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Networking in West Africa

by Moussa Fall

Moussa Fall is network manager for ENDA-Dakar node in Dakar, Senegal. He also works for the CABECA project and through that project has installed electronic mail nodes in Morocco, Chad, and Mali. He has plans for working in Mauritania, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Togo, and Benin. He was an administrative assistant at ENDA before getting into the networking field in 1991. He asks that his case study be dedicated to "Pape, gone so early, and to Touti and the whole tribe for their help and support."

"Networking means connecting people to people and people to information; it does not mean connecting computers to computers." Wendy D. White - Growing the Internet in Africa, /nternet Society News, 1994, Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 28.


I work for an organization called Environment and Development Action in the Third World (ENDA). It was founded in 1972 in order to:

· work with grassroots groups on the basis of their needs and objectives;· contribute to the search for alternative development possibilities at all levels as well as to the various kinds of training programs that will make this development possible; and· contribute to intellectuals' and trained personnel's involvement in the setting up and implementation of development programs in the service of the largest number of people possible.

ENDA has also had a leading role in various global networks dedicated to habitat, energy, street youth, pesticides, and other issues that have an environmental component. ENDA works in all parts of the Third World but the headquarters, where I work, is in Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa. Senegal is a francophone country.

Since 1975, my role at ENDA, among other administrative tasks, has consisted of organizing seminars, conferences, and training sessions. These outreach tasks have helped to put me in contact with many people and I believe that I started networking from there.

I first met Doug Rigby1 in 1991 , at an Interdoc meeting in Epe (Netherlands), at which there was an introduction to electronic networking. He spent considerable time talking to me about Fidonet technology and the NGOnet project. (See Box 1.) Back in Dakar, I pushed my boss to get an email account with a European private email provider. We accessed this account through the Senegalese PTT X.25 and we extensively used it for email and for the fax service.

BOX 1 The NGOnet Project

The NGOnet project was instrumental in bringing networking to Africa. It started as a project of the Environment Liaison Centre International (ELCI) in Nairobi where a Fidonet bulletin board system had been set up to provide a conduit for electronic mail traffic in the region and to NGOs worldwide. This was done using a highspeed modem to make daily calls to the GreenNet Fidonet (GnFido) gateway in London.

The project was based on a survey that found that there were significant numbers of non-governmental organizations that had computers but were not using them for electronic mail. To provide NGOs with the cheapest access, emphasis was placed on establishing a series of hosts with high speed modems distributed throughout Africa. These then provided NGOs with local support and a local call to connect to the global electronic network. Four prototype hosts were set up, one for each region of Africa - ELCI in Nairobi, MANGO in Harare, ENDA in Dakar, and ENDA-Arabe in Tunis.


In June 1992, the NGOnet project organized a one week workshop in Dakar to introduce Fidonet to the non-governmental organization (NGO) community. Doug Rigby was the organizer and, of course, I was among the participants. To encourage NGO networking, the project donated one PC 386 for the node and four modems. ENDA was chosen to host the node because of its commitment to immediately acquire a dedicated phone line and to allow me to give part of my time to the networking project.

Here, I have to confess that I had no DOS skills - ENDA only used Macs. But, because I was really interested in this new technology, I bought books on DOS and computing in general and started learning. When you are very motivated you can "move mountains". . .

For three months, the four NGOs that had received training and modems started communicating just among themselves. There was no international traffic! Then, in August 1992, the network received another donation from the NGOnet project - a high speed modem (Telebit Trailblazer 2500) - which made us ready to connect to the rest of the world.

Fidonet - A Grassroots Network

My introduction to Fidonet was so important that I should take time here to describe this form of networking in more detail. Fidonet is a grassroots electronic communications community that has been hard at work for over a decade devising ever cheaper and increasingly sophisticated tools to serve its needs through dialup, store-and-forward, and modem-based connections. Fidonet technology has proven to be a powerful do-it-yourself tool for establishing initial footholds into the world of electronic communications. It offers users an affordable option even if they lack institutional affiliations, financial resources, or are located in a country where the nearest electronic communications link requires an expensive dialup call over international phone lines.

Because Fidonet technology emerged in an environment where individuals operated each system independently and covered their own costs for phone calls and equipment, it had to be very flexible, decentralized, and designed to operate inexpensively with standard modems and microcomputers connected over ordinary phone lines. The "handshaking" and file transfer protocols built into all Fidonet-compatible software incorporate compression, error correction, and error recovery capabilities that squeeze as much data as possible into the shortest transmission time that the hardware will allow. Instead of using packet-switching, these independent systems establish gateways with larger, international electronic mail systems using high speed modems. At regular intervals, the independent systems dial into the larger systems to swap incoming and outgoing messages. This approach keeps down the cost of international calls without requiring sophisticated computer equipment.

