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  • Research coalition to boost Internet access in rural Africa

An international group of research organisations are collaborating on a project to boost Internet access in rural Sub-Saharan Africa.

The project was discussed at a meeting of the board of the Global Research Alliance (GRA) — an international organisation that seeks to align the efforts of its members with the UN's Millennium Development Goals — in Sydney, Australia, this month (2–4 May) that looked at new strategies for improving access by the developing world to science and innovation.    

Launched in 2003, the GRA comprises nine applied research agencies from around the world — including India, Malaysia and South Africa — that jointly employ around 60,000 researchers, scientists and engineers.

Bart Follink, GRA's chief operating officer, told SciDev.Net that this was the first board meeting since the organisation decided to establish an executive office in Melbourne, Australia, last year (June 2011), to coordinate collaborative work between members and partners, and "help the network to get to the next level of generating impact".

"The GRA has developed and matured over time. We are now able to put together big, complex projects [to address] problems in areas like food security, health, energy availability, clean water availability and Internet connectivity," said Follink.  

The GRA favours "inclusive innovation", a model of development that seeks to create knowledge and to put in place inexpensive efforts to meet the needs of low-income populations.

Ramesh Mashelkar, GRA's president, said this approach "requires an alignment with organisations or countries that are in search of inclusive innovation. It has to meet a demand, you can't just simply supply what you have".

Under the auspices of GRA, several of its members are working on developing a communication infrastructure suitable for providing Internet access in rural Sub-Saharan Africa.

They are doing this in partnership with the organisation Macha Works, which has a project to connect a rural community in Zambia to the Internet, thereby creating new work and education opportunities.

"The rural areas of Africa are not well served [by the Internet] because the technology is built for urban environments," Gertjan van Stam, former chief executive officer of Macha Works, said.

"The Macha Works model is very much [one] of local empowerment and [works] to support what is locally needed," said van Stam.

"Macha is a living laboratory of [inclusive innovation] and it is showing GRA how to implement it. I think the GRA is recognising a partner that is not the best in technology, but is certainly a role player on how to deal with local communities."

The GRA is also developing a project in Vietnam, in partnership with the World Bank.