Sunday, December 21, 2008

Beauty of Africa

Originally uploaded by make_change
In between all the reading on technology and development, I stumbled upon this author who felt justified to write a paper on the reasons that there is great wealth here in Africa. He then makes recommendations as to how one should take the riches of Africa and complement it with appropriate development practices. Easier said than done, but I guess it is necessary to repeat it every so often so that one doesn't get stuck in some kind of African pessimism (mainly media-driven) rut.

But I guess I read the article because I suppose I needed to confirm my own observations about this continent.
It is pretty spectacular when you can drive 1 hour away to see 25 lions huddled under the shade of a tree on a hot summer day. Every so often, I get stoked to see some unusual endemic flower in the Cape, crazy cacti like tree from Madagascar (in a botanical garden) and then some bumblebee thing that sniffs out my basil plants.

The patterns of fabric I recently bought in Ghana could break my bank account if I stayed long enough. Technology-wise, the blogs I read are African-based and shooting out novel ideas one cannot even fathom back in Vancouver. This space does not do justice as to the many African researchers I interact with each day who are making incredible contributions to science and development. So this is the flip side of Africa. No wonder it is so hard to leave.

Wake Up.

It truly has been a wake-up year. While I haven't been in slumber to issues of Africa's development, I admit that, in the past, I have sidelined the deeply rooted issue of gender inequality. But it is always on my mind. Back home, where I can go enjoy a beer, watch ice hockey at the local pub with the boys and girls and not have to think about being categorized in a box because of age, race, religion or gender is a luxury. It is not only society or its institutions which instill multiculturalism and values of equality, but it is inside yourself; of how within us we decide not to oppress or judge. We do not stand for informal rules of engagement or culture that is not just.

For here is Africa where sexual violence and gender inequality reigns strong, convoluted within its tradition and culture; a difficult mix to break through. What development policy could possibly intervene in deeply enculturated beliefs? There is none.

It begins with you and me. It begins with listening and giving African feminism a chance to work on the continent. We look within ourselves and say the change starts now. At FTX, Joanna Kerr (Oxfam Canada) puts it rightly, “There is no vaccine to rid of patriarchy or a machine for economic justice”.

Within the technology sphere, my own observations see new technology help increase the divide between the rich and poor. As one who wants to see a more equal, just society, how do we “make tech just”? (Kerr, 2008).

Exposing these tech powers that oppress is a start: 1) English- only websites: how do you empower rural African women who do not speak or read English? Push for localization tools on the web.
Within ourselves we can grab the tech by the horns and not shy away from what seems complicated. “Re-envision a new world” (Kerr, 2008), make tech available to women for their work, and be creative at the sign of waking up.

Kerr, Joanna (2008). Speech at Feminist Tech Exchange November 12, 2008.

Check out Feminist Africa Journal (University of Cape Town)

Mobile Rural Costs for Women

Recently Johannesburg was the host to Mobile Active 08 – a meeting of researchers, innovators, engineers and technology enthusiasts from around the world to explore together the social impacts of mobile telephony. It was a perfect preparation time for me to think about Women and Mobile and present about certain aspects from Africa. For example, mobiles have had ridiculous growth in Africa averaging over 1000 % more subscribers than in 2001. However, despite the growth, let us not assume women are part of this accessibility.

First off, we would certainly consider cost as a major deterrent. Did you know that in developed countries average 2-3% proportion of their budgets to communication while Africa averages around 10%? This is only average, and you can imagine that even more poor citizens paying more because they will likely pay the highest amount per call using low-denomination airtime credit, and spend proportionally more for maintaining broken second-hand phones because of new battery purchase, or the amount of electricity charging frequency each week on top of low erratic incomes.

With these high costs, you see women making sacrifices or substitutions within their meagre household budgets to accommodate for communication costs. Some cases, a reduction of food can merely mean eating more food from the garden or farm. However in other cases, one can even find themselves not eating for the day in order to have airtime credit.

In the development sphere, which looks at technology and social practices, how do we seek solutions in overcoming these challenges for women who are looking to this communication device for a change today in their lives?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tech News on Women

Two quick info bits:

1) Great innovator, Brenda Burrell (and trainer at the Feminist Tech Exchange workshop last month), is on BBC News - Digital Planet! She talks about the Freedom Fone and her amazing work in Zimbabwe.

2) ITID Special Edition on Women: Information Technologies and International Development has just released a special journal on women. I haven't had the chance to go through all the articles, but hope it will be interesting!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

MobileActive08 Reflections

1. Intro: I finally had time to write up my reflections on the MobileActive08 conference back in October 2008. The purpose of this conference was to examine how mobile phones and their applications can be used for social impact in developing countries. MobileActive08 was an IDRC-sponsored event with some of the top 360 mobile phone social researchers, NGOs, ICT4D innovators, technologists, etc. from all around the world gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa. One of the joint organizers, SANGONET (IDRC partners since 1996), who has worked for years on strengthening civil society organizations and their utilization of ICTs in Southern Africa, teamed up with to make this event possible.

