacy and developing shared platforms for the library communities.
NRENs, like GARNET in Ghana, SANReN in South Africa, and CCK in Tunisia have been increasingly placing emphasis on adopting greener ICT policies to reduce the carbon footprint of their networks by decreasing energy consumption through the use of solar panels and promoting sustainable practices. In addition to this, through providing increased and better internet connection to research institutes, NRENs and RRENs contribute directly to supporting research in the field of sustainability of environmental resources, crop health, farming practices, land management, and climate change.
RENs are by definition associations of members and, as such, they enable the creation of partnerships. They have been developing, promoting, and benefiting from regional and international collaborations in a variety of fields, from network, services, and open science to cybersecurity and cloud engineering for almost three decades. They collaborate with development partners and like-minded international organisations, such as the European Commission, Internet Society, World Bank, the Open Researcher and Contributor ID, and Network Startup Resource Centre, among many others, to embark on projects and initiatives that support the SDGs. All cross-continental, cross-sector and multi-stakeholder collaborations aim to promote knowledge sharing and a global transfer of technical and operational expertise, to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of African e-infrastructures and continue to contribute to SDGs.
The “multiplier effect”
Their contributions to SDGs do not end in the areas mentioned above, but their support for a more inclusive access to digital infrastructures and services across the continent has spill-over effects on many other SDGs. For example, RENs connect and provide internet services to various hospitals working on combating health diseases (SDG3) as well as research institutes addressing some of Africa’s greatest sustainability challenges, like food insecurity (SDG2), water management (SDG6), and soil mapping (SDG15).
NRENs and RRENs present an excellent promise for accomplishing significant progress in the achievement of some SDGs and have proved fundamental to ensure equality in access and promotion of innovation. This is true not only for African networks but for RENs all around the world. So, when are you going to make the case about SDGs for your network?
Madara Ogot, UbuntuNet Alliance CEO
UbuntuNet Alliance recognises the important role that NRENs play in accelerating progress toward the UN SDGs. This initiative will not only highlight the vital contribution of NRENs, but also empower the entire community to leverage on technology to build a better future for all Africans
Boubakar Barry, WACREN CEO
RENs across Africa have for many years been contributing to achieving SDGs. It is time to step up our efforts and reap the benefits of being SDGs-aligned, through improved advocacy and better visibility. WACREN and its members are on this course.
Yousef Torman, ASREN Managing Director
ASREN is proud to be collaborating with the AfricaConnect3 partners. We are taking the lead in facilitating access to scientific resources for the space and earth observation communities to enable cooperation in Africa and the achievement of the SDGs.
Erik Huizer, GÉANT CEO
At GÉANT we firmly believe that Science and innovation knows no borders. And we partner in Africa with ASREN, UbuntuNet Alliance, and WACREN to serve research and education. As a community we proudly aim at providing steppingstones towards the world’s biggest innovations and bridging the digital divide that will benefit humanity and transform our world.
To learn more about the AfricaConnect3 project’s initiative and download the full report, visit: https://africaconnect3.net/sdgs-info-centre
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