Stella Hughes reports on a Francophone project which aims to put African researchers on the World-Wide Web.
For under-resourced, isolated researchers in Africa, the Internet holds the tantalising promise of a solution to many of their problems: tantalising because it remains out of reach for most African universities and research centres, with the exception of those in South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia.
The French institute of research for development, Orstom, is launching a project to give francophone African countries a presence on the World-Wide Web by boosting its existing north-south network Rio (reseau inter-tropical d'ordinateurs).
Rio links 100 institutions in ten African countries. Its network centre in Montpellier, southern France looks after training, maintenance, billing and international connections.
The centre also tries to give African research centres and databases a higher profile internationally, and puts information about them onto the Internet. Orstom has set up a multimedia unit to speed the electronic publication of its own 50 years of specialised research and data gathering in the tropics.
Rio can be accessed by anything from a poor telephone line to a high-speed broad-band link - the idea being that from the outset, whatever the level of equipment, everyone can get something out of it. Currently, 80 per cent of the network's traffic is electronic mail.
"We first had the idea in 1986. We saw the Internet as even more interesting for the south than for the north. The principle of free access and exchange of material could provide an exceptional opportunity for the south to catch up, to access data banks under exactly the same conditions as the north, to put over its own perspectives and its own research options," says the head of Orstom's computer science department, Pascal Renaud.
The French government has approved Orstom's proposal to develop Web sites in francophone Africa as part of France's plans to develop information superhighways.
In parallel, Orstom is working with the International Telecommunications Union and Unitar, the UN institute for training and research, to link African research and education to the Internet. "Within two years, I think we'll see half the francophone countries with medium-speed links. We aim to provide a minimum of two servers per country," says Renaud. "We will also provide a lot of training for users and maintenance technicians."
But the provision of high-speed links is beyond Orstom's resources and will depend on multilateral projects backed by the World Bank or other major fund-holders. Orstom insists that the long term financing arrangements and payment systems must be settled from the outset, to ensure that African links are maintained.
"In the north, the Internet was developed for and by higher education institutions. But in Africa, higher education is one of the lowest state-spending priorities and could never pay for it out of its current budgets," says Renaud.
This situation worries African academics. "The politicians see it as an economic opportunity, for banking and so forth. There is a risk that higher education will be bypassed yet again," says Alex Corenthin, head of the computer science department at Dakar's grande ecole Ensut.
Senegal has the most advanced communications infrastructure in West Africa and is negotiating with international partners to install high-speed links by the end of the year. Of its 17 national networks, most are used by UN and non-governmental organisation offices and private firms.
Dakar's university is connected not only to Rio but to the francophone academic network Refer, which began as France's equivalent of the United Kingdom's JANET but is emerging as an international information highway for French-speaking academics. The international association of francophone universities AUPELF has just begun installing Refer in member institutions.
Senegal's academic institutions also have specialised networks like Health Net. The first step towards full admittance into cyberspace is for all such nets to be fully interlinked nationally.
Emmanuel Tonye, of Yaounde University's polytechnic grande ecole in Cameroon, is anxious for his country to take this vital step. "It's high time Cameroon's four different nets were integrated, with cross national links to the Internet," he says, "this conference at Orstom to launch the Web project is an opportunity for us to drive that point home".
The creation of fully operational national bases is also Orstom's first priority. "Our job, after the equipment is there, is to provide the knowhow to maximise the use of national networks. Then we can help African users to make the most of the Internet and finally, help them produce their own multimedia databases," explained Renaud.
Even limited use of multimedia raises high hopes in the least developed countries. Burkina Faso has had Rio since 1992 and should be linked up to Refer soon. "It is a big hope because our problem is our isolation," explains Joachim Tankoano, director of Ouagadougou University's computer science school.
"We don't have the means to hold scientific meetings or to travel to conferences, the cost of journals and other materials is prohibitive, so this could be our great chance."
North-South exchange is not the only opportunity on the horizon. African nations' notoriously poor cross-border communications have long hampered inter-African ex-changes. It is often easier to fly to London or Paris than to the neighbouring capital. Telephone calls between incompatible national telephone networks are routed through Europe.
Now, new telephone systems are being put in which will hugely increase the potential for regional networking and will also help overcome Africa's anglophone-francophone divide.
It should become possible to integrate the various plans for academic networks.
"The Association of African Universities, based in Accra, has a similar project to Orstom's to connect all of us but has found no financial backers," says Corenthin. "Yet this should be the priority - we have to overcome language barriers and integrate all the different projects.
"The various university projects were submitted to funding bodies some time ago. It's thanks to Rio we have got something started. There has been a growing interest over the past year, but for economic reasons . . . which could leave education and research behind, and that goes right against the philosophy of Internet."
The problem is to persuade private backers, who are essential for expensive investments such as fibre optic cable links, of the need to give academic users pride of place on the system. Tankoano remains optimistic.
"So many expensive development projects funded in Africa turned out to be colossal white elephants and got nowhere. This would cost far less and have huge potential for Africa's dev-elopment."