Prof. Nii Narku Quaynor of Ghana has been recognized as the 'father of the internet in Africa.'
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31 December 2007 06:00
Nii Narku Quaynor in December became the first African winner of the prestigious 2007 Postel Prize from the Internet Society, the international body that regulates the technical standards of the internet.
On December 22, Quaynor, a professor at Cape-Coast University in Ghana, participated in the weekly pan-African Skypecast press conference hosted by the World Federation of Science Journalists.
A deep-voiced computer-science university professor from Accra, Ghana, Quaynor is known as "the father of African internet". Listen in to the man who says critics would change their mind if they had to do without internet ...
Onche Odeh, Lagos, Nigeria: A communication satellite (Nigcomsat 1) was recently launched by a Chinese firm for Nigeria. Do you think a satellite in flight is where Nigeria should begin its information, communication and development process? Or education? Or otherwise something else?
Nii Narku Quaynor, Accra, Ghana: The internet is important for all countries, but especially the developing countries, because of its ability to impact on development and shift attitudes.
Odeh: Most people think the internet is a misplaced priority in a country where the majority are poor, lack computer literacy and the economic power to acquire computers.
Quaynor: Specifically for Nigeria, it's important to stimulate innovation among such a large population. It has an avalanche effect. Imagine Nigeria's own YouTube!
Christina Scott, Cape Town, South Africa: So you would recommend Nigeria having its own "YouTube" -- for entertainment or for education or both?
Quaynor: Using such techniques for education, entertainment or networking is fine. The use is immaterial if it is integrated within society and is not seen as foreign.
Odeh: Professor, what do you think of Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his One Laptop per Child initiative?
Quaynor: The $100 computer à la Negroponte is the right direction. Its lower-cost user interfaces will propel growth. It should be funded by the market, though, not by developmental, non-for-profit funding. Businesses should invest in research and development for low-cost products and compete to get the market to pay as usual. Not-for-profit funding is better spent on capacity building.
Odeh: How sellable is the $100 laptop to a continent like Africa plagued with hunger where the majority have not seen a dollar bill all their life?
Quaynor: $100 is a lot for those who earn $1 a day. But there are lots of people who can afford it better than the $1 000 laptops, so it's good. If prices are not lowered, Africa will use the mobiles instead.
Armand Faye, Dakar, Senegal: Have you any idea on how to skyrocket the number of African computer end-users, especially in rural areas?
Quaynor: We must find shared solutions involving community access and infrastructure and cyber-cafés. But even there, we could design solutions where access is not online but periodic, so when the bus passes by the village or the elephant carrying the wireless is nearby, you can access the internet.
Scott: This would be an internet café in the bus? A mobile internet café, perhaps carried on the back of the elephant?
Quaynor: It could simply be a bus that brings a Wi-Fi [wireless internet connection] cloud along when it passes. Therefore, the village café emails get collected by the bus as it passes and then delivers email.
Scott: Why you have been described as "the father of internet in Africa"?
Quaynor: I am a bit of a Methuselah or a baobab tree. I was pushing for networking long before the internet began in Africa. And I helped countless others spread the internet.
Scott: When did you begin pushing for internet in Africa?
Quaynor: We were operating networks in 1989 using decnet, mcimail and others. In 1993 we began with international dial-up IP to Pipex UK, and the rest is history.
Odeh: Professor, I'd like to know your relationship with Nigerians working in the same field, like Philip Emeagwali.
Quaynor: In Nigeria, my contacts are with Lanre Ajayi, Sunday Folayan and Ibrahim Aminu. The last African Network Operators meeting was in May 2007 in Abuja, Nigeria. The next is in May/June 2008 in Rabat, Morocco.
Odeh: What is your impression of internet in Nigeria?
Quaynor: Nigeria is one of our strongholds at Ghana.com. We receive more Nigerian applications for our workshops every year. At 3,1% penetration for a large country, it is considered very good.
Scott: I'm not very good at percentages. When you say 3,1% penetration, what does that mean?
Quaynor: At 3,1%, we mean that among every 100 people in Nigeria, three of them use the internet regularly.