Fidonet messages are sent along a hierarchy. At the top are five very broad geographic zones. Africa is Zone number 5. The zones are divided into regions, then into hosts, then into hubs, and then into nodes. Just like all the levels above them in the chain, nodes offer local email, pass new messages to and from the hub, and collect messages to and from the point - the lowest level of the Fidonet hierarchy. Point operators have systems that are configured with all the software necessary to call (or poll) the node and upload and download messages and files whenever it is convenient. The computer can do all the work automatically, making the calls into the central system at a time when the lines may have less traffic or the costs may be lower.

Fidonet is a communications technology that many consider to be less advanced and, therefore, less useful than other technologies. It does not offer all of the sophistication that other, more costly systems do. However, as you have electronic mail capabilities, you can access important Internet tools like file transfer protocol (FTP), Gophermail, World Wide Web (WWW), Veronica, Wide-Area Information Servers (WAIS), and listservs - even if you do not get the results immediately as in a direct Internet connection. (See Box 2.) Fidonet technology has limited expansion capabilities, insofar as it will always remain a store-and-forward, modem-based network. It lacks the capability for online information retrieval, database searches, remote-login, and remote-execution that other systems offer. However' while the expansion of more advanced computer networking technologies iS often constrained by prohibitively high costs and inadequate telecommunications infrastructure, Fidonet technology is not.

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC), a global network dedicated to NGOs, was involved in the NGOnet project.2 The APC was our natural partner. Through theAPC London-based member, GreenNet, we connect through their Fidonet gateway (GnFido) to the rest of the world. GnFido serves as a gateway for small Fidonet hosts not only from Africa, but also from Asia and Latin America.

Through this system we have been able to use email, download conferences, and use the GreenNet fax service, which costs very little compared to the national PTT charges. The computer conferences received were on various topics: environment, development, health, AIDS, and so on. We also followed the United Nations Environment Programme's preparatory conferences and the NGO discussions regarding these conferences. ENDA now runs a private conference for its own use, linking its various offices around the world.

BOX 2 Internet Navigational Tools

TELNET- Telnet, the internet standard protocol for remote terminal connections, is used for logging into and searching other computers connected to the Internet.
FTP - FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol and allows users to exchange files between their workstations and remote computers connected to the Internet.
GOPHER - Gopher, a software program for browsing and information retrieval, provides a menu-driven interface that shows what is available on a server. The user burrows through a set of "nested'' menus to get closer and closer to a specific topic. Gopher collects information scattered across many computers and presents it on the same menu.
VERONICA - Veronica is an indexer that can query every gopher on the gopher system to search for a keyword or phrase in a menu title. It then gives the address of all the menus with those key words.
WAIS - WAIS, Wide Area Information Server, searches the full text of a document to look for specified key words. WAIS accepts commands in plain English, processes them at the user level, and relays the processed information from the user to the selected databases.
WORLD WIDE WEB (WWW) - WWW is a tool for working with collections of data, or databases. It is a hypertext based system that provides access to a variety of files and information. Hypertext allows a user doing research on one document to jump to a related item in another document through hypertext links. In WWW, each document contains highlighted items for which additional information is available. The additional information is contained in another document that is displayed when the user selects the highlighted item. With appropriate software, such as Netscape, the user can view not just text but pictures, sound files, and video.


How Users Are Trained

Users are trained either on an individual or group basis. After only one hour, the trainees are able to send messages and check their mailboxes. Usually training is done gradually. It is better to have three sessions of one hour each than just one session of three hours. During the second session, users are shown how to encode files to be sent and how to decode the received ones. The last session teaches them how to subscribe to conferences, how to contribute to a conference, and how to quit a conference.

Because the point software we use is user-friendly, after the training sessions, users need very little help. This they can request by sending a message to the postmaster who will respond to them as simply as possible.

For organizations using desktop computers, training is organized on site. For individuals or organizations using laptops, we ask them to come to the ENDA offices where things will be easier in case there is a problem.

Development of the Network and Perspectives

Accessing our network is relatively cheap3. Since the host is a non-profit, non-governmental organization, it does not intend to make a profit from providing networking services.

Our active users are our best advertisers! They help us "sell" the benefits of networking. Presently the ENDA-DAK node has over 110 users - coming from national and international organizations, individuals, government agencies, universities, and even the private sector. Our users come not only from Senegal, but also from other neighboring countries, including the Gambia, Mali, and Burkina Faso. The demand is increasing locally and also in all the neighboring countries.

Connecting Problems

During the period of April-May-June 1995, we experienced problems in our connections with GnFido in London. The Senegalese phone system was not working properly and users complained that their mail had not been delivered in time. We tried several modems and, paradoxically, the modem with the worst reputation behaved better than all those of a supposed higher quality. Now the situation is better and we are presently using a Zyxel modem.

