Alain Aina has been a key player in the Internet in Africa. While the winner of this year’s Jonathan B. Postel Award has had support from organizations and others, his leadership in building technical communities has helped countless people to spread the Internet across Africa and the world.
As the chief technology officer of the West and Central Africa Research and Education Network (WACREN), Aina has been building a Regional Research and Education Network to interconnect National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) in the region and connect them to the global Research and Education Network. He wants the world to see the work of Africa’s premier researchers and carve out its spot in the academic world – in a way that would be impossible without the resources of this new network and community. He also contributes to AfricaConnect2, a project that supports the development of high-capacity networks for research and education across Africa, by building on existing networks in Eastern, Northern, and Southern Africa to connect to West and Central Africa’s WACREN.
Aina fell into this work after graduating in the early 90s with a degree in electrical engineering and in the maintenance and analysis of computer systems. He was hired to be a technical seller for a company in the Togolese Republic, which had a branch in Benin, where he’s from. The owner of the company had recently returned home from the United States and was anxious about computing and internetworking. He noticed Aina’s talent and added him to the technical team, where he ended up building the first bulletin board systems (BBS) in the area.
“People used the modem to dial in, then people on the same server could talk to each other,” he said. “Then we decided to put in the first email gateway, connecting to someone in Accra and later in Montreal twice a day to drop mail and download mail. But the cost was so high, it was not sustainable. The delegation of the country-code TLD in 1996 changed the paradigm for the email service and we were proud to demonstrate the first local web server and intranet.”
By the mid-90s there wasn’t a lot of support for people working on Internet access and connection, but there was ever-growing interest and demand. This meant that Aina and his colleagues often worked around the clock to set up networks and services in communities, then trained the local population on how to use what they had made.
“The Internet became so popular that the demand was suddenly so high, and it was putting pressure on us,” he said.
It was about this time that Aina started collaborating with the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), where he now serves now as a part-time network engineer and trainer. He later launched the first full IP services in the Togolese Republic and then in other countries in West Africa.
“At that time, most of the world did not believe that Africa could have the Internet and play a role. When you’d go to places, you’d have to train people,” Aina said. “Training materials were rare. We were lucky to have some books and some knowledgeable friends far away. The people you trained only knew you, so if something broke they called you to fix it.”
Aina helped build large parts of the Internet ecosystem throughout Africa, setting up networks, contributing to the creation of the regional Internet registry and the network operator group, and building ccTLD registries. He also started a consulting firm and became active in the private sector.
He eventually started attending Internet Society network technology workshops and getting involved with the organization in other ways. From 2011 to 2014, he served as a trustee for the organization. Active in the Internet community, he’s also involved with ICANN, the African Network Information Centre (AFRINIC), the African Network Operators Group (AFNOG), and other organizations. He helped found AFNOG, where he’s been an instructor since 2000, and he is one of the founders of AFRINIC, where he’s served in several roles, including acting chief technology officer, acting chief executive officer, and director of research and innovation. Aina is a key technical resource for the DNS community, including Africa Top Level Domains Organization (AFTLD).
A big part of his life has been Internet related, but he feels there is still so much more to do for Africa.
Aina says he was both surprised and humbled to receive the Postel Award. “I feel happy, but perplexed. I asked myself, ‘what have I done that is so special to deserve this?’ But when you look back, you can see it. You can see all the hard work in a virgin and difficult context.”
“I hope this award will motivate those who see me as a model and are contributing to the long walk to the technological liberation.”