Joint universal acceptance project includes local languages

A project aimed at strengthening internet access across Africa by making e-mail mailbox names and other communication platforms of higher education institutions ready for universal acceptance (UA) and e-mail address internationalisation (EAI) through the use of characters in local languages and scripts was launched in Accra, Ghana, on 13 April 2023.

UA allows all valid domain names, unique addresses and e-mail addresses to be accepted, validated, stored, processed and displayed correctly and consistently, regardless of script language or character length. It is meant to be a requirement for achieving multilingual internet by which users around the globe can navigate in local languages and scripts.

The Universal Access Project (UAP) was launched by the Association of African Universities (AAU) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. Speaking at the launch, Professor Olusola Oyewole, the secretary general of the AAU, said the UA project “is aligned to our mission of enhancing the quality and relevance of higher education in Africa and strengthening its contribution to Africa’s development”.

Oyewole commended the project partners for recognising the need to focus on building the capacities of higher education institutions to upgrade their websites and e-mail systems so that the information they carry can be accessed in various languages.

Inclusive internet network

He said the project is key, because it is aligned with the AAU’s strategic priority of strengthening the institutional capacity of their stakeholders to embrace and implement the required changes to their e-mail systems and digital platforms so that Africa becomes part of an inclusive internet network.

“The UAP is also linked to our African Research and Education Network (AFREN) initiative which supports the development of national research and education networks (NRENs) in African countries. AFREN also strengthens regional research and education networks (RRENs) by promoting continuous learning and collaboration among the three RRENs (WACREN, UbuntuNet Alliance and ASREN).

NRENs and RRENs are essential in the implementation of robust internet infrastructure on which e-mail and digital platforms are running,” Oyewole said.

“Our strategic priorities as the AAU include providing a favourable policy environment, strengthening institutional capacities of stakeholders, promoting harmonisation, standardisation for competitiveness and collaboration, and mobilising resources to help sustain our programmes,” he said.

Project caters for local languages

Dr Yaw Osei Adutwum, the Ghanaian minister of education, said in a speech read by the Reverend John Ntim Fordjour, the deputy minister of education, that the project addresses equity aspects of internet access through enabling protocols and principles that promote a “multilingual internet”.

“UA is a fundamental requirement for a truly multilingual and digitally inclusive internet. For our case in Ghana and Africa, UA and EAI will ensure that our e-mail mailbox names can use characters in local languages and scripts,” Adutwum said.

He said higher education is at the centre of the development debates – therefore, “it is important that our young people, computer science students, IT staff and related professionals are not left behind in the development of the internet industry. Quality higher education has proven to be key in bridging the skill gaps in the African region”.

Adutwum said the government of Ghana is committed to the reform of the education system on all levels and to improve upon it, adding that, “the ministry is pursuing the Ghana Education Reform Agenda and has initiated some key education reforms to transform teaching and learning and improve educational outcomes under the Education Strategic Plan (ESP 2018-30)”.

The three main priorities of the education reforms are improved learning outcomes, enhanced accountability and equity at all levels of the education sector.

Indigenous languages stifled

In addition, the ministry is also implementing a project for ICT in education reform. Its overall purpose is to develop the desire and competencies in children to use ICTs, equip pre-tertiary learners with ICT skills, to infuse ICT into education management, and transform teacher development and tertiary education through technology-based training.

Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, the Ghanaian minister of communications and digitalisation, said that, with over 2,000 languages spoken in Africa, the potential for local language content is immense. She added that the lack of support for local languages on the internet has hindered their use and stifled the development of local language content.

“The UAP is, therefore, a timely intervention, aimed at unlocking the potential of local language content and ensuring that African communities can fully participate in the digital economy,” Owusu-Ekuful said.

She said the government has introduced initiatives to narrow the digital divide and empower citizens to embrace the use of ICT, adding that, “we are implementing a rural telephony project to connect over three million people. These previously unconnected people now have equal access to the innovations introduced by the government in Ghana’s digital transformation journey”.