IT lifelines for Africa

Michelle Neeling, Wa Woman To World
16 December 2013

In areas of African nations where electricity supply is erratic and many people have never seen a computer, how does one meet the challenge of linking rural communities using information communications technologies (ICTs)? This was one of many subjects discussed during the ICTs for Africa conference at the International Conference Centre of Geneva on September 21, 2012.

Five years ago, Switzerland’s ICVolunteers (ICV), a Swiss-based non-profit organization, established E-TIC, a programme which aimed to empower local communities in West Africa through the meaningful use of ICTs. With solutions now coming from the field, the programme’s participants are becoming better equipped to improve the living and working conditions of people in different sectors of rural West African communities.

At the conference, Viola Krebs, Executive Director of ICVolunteers, pointed out that “the isolated nature of rural zones in countries such as Mali and Senegal means that a large majority of farmers, herders and fishermen, who are essential pillars of their countries’ agriculture-based economies, often do not have access to information that would help them to improve their living conditions.”

This is partly because much of the population is illiterate, and the people speak local languages, making the nationwide dissemination of information almost impossible.

These and other challenges have been confronted by everyone involved in the E-TIC programme, including Colonel Souleymane Ndiamé Guéye, Director of the National Civic Service and Agricultural Volunteers of Senegal, who phoned in to the conference from Dakar.

As part of the programme that Colonel Guéye is running, local men and women aged between 18 and 35 are being offered 21 days of training, one module of which is focused on ICTs, and has been run by the E-TIC program. Once they have completed the training, the volunteers are given the agricultural equipment they require to spend two years doing volunteer work on farms in their own local areas. Because these volunteers have, at very least, basic literacy skills and are trained in ICTs, they are able to act as local information relays, disseminating essential information to rural communities that do not otherwise have access to this information. Even just by providing information about weather forecasts, the volunteers can be instrumental in helping farmers to save crops and avoid natural disasters.

Moustapha Ndiaye, who ran ICT training courses for the Sahel InfoHubs project, reiterated the importance of such programmes. “Through our courses,” he said, “we’re giving young people the opportunity to be better integrated. Our students create websites for the 14 regions of Senegal, and the people that we train go on to train other students. In rural areas where few know how to use a computer, these young people are helping to support and develop their communities.”

In areas with inherent social problems, suggested Swithun Mutaasa, a cybervolunteer from Uganda, such courses can also give local people a positive focus that may previously have been lacking. “In our community,” he said, “people, especially men, have been engrained into negative behaviours like drinking, poaching and deforestation. Despite their low literacy levels, our people have a thirst for information, and these courses give them a platform for expression and allow them to generate small incomes in sustainable ways. This education in citizenship awareness is essential.” He further relayed how he had assisted the Bwindi National Park telecentre in rural Uganda.

An important outcome of information dissemination in rural communities is that it slows the rural exodus which is causing profound economic, social and cultural changes in developing countries. At the conference, Jose María Díaz Batanero of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) said that ICTs, which are now available around the world, represent a “true platform for progress. People with access to ICTs do not need to migrate to cities. They can stay in their own communities and still have a window onto the world. This can have an important impact on environmental protection and social development, which is something that will be further discussed in the 2013 follow-up Forum of the World Summit on Information Society.”

While projects like E-TIC are using localisation to minimise the exclusion of rural communities, other ICV projects are attempting to confront problems that have arisen as a result of creeping globalisation. One example of this is the Ethical Fashion Project, of which ICV is one of the project partners, together with the International Trade Centre (ITC), ECOs, University of Geneva and Helvetas. The part of the project being run by ICV and the University of Geneva was discussed at the conference by Filmon Abraha and Céline Castiglione.

After Ghana gained independence in 1957, they explained, the country was transformed through a programme of industrialisation, and its manufacturing industry was dominated by textiles. As an effect of neo-colonialism in the 1980s, however, there was an influx of Asian textile products, and textile companies in Ghana, unable to compete with China’s low-cost labour force, had no choice but to close down. This was in spite of the general perception that the cheap Chinese products are of considerably lower quality than the products that were being produced in small Ghanaian villages.

Research carried out by the Ethical Fashion Programme has shown that European consumers would be prepared to pay more for high quality clothes, and that there is a market for ethical fashion items in large department stores such as Manor. It is therefore trying to strengthen links between manufacturers in Ghana and sellers in Geneva to create a space for Ghanaian textiles. The challenges are considerable but Filmon and Celine are undaunted. “Europe is seen as the brain of the global textile industry,” they said at the conference, “China as the factory, and Africa only as a supplier for high-consumption societies with a throwaway lifestyle… Although we’re not yet able to provide comprehensive answers to this problem, we are trying to understand the expectations of Swiss consumers.”

