Informations- und Kommunikationstechnologien

Why re-invent the wheel?

AFRO-NETS electronic conference

Von Dieter Neuvians

Sister Dora S. from a rural District Hospital in Zambia had a problem. During a Reproductive Health Workshop conducted in a remote village poverty had been identified as one of the major causes of ill health in the community. Now Sister Dora was looking for information from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in income generating projects - specifically targeting adolescents.

Sister Dora remembered that her Hospital was connected to HealthNet, an electronic information system, especially built to serve health workers labouring in isolation from another. HealthNet is running an electronic conference, called AFRO-NETS - African Networks for Health Research & Development - that was set up to encourage and facilitate collaboration among various NGOs, research centres and governmental organisations active in health research for development in the Eastern and Southern Africa Region.

Sister Dora sent out a short message on AFRO-NETS, asking for information about income-generating activities targeting adolescents. Within a few days she received several responses from all over the world, giving her useful contacts or concrete examples and experiences, with lessons learned, so she did not need to re-invent the wheel.

Avoiding the need to 're-invent the wheel' was one of the reasons for the establishment of AFRO-NETS. In 1996 scientist, health workers and representatives from NGOs realised that several networks active in health research and development were operating independently from each other on the African continent. To avoid duplications and save the scarce resources the group decided to set up a network of networks that it hoped would lead to better collaboration between the networks in the fields of capacity building, planning and conducting research, transformation of re-search recommendations into action, and many other areas.

To date 20 networks and institutions are participating in the Network of Networks. The electronic conference has about 1,100 direct subscribers, of whom more than half are located in Africa, the others in USA and Europe but also in Asia and South America. In Africa messages are also being fed into local HealthNet nodes from where they are distributed to countrywide mailing systems (e.g. in Zimbabwe to the more than 300 subscribers of HealthNet Zimbabwe).

The conference also serves as a forum for announcing meetings, training courses, teaching materials and other events of interest to the networks.

Traffic on the electronic conference is moderate to high, depending on the topic being discussed. Whereas the discussion about the introduction of a new Health Card generated up to 10 messages a day (and a total of 60 messages) the average number of contributions is four to six per day. The discussion topics deal with every aspect of Health Research in Africa, from AIDS to capacity building, from the Internet and traditional healers to Zambian women groups.

The conference is moderated - that means each message is screened and approved before being sent out to the subscribers. This is no censorship but sorting out administrative requests (e.g. for subscription) automatically generated messages (I am on leave until...) personal messages (aren't you the one I recently met in Cape Town?) and the ever increasing advertisements (spam), which make up to 20% of all messages thereby avoiding unnecessary traffic - important for those in developing countries who have to pay for every single message received.

Since 5 - 7 messages a day might be an inconvenience for some subscribers an AFRO-NETS digest was created, which collects about 40 kB of messages and sends them out to the subscribers of the digest once or twice a week. All contributions made to the electronic conference are archived and can be searched by keywords and retrieved via the integrated search engine.

In addition to this, research proposals, research results and other documents are being stored at the central AFRO-NETS computer and can be retrieved via the Internet or even via e-mail by any-body interested in them. HealthNet/SatelLife in USA, which hosts a 'Home Page' for AFRO-NETS has developed a free GetWeb service which allows everybody with an e-mail account to download documents from the World Wide Web. This is important for health workers with no direct Internet connection (still the majority in Africa) who can now even do a MEDLINE search via e-mail. Participating Networks / Institutions are listed on the home page with their hyperlinks.

Though no formal evaluation has been done, occasional feedback from subscribers indicated the usefulness of the electronic conference:

  • organisers of a training course in South Africa were flooded with applications after announcing the courses on AFRO-NETS
  • researchers in a remote location of Eritrea got assistance from all over the world when asking for drugs for their studies
  • requests for information (RFI) sent out via AFRO-NETS resulted in overwhelming responses from specialists, even outside the subscriber base
  • research collaborations between neighbouring countries and countries in the North and South emerged from contacts via AFRO-NETS

AFRO-NETS is especially significant for SatelLife because it is a conference developed by Africans for Africans and those in the health policy community engaged in Africa, says Leela McCullough, SatelLife's Director of Information Services. The content is generated locally which ensures that the information available through AFRO-NETS is of relevance and importance to the community being served.

Since AFRO-NETS covers mainly topics from Anglophone Africa similar ventures for Francophone or Lusophone Africa would be desirable.

*Report by Dieter Neuvians, Blair Research Institute, Harare, Zimbabwe, moderator for the AFRO-NETS electronic conference, in: infoDev / iicd ICT Stories database (2001). Slightly adapted and reproduced with the kind permission of the Author. Contact:, AFRO-NETS Website: