Flow of knowledge
Benjamin Ogwo, PhD, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria
BY JENN DANKO ::::: PHOTO BY GRANT TAYLOR
A tech giant and a non-governmental organization come together to tackle Africa's digital divide.
is losing its best and brightest—by the thousands.
Every year, governments across the continent spend an estimated US$4 billion to replace the loss of skilled professionals fleeing their impoverished home countries. In some nations, more than half of native-born physicians live and work abroad, for example.
Looking to reverse the flow of people and money, HP teamed with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to launch a grid computing project. The idea was to create an electronic infrastructure that would accomplish two goals. First, the grid would allow faculty and students at African universities to collaborate in real time with international colleagues and research networks. And second, with those relationships in place, the next generation of skilled workers might be less likely to abandon Africa.
“HP agreed with UNESCO that one of the big issues was a lot of the intellectual leadership and highly qualified graduates were leaving in order to pursue their careers elsewhere because they didn't have the resources and career perspectives in their home countries,” says Gabriele Zedlmayer, vice president of corporate marketing and global citizenship, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at HP, Doranch, Germany.
UNESCO worked hands-on with the education ministries across the continent to narrow the field of candidates to five universities. Those conducting research in biotechnology, renewable energy and information systems were pushed to the top.
Along with sponsoring socially responsible research projects, the selected countries had also experienced some of the most severe levels of emigration of highly skilled workers, or what Ms. Zedlmayer calls “the loss of human capital.”
In the end, five universities—in Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe—were picked for a chance to staunch the flow of talent.
“We selected projects for their innovative approach and the potential impact of their research findings, but also looked at evidence of the strength of their relationships abroad,” says Arnaud Pierson, EMEA strategic business program manager, university relations at HP, Geneva, Switzerland.
“The extent this type of relationship could have on the entire educational system will be slow but would have enduring impact by refocusing the role of science in the country's developmental efforts.”
—Benjamin Ogwo, PhD, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria
COUNTRIES IN CRISIS
The partnership between HP and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) began in 2002 when they joined forces to unclog the “brain drain” of the Balkan states, many of which had been torn apart by war. Up to 70 percent of skilled professionals had fled their homeland because of limited technology and health services, according to HP.
“A lot of the intellectual leadership—especially from universities and recent graduates—was leaving these countries to do their studies and careers elsewhere because they didn't have the e-infrastructure to do it on location,” says Gabriele Zedlmayer, HP, Doranch, Germany.
The two groups teamed up to wire universities with grid computing that allows users to collaborate, regardless of their location. Four years after the project's launch, the effects rippled through Eastern Europe's academic circles—resulting in the development of websites, databases and research projects at several of the universities involved.
Not only did research and networking capabilities improve, the project has also had policy and political implications, says Marc Bellon, UNESCO, Paris, France.
“Following the involvement of ministers, their deputies and rectors, the project helped to develop dialogue between academics and authorities on science,” he says. “It also had a political impact, as a contribution to overcoming boundaries and enhancing dialogue in a region that had known mistrust and unrest.”
Looking to create the same kind of results, HP then launched the offshoot project in Africa.
“We really were able to demonstrate that these professors and graduates were able to stay in these countries, and from there we took the same approach to Africa,” Ms. Zedlmayer says.
The Centre for the Development of Renewable Energies in Algeria, for example, plans to offer a doctorate program, with scientists working abroad giving lectures via video conferencing. The classes can then be relayed to remote parts of the country.
HP and UNESCO had seen the basic concept work before. In 2002, the two organizations had teamed up to combat the “brain drain” of the war-torn Balkan states in Eastern Europe through grid computing. Intellectual leaders at several universities could then work together— and not feel like they had to leave home to advance their careers.
It could work in Africa. But first the team had to get the technology in place.
DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH
The project may have had roots in Eastern Europe, but when HP and UNESCO launched the African effort in 2007, the team ran into a key difference right from the start. African countries lack the IT infrastructure to connect to other research projects from around the world, Ms. Zedlmayer says.
“It always comes back to the fact that the connectivity in Africa is just not there when considering a project like this,” she says.
HP provided the hardware to selected universities, but low bandwidth, high temperatures and an unreliable flow of electricity plagued the project.
“When you are on location [in Africa] as a project manager, you will have to deal with a lot more than if you were in a mature market because a lot of these problems just don't exist,” Ms. Zedlmayer says.
Someone had to be onsite to helm the project, so HP and UNESCO appointed project managers at the university level to coordinate communication between the two organizations and the institutions themselves.
The percentage of highly skilled Africans who work abroad
Benjamin Ogwo, PhD, at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, Nigeria, was one of five academic leaders tapped for the job. His university is spearheading a project to develop plant tissue culture techniques to make Nigeria's indigenous crops more resistant to drought, disease and insects.
Dr. Ogwo attended a weeklong, HP-sponsored training session in South Africa, with the goal that the IT operations become self-sustainable. But the whirlwind session couldn't prepare him for some of the problems he encountered back at his school, especially in relation to bandwidth. The University of Nigeria has about a 1.5 megabit per second (Mbps) satellite uplink and a 4.5 Mbps downlink for the entire Nsukka campus—not exactly conducive to advanced IT.
And those numbers were already stretched to the limit, explains Dr. Ogwo, currently a visiting assistant professor at the State University of New York at Oswego.
“This bandwidth provision predated the project but has accommodated it,” he says. “Using this size of available bandwidth for all the connectivity needs of the campus slows things down when everybody seems to be using the Internet, especially as more students' activities—including course registration, admission and class assignments—are becoming more Internet-based.”
The University of Nigeria's director of information communication technology was enlisted to the cause. When student online activities intensify, he allocates a certain proportion of bandwidth to make sure the project isn't affected. His expertise came in handy on another part of the project, too. He suggested switching some of the project's components from video conferencing to webinars, which would take up less bandwidth and could be recorded and run asynchronously, Dr. Ogwo explains.
Data-transfer speeds weren't the only cause for concern, though.
The schools simply don't have enough power to handle grid computing, says Ibrahima Niang, project manager at Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal, another school participating in the project.
Some universities rely on generators to supplement the irregular power flow to the grid. But the University of Nigeria mapped out a brighter future, relying on 10 kilovolt-ampere-capacity solar panels, says Dr. Ogwo.
“We intend to use this solution at the next phase of the project and have provided for it in the budget we just submitted to UNESCO,” he says.
Even with this additional power, the project team needed some major help. A lack of skilled workers was the impetus behind the project—so, not surprisingly, finding them in the targeted countries has proven difficult.
“We need a lot of administration training and user training per domain— both physical and mathematical,” Mr. Niang says.
WIRED FOR THE FUTURE
The second phase of the project is scheduled to put 15 additional universities on the grid early this year. The goal is to bring grid as well as cloud computing technologies to as many as 100 universities across Africa and the Middle East, says Marc Bellon, assistant program specialist, UNESCO education sector, Paris, France.
TIP It doesn't always pay to go it alone. “Any project that HP does in the social innovation or social investment space is always a partnership that we do with a non-governmental organization,” says Gabriele Zedlmayer, HP, Doranch, Germany. “As we go into communities and countries where we operate, we need to really understand the local ‘pain points.’”
Success, however, still hinges upon increased bandwidth—and it seems that is finally on the way.
“Between 2009 and 2011, there will be enormous development as it relates to bandwidth in Africa,” says Mr. Bellon.
In April, the UbuntuNet Alliance is scheduled to begin a project designed to eliminate bandwidth shortages at African universities. There are also megaprojects aimed at installing underwater fiber optic cables, including Glo 1, Seacom, TEAMS (The East African Marine System) and EASSy (East African Submarine System), all slated to be operational this year.
That added bandwidth should allow a whole new aspect of the project: cloud computing. Universities will be able to share massive amounts of mathematical, scientific and other data that can be accessed anywhere, independent of a server's storage capability.
The upgrade should help solve problems that hampered research conducted at African universities from the start.
“The speed of accessing materials would be faster, there would be increased access and the overhead Internet access cost for students would be reduced,” Dr. Ogwo says.
HP has invested US$1.6 million in the African pilot program to date and is looking for additional partners for its next phase.
The battle to improve the flow of knowledge continues, and past experience has proven it will require homegrown project management talent on the ground.
“If we really want to build up a big e-infrastructure in Africa and in the Middle East, we really need to join forces there,” Ms. Zedlmayer says.
Although it will take some time to gauge the full influence of the project, Dr. Ogwo says expatriate scientists and their homeland colleagues are already using the grid to collaborate on research.
“The extent this type of relationship could have on the entire educational system will be slow but would have enduring impact by refocusing the role of science in the country's developmental efforts,” he says.
And as the grid spreads across Africa, maybe some of those scientists won't feel like they have to leave home. PM
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