Saturday, July 19, 2008

Gender and Wireless Africa

Last month, I attended the Wireless Africa workshop: June 25- 27, 2008, CSIR Convention Centre, Pretoria, South Africa.

Here are some excerpts from my report:

Day 1 – Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Purpose: The purpose of the workshop was to introduce the Wireless Africa research project, share current wireless community network initiatives throughout Africa and choose the three countries as case studies for review of their sustainable business models. There were at least 40 participants in total (10 women participants) and all proceedings will be found here.

One country presentation highlights:

Emphasize goals towards development: Prof Hicham Bouzekn, Al Akhawayn University, Morocco stated that the success in working with regulators and even mobile operators depends on “the way you present your project, […] cannot be perceived as a threat. It must show some goal of development, and a benefit to the country”. Prof Hicham’s Wifi project had also seen their regulators pushing the researchers to aim big, increasing their research sites by two-three more areas in Fez.

Business Models:
As for presented business models, the range was also diverse among the countries and within the country institutions. The 16 countries had telecentres models, government owned models, NGO style setups and primary school network ideas. Within the institutions, the range of products and services could be from running a microfinance institution to internet café side projects with a whole gamut of income generating projects done within. While aware of the idea of business models, none of the countries had actually written up a business plan or prepared such documentation in the past. Fantsuam was possibly the closest organization with $USD figures of their operation costs and revenues through their cross-subsidized model of business.

Village Telco example: Steve Song (Shuttleworth Foundation) and Rael Lissoos ( presented on the Village Telco model ( which is in place in Orange Farm, South Africa. Running for the last two years, Rael has been able to provide wireless services to this community with use of pre-paid cards for internet and phone services. The recent village telco workshop (June 16-20, 2008) can be found here. Steve did a presentation summarizing their workshop asking the question can a mesh network be developed for $5000 USD and deployed and break-even within 6 months. From the workshop came the “Mesh potato”, a hardware/software package which allows for phone/internet connection, and asterisk, BATMAN and network management software. Check out more information on Steve's blog.

Day 2 – Thursday, 26 June 2008

2.1 VoIP and Wisp in a Box Presentations: Louise Berthilson (it+46), Alberto Escudero-Pascual (it+46) and David Rowe (Free Telephony Project) presented their current work on VoIP in a Box. David showed the simplicity of wireless point-to-point setup by getting his children to set up a wireless phone in a public park. Sebastian Buettrich followed with the development ideas of WISP in a box (still in progress with completion date aimed around +/- October 2008). From both technology presentations, it was clear that low power was a major roadblock that needed to be addressed immediately as power is usually one of the most costly expenses in running these technologies. “Big power is low power,” as stated by Alberto. All projects must consider looking at low power using technologies in order to see sustainability. So why not consider the 1Watt computer? Another major challenge was how to move from small to large scale networks with out destruction, particularly address network management problems once capacity starts to reach a point of over optimal. How does one prepare for this point? Another major obstacle discussed is learning retention – local transfer and avoid staff turnover – in a business model. While some acknowledge that they will need to continuously input training, the discussion looked a use of retired professionals, training business people to be a trainer for a business, young 3rd year undergraduate students volunteers, other motivation techniques, use of local women or grandmothers (my idea), training government officials.

Gender Presentation: I gave a short presentation on gender research based on the firm desire by Wireless Africa management to incorporate gender into their research plan. The presentation was based on the IDRC – Acacia lessons learned from the Gender Awareness Workshop in Fez, Morocco in 2007. Here is the presentation:

The purpose of the session was to ask country/researchers to consider adding gender as part of their research agenda in their planning and consider four possible strategies of implementation. Why is this area of study exciting? As technology is fairly new in many of their societies, great insight comes from research on the adaptation and usage of technology by both sexes. Secondly, as implementers, one can have great influence in whether such tools become gender biased or not in the community by way of constructing opportunity for both men and women with the technology. I emphasized “What are we losing out?” asking the audience what innovation and economic advances will the project be missing if they exclude specifically women from the knowledge society? As little has been written in the field of gender and wireless community networks (even in North America), I also challenged the group to work towards presenting their gender research to the Acacia Conference in Dakar, October 2009.

At the end of the workshop, the three pilot projects were announced: Ghana (onevillage Foundation), Uganda (Community Wireless Resource Centre) and Nigeria (Fantsuam Foundation).

More information on Wireless Africa, click here.

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