First regional cloud ecosystem: Benefits, challenges for HE

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is investigating setting up the first regional cloud ecosystem, laying the foundation to speeding up the process of digital integration among its 21 member countries in key sectors, including higher education.

“The Africa Cloud Ecosystem (ACE) project will be a first of its kind, laying the foundation to facilitate the African continent to undertake this shift in the key sectors of the economy, education, government, agriculture and health through the provision of reliable ecosystem data centres,” Dr Raubil Durowoju, African Development Bank (AfDB) country manager for Zambia, said after COMESA and the AfDB signed a letter of agreement on 14 July 2022.

The agreement entails an AfDB grant of US$500,000 to support the undertaking of a feasibility study for establishing the ACE.

The project is meant to contribute to the implementation of a state-of-the-art facility that will offer essential and sustainable information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure services to COMESA member states and the African continent.

XN Iraki, an associate professor of data science, innovation, and technology management at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, told University World News that “In Africa, data is missing, not just for academic research, but for policymakers and investors, too.”

He said: “Such a cloud ecosystem would go a long way in making such data available to key stakeholders, including higher education and the public.”

Echoing Iraki’s view, higher education expert Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a professor at Cairo’s National Research Centre, said: “Africa’s cloud ecosystem provides COMESA-based universities with cost-effective solutions for their ICT requirements as most of them cannot afford the upfront cost required to purchase, install and run dedicated data centres to support teaching, research and academic collaboration.”

Integration and cooperation in HE

Abdelhamid added that the COMESA cloud ecosystem could also help in developing COMESA digital learning spaces for higher education and research that will enhance integration and cooperation among higher education institutions and scientific research centres across the region.

“The aim would be to establish a knowledge-based society and promote socio-economic development through enhanced academic exchange, promoting scientific cooperation, supporting research and innovation, training future development actors and strengthening researchers’ skills.

“Such a system of data centres would wean Africa off its reliance on imported data which might not always suit its aspirations in economic growth and development,” Iraki said. “Data or information gain more value when shared.”

Chileshe Kapwepwe, COMESA secretary general, said: “ACE will also increase the sustainability and viability of information and provide a pivotal way of transitioning Africa’s community into a digital economic community.”

Cloud computing an effective platform

Cloud computing in higher education provides an online platform for educational institutions through various applications and subscription models, according to Astute Analytica’s April 2022 report, titled Cloud Computing in Higher Education Market-Industry Dynamics, Market Size and Opportunity Forecast to 2030.

Cloud computing in higher education manages the various business processes such as student and course management, helps teachers upload learning materials, assists students to access their homework, helps administrators to easily collaborate with each other and simplifies library management, among others, the report noted.

The report pointed out that the higher education industry witnesses an increased adoption of e-learning due to its easy accessibility and high effectiveness.

Users such as drop-outs, transfer learners and full-time employees are increasingly relying on e-learning training and education to upgrade their skills.

Furthermore, higher education institutes are rapidly moving toward cloud-based services to save on intensive IT infrastructure costs and boost the efficiency of operations.

The report showed that South Africa and Egypt were the highest shareholder regions in Africa cloud computing in the higher education market in 2021.

Cloud security and privacy essential

ICT expert Professor Amanuel Ayde Ergado of the Institute of Technology at Jimma University in Ethiopia told University World News: “Having a regional cloud ecosystem is critical for our African universities since third parties may use sensitive data or information for unethical purposes. Not only that, but they may also provide big data analysis and other activities for their own benefit.”

Ergado’s concern is supported by the July 2022 study titled ‘Security Issues and Challenges in Cloud Computing among Public Institutions in Africa’ which stated that “cloud computing comes with its own challenges, with cloud security and privacy being the biggest concerns”.

The study indicated that “challenges and security issues in cloud computing among public institutions include data breach, account hijacking, data loss, denial of service attacks, cloud abuse, malicious insiders, phishing attacks, portability restrictions, backdoor channel attacks, cloud malware injection attacks, shared technology vulnerabilities and lack of confidentiality of corporate data”.

The study recommended the development of policies to protect data from external hackers and malicious individuals. Policymakers should develop clear policies that require the cloud service providers to safeguard the privacy and security of data they are managing on behalf of institutions.

E-learning facilities aid students

Dr Mosab Hamad, head of the department of medical parasitology in the faculty of health sciences at the Elsheikh Abdallah Elbadri University in Sudan said cloud-based e-learning represents one of the major tools to overcome communication difficulties during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several universities in the COMESA region applied cloud computing e-learning during the COVID-19 lockdowns, such as Cairo University, Ain Shams University, Alexandria University (Egypt), The University of Zambia, Al Fajr College for Science and Technology (Sudan), and the Malawi University of Science and Technology, according to Mosab.

“Besides allowing students to instantly access lecture notes, homework and virtual tutorials on remote servers as they can work from wherever there is an internet connection, cloud computing e-learning facilitates collaboration with classmates on group assignments without having to be in the same room,” Mosab said.

“Cloud computing e-learning also helps African universities to serve local communities by allowing the students from it to spread knowledge, awareness and peace in the community,” he added.

Iraki pointed out that “African universities could face several challenges in adopting cloud computing technology, including regulation and funding in addition to the fact that African universities rarely cooperate among themselves, preferring Western partners.

“Almost all African countries have poor ICT infrastructure, internet connections and few skilled human resources to support a cloud ecosystem. In addition, lack of established policy and current political situations will be obstacles for the cloud ecosystem in Africa,” he said.

Smart partnerships suggested

Mosab said that, besides irregular electricity supply, challenges facing most African universities include a lack of technical support and training, poor internet service and the inability of most students and some staff to obtain a personal computer or smartphone.

To address challenges facing African universities in adopting cloud computing technology, Ergado suggested establishing suitable ICT infrastructure, including internet services, training capable human resources, developing policies that can support the development of the cloud ecosystem for Africa, and establishing political stability.

Mosab suggested smart partnerships between universities, international telecommunication companies and international organisations, and local governments. He said these would help African universities to benefit from cloud computing services during health, environmental and even conflict crises.