Faye: But widespread computer development strongly depends on the country's telecommunications, which are poor here in Senegal. The city of Tokyo has twice as many phones as the total in 53 African countries! African telecommunications is a disaster for computers.
Scott: And what can internet do in Africa when our electricity infrastructure such as Eskom is constantly breaking down?
Quaynor: What can internet do when illiteracy is high in Africa? Both power and literacy are required. Africa is challenged by both.
Scott: But illiteracy can be tackled without power. The internet is heavily dependent on electricity. Until regular power supplies are addressed, there is a limit to what the internet can do to boost our economies.
Quaynor: It's the argument about whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. In the early 1990s there were no countries in Africa with internet. Now all countries have internet. There is only one answer, which is to have a Marshall Plan [as was used to reconstruct Europe after the devastation of World War II in the 1940s] to solve the energy and education problems. Recently developed countries shifted from traditional power sources to renewable sources. Africa should do the same.
Scott: Are you recommending things like solar power or wind-up power for laptops?
Quaynor: Yes. I recommend the world's scientists and Africa's own researchers focus attention on developing user interfaces suitable to our conditions. This includes low-cost personal computers, devices that use little power and solar-powered computers. Practical solutions to solve our problems is the way to go. Not the solutions for the West that are adored in Africa.
Frederick Baffour Opoku, Accra, Ghana: About cost. Computer technologies like Skypecast are very scarce in internet cafés dotted around Accra. There is one café in Accra called Busy Internet. My inquiries there revealed fantastic charges for Skypecast service such as the café charging $70 per hour for Skypecast facilities. This is certainly beyond the reach of the ordinary person. Maybe Network Computer Systems, Nii Quaynor's acclaimed firm, needs to do something to make Skypecast and other Skype products affordable in Ghana.
Quaynor: Your question re the cost of Skype is an illustration of fraud caused by the Ghanaian regulator NCA, the National Communication Authority. You may recall Network Computer Systems has a product called ClickTEL similar to Skype but meant to be used in Ghana. The NCA wrote asking NCS to stop. That created an underground market of resellers of foreign services including Skype, so Busy Internet is only exploiting the hole left by the regulator.
Opoku: Computer fraud is rampant worldwide. In Ghana, the situation is making a lot of mess and making some of our youth become unproductive.
Odeh: And what do you think of the growing use of internet to defraud people, the 419 scams that we call 'yahoo yahoo' in Nigeria?
Quaynor: Computer fraud is no more than traditional fraud. The police must be educated and, more importantly, the consumer must be careful. Fraud such as identity theft often involves the consumer, so awareness is key.
Odeh: Seems like science is almost helpless on this internet fraud.
Quaynor: Actually science is not helpless with fraud. The techniques to prevent fraud online are scientific. The methods to detect intrusion are scientific.
Quaynor: I have a credit-card solution in which the card holder's picture is presented to the merchant when the card is used. This kind of e-commerce solution is deeply rooted in computer science. 419 -- advanced fraud -- is only solvable if the greedy do not fall for the trap. However, science and technology can reduce this illegal email spam
Quaynor: Mail servers should be configured so that only known subscribers may send email through it, blocking open relay. Spam filters reduce and contain spam. This is a huge area of study.
Opoku: What about the practice of dumping so-called used computers from abroad on most African countries? They are dotted all round but many of these computers don't last or are out of use.
Quaynor: Don't accept dumping of computers. You can't use them with new software and have headaches getting spares or skilled people to repair them. You deserve a new personal computer.
Scott: Are plans in place to prevent the dumping of out-of-date computers on people in Africa?
Quaynor: I have not seen any plans. It's part of our philosophy, I've shared it with operators in our community. Part of my efforts after winning this award is to sensitise policy makers towards the internet.
Faye: But computers are not 100% safe, because of some materials [used in their construction]. What about recycling?
Quaynor: Africa needs to plan computer recycling for itself, with or without dumping. It's not only the computers which have some gold and other poisons. Every country needs a plan for this. I have plans to visit several African countries during the year to interact with internet society chapters and will keep you informed.
Faye: Hope the first one will be Senegal, you can't fail us.
Quaynor: In Senegal, I have close contact with Mouhamet Diop, Alex Coranthin and others. Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa are part of the plan.