2. Summary: Overall, the conference was well facilitated by Alison Hewlett, or the self-named orchestra conductor. It was unlike any conference I had ever attended mainly made up of interactive (some self-directed) group sessions. I overheard many participants complimenting the concerted effort in making the space collaborative. This conference found the wonderful mix of researchers mingling and challenging the efforts of technology developers (or developers challenging efforts of other developers). I suppose the whole point of these meetings was to see isolated silos on innovation to come together and work in cooperation for a common cause. I think there was some realization in this as I saw people trying to form geographical and thematic groups (ex. Latin America or Johannesburg MobileActive group). I also noticed some NGO representatives were there to see what tools and research were currently available in mobile applications which could be applied to their own work. I think this conference was well designed and reached its set objectives.

3. Web 2.0: MobileActive made a concerted effort to incorporate several Web 2.0 collaborative tools online: Twitter, youtube, blogging, slideshare, Facebook, confabb, etc. It is the conference where keeping your cellphone on is allowed. Their website attempted to collate and aggregate all the tool uses onto their website. Of course, when I was monitoring the usage of the tools, I only really saw the Twitter tool being used in real-time.

The leaders of groups were asked to provide a discussion report and upload on confabb notes, a very useful tool. After testing the tool myself, Confabb is an easy uploading tool for delegates to use for rapporteur or summary notes of conference sessions. However, by the end of the conference, I was only able to see a few conference discussion notes on the confabb note share tool. If this is the participation by innovators, I wonder what result would come from a conference of African partners where they may or may not be Web2.0-savvy. Would participation be better or worse? I think some training will be required prior to conference if one hopes for Web 2.0 usage.

4. Outputs: I observed one major output from the conference: the development of an open mobile consortium. I also noted that from the Disaster and Mobile conference, the panelists will also try to work together to make their applications interoperable and assist each other’s needs. Another output was a paper by Jonathan Donner and Katrin Verclas which was presented at a recent Mobile for Development (M4D) conference in Karlstad University, Sweden.

Click links for:
- MobileActive08 Powerpoint Presentations
- MobileActive08 Photos
- MobileActive08 You-Tube Videos: Find 40 new quality videos produced at the conference

Research @ MobileActive08

5.1 Kathleen’s Participation at Mobile Active08: As for my contribution, I made two presentations about: 1) my previous research on Mobile and Women and 2) Mobile and Poverty. There were about 15 people in the first session and 7 in the second session. The interest in the area included those who were doing research in the field and wanted to know what research was out there on mobile. There was realization by all of the little research available on the adoption or behaviour change as a result of mobile phone.

5.1.1 Mobile & Women (Oct 13, 2008):
I had presented with Kutoma Wakunuma and her 3 year study in Zambia on women and mobile phones.

5.1.2 Working group session: Mobiles and Poverty (Oct 15, 2008): short write-up on the session found here. The presentation was on the substitutions being made for mobile phone services and a consensus by the audience was that further cost/benefit research needed to be conducted to determine the changing effects on poverty as a result of mobile phone usage.

Overall, the conference was a worthwhile experience for moving forward research on development and impacts through mobile phone innovation.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Kampala Visit in Aug/Sept 2008

Back in August-September 2008, I had the chance to visit Kabale, Uganda, to conduct data collection for my research project and to examine the current status of Wireless Africa’s Uganda project.

When I first arrived, I went over to Makerere University’s Department of Electrical Engineering: Community Wireless Resource Centre (CWRC). I had the chance to meet Peterson Mwesiga and two former CWRC Electrical Engineering students were part of the team who helped to plan and implement the wireless networks in three telecentres in Uganda: Lira, Kabale, and Nabweru. It is clear from this discussion with CWRC that this program has been successful in providing hands-on experience and expertise to these former engineering students. I am unsure if such training is available in other African electrical engineering departments but the CWRC training program could be used as a model for other wireless networking projects throughout the continent. I was definitely impressed by their thesis topics and the work they have done in the area.

I also had the chance to meet CWRC’s Director, Dorothy Okello, at the WOUGNET office (she wears many hats!) who is active in community wireless networking. Dorothy’s community implementation and advisory activities continues to be dynamic within the region including with government cooperation. In the short time I was in Uganda, she had sent Peterson to fix the Lira network as well as recommended a Ministry of ICT meeting to collate research on wireless networking projects in Uganda.