Regional Networking

In 1994, I was a consultant to the United Nations Environment Programme, Global Environment Facility Project, which consisted of linking national teams doing research on greenhouse gases in Senegal, the Gambia, Morocco, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Kenya. My part of the work consisted of developing teaching tools for national teams in Senegal, Gambia, and Morocco. I also did system installation, provided training, and helped link these teams to the conference set up for them. They were thus able to exchange data on their research, exchange views on methodology and software used, and share experiences. It should be noted that this conference was bilingual and I did most of the translation into [French.

Since 1994, I have also been involved in the PADIS/IDRC CABECA project (see Box 3), which tries to give access to countries where there is no connectivity at all or where the existing infrastructure is too expensive for the NGO community to afford. An agreement between the ENDA Executive Secretary and Nancy Hafkin, who is the head of PADIS and the CABECA project, allowed me to work full time in electronic networking.

This agreement was easier to reach than might be expected. I should point out here that first our two institutions shared a common goal: to give electronic access to communities at the grassroots level. This facilitated the collaboration. I should also note that Nancy Hafkin's devotion to African networking and her confidence in this continent and its human resources made this institutional collaboration possible.

Through the CABECA project, I installed nodes in Rabat, in Chad, and in Mali. Another CABECA goal is to train node operators who will themselves become trainers.

In the CABECA project, we are trying to implement a regional network that is badly needed in francophone West Africa. Among these countries the telephone exchange is relatively good and the costs are relatively low. The idea is to have a regional hub - ENDA-DAK - which will be the focal point for the region, through which all regional mail shall be routed. With this infrastructure, there is no need for mail addressed to the neighboring countries to be routed through European gateways. Putting our resources together will make regional networking more efficient and will reduce our costs for international traffic. We believe that once this infrastructure is set up, the region will be a zone for intensive information exchange. Organizations in the region have a great deal of information to share' the countries have the same language, the same currency, participate in the same economic organizations, and often are in the same ecological zone. Common interests and experiences should encourage the growth of networking in West Africa.

Some international organizations understand this very well and are discussing with us how to connect their projects or field offices to this low cost infrastructure. We are presently discussing with HealthNet the best way to for Senegal and other countries in the region to collaborate with this project.

Methodology for Sensitizing

In each country visited under the CABECA project, we organized a half-day workshop to sensitize NGOs and individuals to electronic networking. Some workshops, such as the one in Chad, brought together as many as 35 people. After a preliminary introduction to the technology, using a phone simulator I always carry with me, we split participants into three groups, each one sitting around a computer. That way, each group can prepare one or two messages addressed to the other two groups and then, through modems and the phone simulator, exchange mail. They can see how fast the message can go and also the other possibilities of the system.

After this hands-on training, all groups get together for a final discussion on how this technology can serve the national community, the advantages compared to technologies such as fax or even conventional mail. We always focus first on how this technology can serve information sharing and exchange within the country before opening up to regional and international networks.

Here we must not forget the context in which we work in many African countries: there are poor phone lines and electrical shortages and outages. In some of these countries, you can get a dial-tone only after working hours. In some others, it is even worse, as not only do you have to wait a long time for a dial tone but, once you get it, you are not sure your international call will succeed. In one of these countries you can dial directly only to France!

Difficulties in Sensitizing

There are people who are allergic to new technologies. In one of the countries I visited for sensitizing purposes, the Government computing department is now attached to a national service. During our meetings, the head of that service had been completely against the introduction of this new technology, despite the fact that minister and all his colleagues agreed that their country should be part of the process. They all wanted to join the growing networks and reap benefits from them. Yet' the head of the service was able to block progress. Every month, his office sends data concerning the country to their subscribers who pay for the information. The documents are sent by regular mail. After many demonstrations and taking into consideration the volume of information sent monthly to North America and Europe, that person still retains his original position - which makes his colleagues quite unhappy.

BOX 3 Capacity Building for Electronic Communication in Africa

Funded by a grant from the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the project on Capacity Building for Electronic Communication in Africa (CABECA) builds on the experience gained over the last four years from a number of IDRC-funded electronic networking projects in Africa. A public corporation created by the Parliament of Canada to support research designed to adapt science and technology to the needs of developing countries, IDRC has taken the lead in financing African electronic networking initiatives with the aim of demonstrating that the technology for deploying electronic connections throughout Africa is readily available and can be implemented at relatively low cost, taking into account the economic, social and political difficulties the region faces. The CABECA project design attempts to address the problems of the African region that have isolated it from the international networking phenomenon.

