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A Short History of the Internet in Africa (1980-2000)

24180827963 00779759b3 mThose who attended the final day of the African Internet Summit 2016 (AIS’16), which took place back in June in Gaborone, Botswana, were treated to a personal and informative history lesson on the establishment of the Internet in Africa.

Delivered by five of the Internet’s forefathers – George Sadowsky, Alan BarrettAlan Greenberg, Dr Nii Quaynor and Pierre Dandjinou – the session allowed panellists to share their experiences and what they believed were key events that led to us where we are today and where we are going in the future.

It started with a computer

For George, the first key event to establishing the Internet in Africa was when the Africa Centre d’Informatique du Rwanda took ownership of Africa’s first computer in 1980.

“It had a hundredth of the power of my iPhone and cost at least 1000 times as much,” said George, who was involved with installing it – a frustrating event in itself for George but one which he admits was a catalyst in his mission to help develop the Internet in Africa.

Throughout the preceding decade, networks began to appear across Africa with NGOs and universities playing a pivotal role in building infrastructure and developing capacity.

Alan Barrett spoke about his experience and the early days of computing in universities in South Africa and the initial steps leading to the formation of AFRINIC. 

Then came a training workshop

The second key event for George happened in 1993 when the Internet Society organised a training workshop in conjunction with its iNET meeting in San Francisco.

The aim of the workshop was to assist various countries in connecting to the Internet, to extend the reach of the Internet, to teach operators how to obtain and supply services on the net, and to manage national networks to ensure growth and sustainability.

For Alan Greenberg, who became an INET organiser in 1995, the annual workshops were extremely successful. Between 1993 and 2001, over 1,500 students attended the workshops, 447 from African countries.

“With each workshop we were training more and more students from Africa which was encouraging…but in the grand scheme of things we were only making a minimal impact,” said Alan.

After discussing how to expand their efforts, Alan said the organising committee decided to change the objectives of the workshop to instead train trainers, so that they could in turn return to their own countries, train people in their own communities and amplify the effort to improve Internet connectivity.

“In each country I visit, I always ask older people in the industry ‘how many students that we taught are still around training others?’, to which many say there are a significant amount. So I feel we made the right decision,” said Alan.

And finally a conference

The Regional African Conference on Internet Governance, held in Cotonou, Benin, in December 1998 was centre stage to discuss the establishment of AFRINIC. Dr Nii nostalgically recalled the early days from an INET meeting in 1997 where the proposal for setting up AFRINIC and the AF*organisations was made. The instrumental role of the RIPE NCC in setting up AFRINIC  as well as key players in the Internet industry including Ray PlzakAdiel Akplogan, Ernest Byaruhanga and Alain Aina were highlighted

Pierre Dandjinou was last to comment and talked about the initial challenges for setting up a steering committee for AFRINIC that represented Africa's rich cultural diversity. Pierre paid tribute to the commitment of a group of individuals in those days: ''It was an act of dedication for most of us. The vision we had was that Africa needs to be like any other continent – connected to the Internet and have institutions in place.''  

Ever since, all five panelists agree that connectivity and access to the Internet in Africa has come a long way.

View the recording of this session here.

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