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Infrastructure and Community Development 27 August 2021

A Vibrant Community Works to Make the Internet Better in Africa

By Israel NyohFormer Communications and Outreach Manager - Africa

Could Africa become the next incubator for Internet innovation? If so, a community of people who’ve spent more than a decade growing its Internet infrastructure could play a key role.

Dawit Bekele, the Internet Society’s regional vice president for Africa, remembers the days before Internet exchange points (IXPs), a vital part of a strong Internet infrastructure, took off on the continent. “It was very different from what it is today,” he says.

Before 2010, there were few functional IXPs, and they didn’t have a lot of traffic. Many people thought IXPs had no big place in Africa. Bekele says as a result the Internet Society struggled to get people to accept the importance of IXPs to exchanging traffic locally.

“Most of Africa’s traffic was exchanged internationally and there was little prospect of this changing any time soon. We realized it was an important battle to change this, which is why we decided to have a multi-year long term vision,” he says.

It was a long-beaten path. Before the Internet Society emerged on the scene, the African ISP Association (AfrISPA) and the International Telecommunication Union tried to establish IXPs in Africa. They were able to establish quite a few, but due to a lack of local support, most didn’t remain functional far beyond the project period. According to Bekele, they set up devices and received funding, but when the funding ran out, they stopped. There weren’t enough champions at national levels who could raise awareness on the importance of IXPs with stakeholders.

The project became something for the Internet Society team to learn from. Bekele says they used a different approach, starting first by studying what was in the Internet ecosystem, who needed to be convinced, and how they could create impact.

“The Internet Society has always believed it’s the people on the ground who understand the issues, who have the passion and will to drive change locally. And beyond individuals, we needed a community who pushes this forward. So, one of the things was to understand the local landscape and the depth of the problem,” says Bekele.

This view was instrumental in the launch of the African Peering and Interconnection Forum (AfPIF) in 2010. The now-annual event addressed key interconnection, peering, and traffic exchange challenges on the continent. It also provided participants with global and regional insights for maximizing opportunities to help grow Internet infrastructure and services in Africa. Different people within the African technical community could learn more about IXPs and why they’re important.

AfPIF became the breeding ground for a strong community of people coming from all over the globe with a mission to grow the Internet in Africa. “Today, wherever we go, we have passionate people who fought for our cause,” says Bekele.

The Vision: 80/20

“I think in most countries 80% of traffic was exchanged internationally and 20% locally. We said we needed to reverse the situation,” says Bekele. This was the genesis of the ambitious 80/20 goal, launched by the Internet Society in 2010, which caught up very quickly among the community.

The goal was helped when the African Union Commission (AUC) put its support behind it in 2012. “We worked hard for them to come to our side, and they did. After three years of courtship, AUC won a grant from the European Union Commission for the African Internet Exchange System (AXIS) project that involved the Internet Society. It made a huge difference in propelling the goal,” says Bekele.

But the journey wasn’t without its challenges. It wasn’t easy to bring together different competitors on the ground, for example. When the Internet Society met with one operator, meeting the next one could be problematic. “It was a lot harder to talk to the operators because they were suspicious,” Bekele says. The process was time consuming.

After the Internet Society started working with the AUC on the AXIS Project, it became much easier to work with the Internet community. Because many of the stakeholders, including governments and operators, trust the African Union, they felt they could trust the Internet Society team.

While promoting IXPs, one challenge is convincing governments to take a back seat. As Bekele says, “Governments are more used to leading something. They are less comfortable in enabling something.” But, when governments lead, operators can become suspicious. They want their independent voice to be heard. It took some time for governments to understand this. In cases where neutral voices were in charge, the process experienced fewer hurdles.

Looking at the 80/20 goal now, Bekele is impressed. “We thought it was a steep hill to climb.” Today, about 56% of African countries have IXPs.

It’s a huge milestone, but even as the Internet community celebrates, there are still areas that didn’t go to plan. The hugely successful AXIS project with the African Union couldn’t succeed everywhere, mostly because of security reasons. And in countries like the Central African Republic, where the Internet Society held capacity-building workshops in spite of security challenges, IXPs were, understandably, not a priority.

South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya are leading on the 80/20 goal. What makes them so successful? They have a couple of things in common. They were ambitious to see their Internet sector develop, and they had a vibrant private sector and civil society, which are especially critical for developing the Internet. “When the government decides everything alone, the Internet develops much slower than when everybody works together,” explains Bekele.

In Kenya, for example, the government shut down the IXP shortly after it was launched in 2001. This was followed by intense negotiations and consultations with the Kenyan ISP Association, Tespok, which resulted in the IXP being allowed to operate under a license—which everybody today agrees was a mistake. The Kenyan government used that experience to build an exemplary multistakeholder relationship, enabling the success of the Kenyan Internet sector.

What still needs to be done?

Africa has more work ahead to become an Internet powerhouse, but the continent now has the infrastructure. And it has a young population who can become the next generation of innovators. Ten years ago, this was unthinkable, says Bekele. It’s all thanks to a passionate community, working together for a stronger Africa.

Building a successful IXP isn’t just about engineering. It takes time and effort to develop trust, common understanding, and mutual agreements in local communities. Join us and help grow the Internet!

Image by Tatenda Mapigoti via Unsplash

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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