I visited the Nabweru Telecentre (former IDRC project), one of the wireless networking projects just 6 km outside of Kampala. While one can see the telecentre had the mesh networking connected to the community hall, the court and the school, the inability to pay off their connectivity fees with the local service provider keeps it unconnected. Apparently, CWRC’s new MSI grant will hopefully be used to service this debt and then test a bandwidth management tool at Nabweru. Even so, the telecentre admits the need for a business plan and financial management training particularly given the difficult conditions (intermittent power, landline cutoff due to stolen phone cables, political interference, etc). Ivan is passionate to keep the centre open, has won several UNICEF awards for their radio programming but shows clear needs for advice on how to raise funds and remain operational.

Field work in Kabale

After a few days in Kampala, Christine and I jumped on the Post Bus (slowest bus ever) to Kabale, 434km from Kampala. We started off by meeting the two telecentre managers from Kabale and Kachwekano. Formerly under IDRC’s African Highlands Initiative (AHI), the telecentres have been taken over to the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADs). The NAADs coordinator responsible for the district’s telecenters, had strong interest in expanding the idea of village information centres (VICE: currently piloted in Rubaya sub-county) to the rest of their 20 sub-countries.

Six focus group discussions were conducted and 24 key informants were interviewed within the 3 weeks. Our focus groups consisted of the displaced Batwa community, craft women, volunteer youth radio presenters, women and men farmers groups. Some of the key informants we met were: Red Cross, religious organizations, anti-corruption NGO, Kabale hospital / health centre staff, tow truck services, police, fire department, NAADS, and all the available wireless network nodes.

From preliminary observations, this rural area utilized a mix of traditional and mobile phone techniques for communication during an emergency. This research results will attempt to draw the before and after effects of ICTs in addressing emergencies in the region. Lastly, the CWRC have a great case study set up in Kabale for exploring sustainable business models and the telecentres are keen to see wireless internet be more affordable and reliable in their area.

It was a great research trip and now the transcripts sit on my desk for analysis and write up. Oh boy.

Mobiles & Market Participation: Uganda research

The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage Coverage Expansion on Market Participation: Panel Data Evidence from Uganda, 2008, Megum Muto, Japan International Cooperation Agency Research Institute

Fascinating paper on a panel data study which finds that mobile phone network expansion (in Uganda) has a larger impact on the market participation (perishable goods) in areas farther from districts.

The researcher also states that it is not clear "whether farmers obtain the full efficiency gain due to the mobile phone expansion" particularly breaking the information asymmetry between trader and farmer. He recommends community capacity building in retrieving and sharing timely market price information through producers' associations (thus including non-phone owners).

Just reading this article reminds me of driving through Kanungu District (Uganda) at 6am and watching men and children pushing bicycles uphill with big banana bunches (locally called matooke - usually 3 bunches on one bike) and pineapples to sell at the nearest market. When I asked our driver how much they get, it was:

2500 to 3000 USH ($1.56 - $1.88 USD) per bunch
COSTS: 1000 USH to PUSH uphill & return + 500 per bunch from farmer = 1500 expenses ($0.94)
PROFIT: 1000 to 1500 USH ($0.63 - $0.94) a bunch x 3 = ($1.89 - $2.82) if all bunches were sold. This does not include paying the little boys for their help and their lunch. At least that's what I calculated in my head according to the rough information from our driver.

Tell me where the farmer can make more money because he still has to push.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

FTX & AWID Trip Reflection

The Feminist Tech Exchange was a specific capacity building workshop to help women & feminist rights organizations, including some IDRC partners, improve their ICT technical skills, and thus advance their dissemination methods in the online web 2.0 environment. Hosted by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC, long-time partner of IDRC), the workshop also attempted to integrate gender analysis and current ICT4D and feminist issues such as communication rights. Lastly, FTX allowed for the organizations and ICT4D experts to network in an open space as well as to improve the trainer’s facilitation skills. The intent was also for FTX participants to display or use their newly developed skills and knowledge at the AWID Forum.

1.0 FTX Trip Summary

The Feminist Tech Exchange had been a dream come reality for APC particularly members like Jac sm Kee who has been looking for opportunities to build technical and media capacity of feminists. APC members from Asia, Latin America and Africa converged with the 130 women and men from around the globe and shared a space to express diverse views on how feminist approaches and practices can examine the field of information & communication technology. For capacity building, the 15 hours spent at the Monkey Valley resort, produced near-to-final projects ranging from radio programs, short videos and digital stories. Some of the videos were then shown at the AWID forum to all 2000+ delegates before the start of plenary or on large screens throughout the forum. As for the examination of feminist approaches to ICT, the plenary or dialogues addressed issues such as communication rights and policy implications (Anriette Esterhuysen, Executive Director, APC), violence against women and ICT (Jac) and women movement building (Srilatha Batliwala, Scholar Associate for AWID). Delegates became aware of the issues, but due to limited time, further discussions were seen to spill over to the AWID organized sessions, “Is the Internet Feminist?” and “Politics, Power and the Internet”.
I noticed that many participants were young Communication Officers from the respective organizations looking for improved ways to disseminate their advocacy work. I sat in on the wireless and mobile activism track which demonstrated technical applications for mobile phone activism and setting up community wireless networks.