CABECA's overall objective is to provide technical assistance to bring about sustainable computer-based networking in Africa, at an affordable cost, accessible to a wide variety of users from both the private and public sectors. To build African capacity for computer networking, it will train a corps of systems operators who can train others in their area and offer continuing support to fledgling users to ensure the sustainability of national nodes with connections to international networks. The project's aim is to offer inexpensive and easy access to local and international information services on systems run by local operators and sustained by revenue from users. They will be able to exchange electronic mail worldwide at a fraction of the cost of fax or telex; they will also have access to conference mail, file transfer and databases. Efforts will be made to facilitate African connectivity to the expanding range of Internet information services.


Some of our users told us that they were able to get rid of the international line they used to send faxes after they discovered our fax service. Now their fax machine is mainly receiving faxes from their correspondents who do not have email and this has dramatically reduced their communications costs.

NGOs have been changing their way of communicating - especially with their northern partners. They are not only sending faxes but they send and receive email messages and files. Some of them have been subscribing to listservs while the others, because of language problems, wait for the opportunity to have access to conferences in French.

NGOs have also benefited from the technology by being better able to participate in the preparations for such events as the United Nations environment conference. Through the NGO forum, even small and isolated organizations can be heard. ENDA itself, during the UN Environment Conference, issued a daily newspaper in French giving accounts and comments on what was happening. The newspaper was uploaded to Dakar and issued in both places on the same day. The newspaper was broadly diffused among NGOs in Africa via networking technology. (For another example of the benefits of email, see Box 4.)

BOX 4 Using Email to Solve Problems

In Burkina-Faso, there is a daily newspaper that is issued at noon every day except Sunday. The editor told us that to send an issue to a town located 400 hundred kilometers from the capital city they have to transport it via "bush taxi." Due to lack of road infrastructure, the newspaper can be sold only the following morning. Using email technology, the newspaper can be transferred very easily and very quickly through the phone system, printed on the spot, and issued at the same time as the capital city.


· Sacrifices are necessary to begin a network. You must be prepared to work long hours, spend your own money, visit users who have problems that have nothing to do with the electronic communications system, and fix hardware and software problems.
· If you give people your home phone number, then you will be disturbed for anything.· You also need to be patient with people. You may find people with laptops who will take minutes to write a single word.· For strategic purposes, you will sometimes have to give free accounts.· Fidonet is a simple technology to master for NGOs which do not have the resources and the time to invest in too sophisticated technologies. Presently this is an appropriate technology for some African countries taking into account the situation described above.

Fidonet has been criticized for its limitations, but for people who are interested in email only and fax services, this is no doubt often the best choice. In spite of all what is said, IT WORKS. . .


Here is probably the best recollection I have from networking. Two years ago, I was surprised to find a message in my mail box saying:

"I have been searching the Internet for an electronic address in Africa and found yours for Senegal. My name is..., I am living in .... of the USA and I am 12 years old." For a while this young boy and myself have corresponded.

This would surprise any African - as we have not yet reached this level of computer use in Africa. Taxes continue to make computers unaffordable for individual use. And because of this we have a very low level of computer literacy.

One should note also that almost all NGOs use computers only for word processing, which really shows lack of computer skills.

When you try to convince NGOs or individuals who have access to computers to join the network, they are afraid of investing a lot of time learning something new. Those who do not have access to computers do not understand the necessity to invest money in a new technology of which they are afraid.

At this level, those who are connected are only interested in email and sending faxes. This is understandable as communication costs are very expensive in our countries.


1. Doug Rigby came to Nairobi in 1989 to work at the Environment Liaison Center International (ELCI), which served as the node for several networking projects. While there, Mr. Rigby did much to extend networking technologies, principles, and training throughout Africa. Many local systems operators credit their current enthusiasm and success to Mr. Rigby.

2. The APC has contributed much to African networking. For more information about this organization see page 189 in this volume.

3. The following rates are applied: installation US$ 20.00; monthly fee US$ 5.00; charge per kilobyte sent US$ 0. 10, charge per kilobyte received US$ 0. 10.


I am deeply grateful to Jacques Bugnicourt, ENDA's Executive Secretary for his generosity and his open mind. He understood very quickly how crucial this technology was for his own organization and for the NGO community. And without his personal commitment and his encouragement, I would not have been able to work in this field.

To Abou Thiam, from ENDA, who first mentioned email to me.

Thanks to Doug Rigby for the role he played in electronic communications in Africa. He is the one who introduced the technology to me and to many African system operators.

Thanks also to wonderful friends and colleagues who played and continue playing a crucial role in African networking: Bob Barad, Karen Banks, Mike Jensen, Cesare Dieni, Youba Sokona and Ann Heidenreich.

Thank you also to the very good friends in the APC networks.