Another important project that was discussed at the conference was that of the AgriGuide, a tool which provides information on food and cash crops management for small-holder farmers, herders, and fishermen in Senegal and Mali, to help them efficiently manage natural resources and increase income. The question of the use of pesticides, environmentally respectful practices and organic farming, as well as the proper use of relevant communication tools, was at the heart of the discussion.

Several touching testimonials to the importance of safe and sustainable farming practices came from Dr. Ousman Aly Pame, Mayor of Senegal’s Guédé-Chantier. “80 years ago when my grandmother was young,” Dr. Aly Pame explained, “the environment was green. My grandmother lived on an island with elephants and drank water from the rivers. People produced subsistence crops and did not use pesticides.

“Then in the 1970s, the Senegalese government signed an agricultural agreement with China, and technical advisers were sent to teach us how to use pesticides. All the trees were cut down so that rice fields could be planted. The toxic products being used on those fields began to reach the rivers, so the fish were poisoned and became inedible. Farmers were not made sufficiently aware of the danger of the products they were using, so accidents resulting in poisoning are common.

“Another problem is that while the farmers were once self-sufficient, they are now hugely indebted to banks, and in order to service their debts, they are forced to grow the crops prescribed by global demand rather than foods that they themselves can eat. As a result, they are locked between increasing yields and growing loans from the banks.”

This view was shared by Professor Lucas Luisoni of the Geneva School of Landscape, Engineering and Architecture for Higher Studies (Haute école du paysage, d’ingénierie et d’architecture de Genève), who said that “political choices and development policies do not work to the benefit of local populations.

“People think of food security in cities but rural areas are at risk. You need to give self-sufficiency to producers, and ICTs in rural areas must be able to render solutions to the producers’ needs.”

Professor Luisoni suggested that mobile phones may currently be the most significant ICT in rural African contexts. As half of the people in rural communities have access to a mobile phone, there is greater incentive for illiterate people to learn how to read and write, and the technology can be used to empower people to transmit and share knowledge.

Michael Riggs of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, who attended the conference by phone, agreed, but added that, “Opportunities for modern ICT tools cannot be taken advantage of without supportive policy. As governments do not always see the importance of telecommunications in the agricultural sector, we must ensure that policy is improved to create an enabling environment for the increased use of mobile technology for information dissemination in rural areas.”

Dr. Aly Pame’s suggestion, when asked about how communication could benefit rural communities, was that the AgriGuide should be more widely distributed – he thinks that every family should have a copy. He also said that because Senegal’s is an oral rather than a written culture and much of the population is illiterate, it is important that the information included in the AgriGuide be distributed in video format in addition to the current written format.

ICVolunteers’ representative in Dakar, Namor Diakhate, who Skyped in to the conference, agreed. He also added that, “It would be helpful if a communication liaison could take 30 minutes to explain the AgriGuide to people in rural communities, and to receive feedback from the farmers about their needs and how they can best be met.”

Fernando Terry, representing EcoTransferts, a consultancy agency which supports the creation of eco-projects, pointed out that any discussion regarding the future of agriculture must consider the increasingly urgent global necessity for effective transition into a green economy.

“At the moment,” he said, “there are policies in place to assist communities and countries to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and decrease carbon outputs. This is positive, but the mere will to meet current targets is not sufficient – we need to train people to implement the policies. It should be recognised that a transition towards a green economy will bring both economic and environmental opportunities.”

It was acknowledged during the conference that as a result of the current global economic crisis, many agencies that previously funded development projects have been forced to reduce their contributions, and are limiting the areas in which they are prepared to participate. Professor Michael Oris of the University of Geneva, however, suggested that people should not underestimate the value of comparatively small local initiatives.

Mr Oris gave the example of a UN drinking-water initiative, in which water service companies in the Rhone-Alp region twinned with similar companies in African villages. “When engineers from each side visited one another,” he said, “a mutual understanding was created and people were more than happy to share their technical skills with one another. It came to be seen as a situation in which colleagues required assistance, and company boards were therefore willing to ensure that projects were able to progress. Programmes such as this one are inexpensive and help individuals and countries to develop a sense of mutual good will.”

It is also important, suggested Arame Diaw-Diop of the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF), that organisations applying for the funding that is available are careful to follow the procedures laid out by the donor agency. “Francophone funds,” she said, “are available for future projects which support youth internship, the promotion of democratic processes, citizenship, digital intelligence and the broadcasting of the common good in Francophone countries. However we are only able to allocate funds to project partners who strictly adhere to our procedural requirements. We look forward to hearing from project partners who are prepared to work hand-in-hand with us and make a positive contribution to supported communities.”

In concluding the conference on ICTs for Africa, Nazir Sunderji, Senior Advisor to ICVolunteers, reminded the audience of the saying that “the Earth does not belong to us but has been lent to us by our children.” We have pretended, he said, that a limited resource is unlimited, but we must find ways of creating opportunities and meeting the costs involved with giving back to our children what we found.

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