I had the chance to meet for the first time some of IDRC’s ICT4D – Pan Asia research partners like IT for Change (India) and ISIS (Manila) and improve my knowledge on the Pan Asia programming for Gender. Some Acacia partners were also present such as Robert Kirunda (Uganda) from the new Acacia project, “Examining the Nexus between ICTs and Human Rights in Africa” (105271). It is fitting for this project to see the privacy rights, access to information and censorship issues from the feminist perspective particularly under those societies where websites are blocked and monitored for inappropriate content in the eyes of government.
Further Discussion: What was learned about the feminist practices of technology?
Output: The list serv also continues to be active as delegates send in links to their photos and lessons learned post-FTX.

2.0 AWID Trip Summary

Association for Women’s Rights in Development hosts a women’s rights conference every three years and this recent Cape Town forum saw its largest delegation of 2200+ people with one-third of the delegates arriving from the African continent. According to IDRC records, we have been supporting AWID research and forum activities since 1999. This current year, it appears that IDRC supported two specific projects: 1) funding FTX participants to AWID forum (Pan Asia: 105129) and 2) conceptual framework research on “Building Feminist Movements and Organizations” (WRC: 105411). From my observations, IDRC research partners particularly connected to APC are highly involved with AWID activities and have influenced the direction of including ICTs and women’s rights in the agenda.

2.2.1 FTX Hub: APC was designated a space for FTX participants and others to used the FTX hub as their meeting place or technology learning space during the Forum. I felt the Hub made the forum experience more personalized particularly for the FTX delegates to mingle with known faces. They were able to use their new skills to blog, or trial applications like FrontlineSMS to inform FTX of the events or experiences during the forum. Many of the prominent speakers at the forum were also interviewed on online radio program FIRE (FemTalk) hosted by the Hub.

2.2.2 Plenary: One major observation was that during plenary, AWID ensured that the panel was inclusive of all different types of women particularly those who are usually marginalized within their respective societies (ie. Aboriginal, LGBT, disabled, etc). The inclusion of all women was clear and demonstrated throughout the forum such as the African Feminist Forum recent declaration to ensure the inclusion of all women regardless of ethnicity or gender identity. - Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists.

2.2.3 Other Highlights: I highly recommend supporting future research discussions on the session “Development Paradigms and Practices from a Feminist Perspective”. This session had a full packed audience but the debate did not go further than just basic iterations about the World Social Forum and stating the need to explore alternatives beyond neo-liberal ideologies.

2.2.4 Feminist Africa: I attended a book launch of a journal publication, “Feminist Africa”. South Africa’s Deputy Speaker and former Deputy Minister of Defence, Nozizwe Madladla – Routledge and feminist scholar, Yaliwe Clarke, spoke about the recent theme on militarism, conflict and Women’s activism. They gave fascinating perspectives on the South African arms deal, gendered post-conflict and African military recruitment. It would be interesting to see this debate go further with the African Gender Institute.

2.2.5 IGF: IT for Change hosted Southern Feminist Perspectives on the Information Society. Ms. Anita Gurumurthy used the space to discuss internet gender justice for the upcoming Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Hyderabad, India. They planned to present a document to address gender inequalities and women’s communication rights.

2.2.6 Funding Forum: There was also much debate throughout the forum on funding mobilization particularly for women rights movements and movement building. The African Women’s Development Fund has a wonderful list of funders for women’s rights under their publication, “Where is the money for Women’s Rights in Africa” (the publication is not online but I have a physical copy). Appendix A has the links to all of the women’s rights funding organizations.
For more information and summary of plenary sessions, go to the AWID Forum 2008 website:

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

3.0 Recommendations and Actions

1. ICT & women’s rights research collaboration: The forum dialogue which has been sparked on feminism approaches to ICT4D and policy implications but there needs to be further research exploration perhaps through the Feminist Network on Gender, Development and Information Society Policies across Gender & ICT research networks. This can also include deeper analysis on the feminist practices of technology and communication rights for women.

2. ICT Capacity Building: It was obvious from the FTX training in new innovative media and web 2.0 tools are of high demand and need in developing countries. In cases of limited resources, there is high likelihood for women to have less chance to improve their technology skills. Thus interventions are required to ensure that women gain equal opportunities and become aware of their own patriarchal societies and cultures that are preventing these gains for other women.

3. Feminism and the Military: An extremely interesting realm of research from a completely different perspective.