How Africa's Regional Internet Network Started With One Driven Intern On a Quest for a LAN
The year was 1995, there was no Internet yet in West Africa, and Jean Marie Noagbodji was frustrated.
For two years, the small computer company he headed, CAFE Informatique, had tried to create a network for business and banks in Lome, the capital of Togo. It had hired two outside experts, but neither had been able to develop a workable system for live banking online.
So, in desperation, Noagbodji turned to a young computer engineer who, while barely out of graduate school, had shown remarkable abilities as an intern with the company.
The intern, Adiel Akplogan, was promised a full-time job if he could succeed where others had failed.
“I worked night and day for three days, fixed the technical issue they were having and came up with an online banking prototype based on French Minitel technology,” Akplogan recalled. “When the CEO looked at it, he was practically crying. It was the start of our journey to the Internet in Togo.”
It was also an early milestone in a stellar career that has brought Akplogan entry into the Internet Hall of Fame.
From that first local network, Akplogan went on to become a giant in the world of computer networks, a pioneer in bringing the Internet to the western region of the African continent.
Ironically, as a young man growing up in Togo, Akplogan wasn’t especially enamoured of computing. The man who, more than anyone, would found AFRINIC, the Internet number registry for all of Africa, started out far more intrigued by pure science than its applications.
“Originally, to be honest, I wasn’t all that interested in electronics,” Akplogan said. “I wanted to be a mathematician.”
But Akplogan’s father, a mechanical engineer, had other ideas.
“He encouraged me to do more practical stuff,” Akplogan said. “He told me the world was evolving into electronics, and that people who mastered electronics would have a good chance to compete, especially in Africa.”
Little did Akplogan know how right that advice would prove to be.
Despite his initial hesitation, Akplogan agreed to attend a technical high school, and, almost before he knew it, was hooked on computers.
“I started digging into it,” he said, “and I just loved it.”
After high school, it was a natural transition to an engineering college, graduate work and a series of internships in Togo and Ivory Coast, where Akplogan’s early focus was on the hardware side of computing.
“I got to open up computers and then build one from scratch, understanding how they work from a maintenance and hardware perspective,” he said. “It was great.”
Then came a new internship, this time with CAFE Informatique, where for the first time he also began to dabble in programming. An immediate result: back at school he built a program in BASIC to help teachers manage grading for the Faculty of Engineering.
“The school didn’t have a computerized system, so I developed one for them,” he said. “And I felt the joy of seeing, of creating something that was useful even for my teachers!”
Early in 1995, Akplogan and some colleagues went to France to learn how to deploy IBM’s AIX operating system.
It was Akplogan’s first time out of Africa, and it was a revelation -- culturally, to be sure, but especially scientifically.
“It was breathtaking to see the technologies,” he said. “That trip shaped my career.”
And Akplogan’s work in France gave him the foundation he needed to help CAFE Informatique develop systems for west African banks, including the largest Pan-African bank, Ecobank Transnational.
His success did not go unrewarded. Noagbodji not only gave him a full-time job, he sent him to McGill University in Montreal for advanced networking studies, and upon Akplogan’s return to Togo, he was appointed CAFE’s technical director -- helping to run an advanced technology company at age 26.
With that position as a springboard, Akplogan helped CAFE start providing Internet services more broadly.
At first, it used telephone lines that updated a few times a day to provide rudimentary email service in conjunction with a company in Ghana, NCS, run by another African pioneer and Internet Hall of Fame member, Nii Quaynor. Then, CAFE secured a domain name (.tg) for Togo from Jon Postel, whom Akplogan had met at an event organized by the Internet Society, and the company established direct satellite links via PanAmSat to the United States.
The hurdles the company faced were not simply technological. Togo’s government-run telecommunications company had a monopoly on international communications, and it took a dim view of CAFE’s efforts to build out Internet service.
“The general culture at the time was that the incumbent telecom company ruled everything, and for them, the Internet was a joke. They laughed at us during our meetings,” Akplogan said. “But they did eventually license us to provide public Internet services, including voice, perhaps because the risk was all ours and they were curious to see what we would do.”
And so CAFE expanded, providing Internet service to a growing number of businesses in Togo and helping neighboring countries to do the same.
“We were challenging the whole system, thinking we will be able to connect people internationally by using this innovative way of communicating, which is the Internet,” Akplogan said. “And we did that. People saw that the service not only worked, but was reliable.”
As web use began to spread, African service providers were still hampered by the absence of a registry on the continent for Internet addresses.
“As an Internet Service Provider, we had to get our IP addresses from the registries in Europe or America, which was cumbersome,” Akplogan said. “Can you imagine a small ISP in Africa having to meet European criteria for an Internet address block?”
So in 2004, Akplogan and some other early adapters came together to form AFRINIC, based in Mauritius, with Akplogan serving as CEO.
“The beauty of the project was closing the loop on the Internet thing we started in 1995, pushing it throughout the region,” Akplogan said.
AFRINIC not only helped ISPs throughout Africa get connected, it helped them add capacity and develop new competencies in areas like infrastructure security.
The group had a broad commitment to development in Africa, helping to start the Fund for Internet Research and Education in Africa (FIRE), which provides capacity and financial support to “education, information, infrastructure and communication” throughout the African continent.
Akplogan planned to spend two years at AFRINIC. He stayed for 10, departing in 2015 to begin his current job as vice president for technical engagement at the Los Angeles-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, an organization founded by, among others, Postel and Esther Dyson to coordinate and manage the use of Internet identifiers such as domain names and IP addresses.
Today, Akplogan lives with his wife and two sons in Montreal, having wanted to live in Canada ever since he saw pictures of snow as a boy (“I have plenty of that now,” he says).
But his commitment to African development is as great as ever.
“My passion has always been furthering technology in the developing world,” Akplogan said. “I have a deep interest in the region, and over 25 years, I have witnessed how technology can change and improve people’s lives.
“But there is a lot of work yet to be done. We’re still in the infancy of this technology and all the potential it has -- for humanity in general and in particular for Africa, my mother continent.”