I was recently interviewed for an article that appeared on our company's news portal. Excerpts:
"I am motivated by the belief that Africa’s problems are not as intractable as they seem, and that Africa is in a perpetual state of take-off due to its largely untapped and/or mismanaged socio-economic and human potential. Digital technology with the unfettered freedom, flexibility and creativity, offers an incredible opportunity to bypass or even leap frog over many of the socio-economic, structural and political hurdles that obstruct Africa’s development." Dibussi Tande
1) How did you become interested in digital activism – and how it pertains to African social advocacy?
ANS: Since my college days in Africa, I’ve always been involved in political and social activism. So the movement towards digital activism was a natural one for me, especially with the emergence of Web 2.0, which offered the possibility of high quality and easy to create user-generated content which activists could use to establish virtual spaces, free from government control, to inform, engage, motivate and mobilize around their specific causes. This intersection between civil society and the Internet is what has given birth to the Digital Civil Society, which uses the Internet in innovative ways to further the cause of social justice on the continent.
2) How do you believe the digital age, particularly mobile communications, can transform the African society?
In a continent where 1 out of 2 people now own a cell phone, mobile communications have the potential to dramatically transform life on the continent, from bringing bring hitherto marginalized communities into the mainstream, to improving health, education, social services and promoting social advocacy and political transparency.
The Internet has the same potential, however, with Internet Penetration in Africa only 8.7% (compared to 76.2% in the North America) coupled with the poor state of telecommunications in most of the continent, its benefits are still far down the road – although those countries that have established viable ICT infrastructures such as South Africa, Kenya and Mauritius are already reaping significant benefits from the Internet industry.
3) In what areas of Africa are digital technologies taking root and demonstrating their potential?
Digital technology is taking root mostly in the mobile communications sector where developers are creating innovative and cutting edge products on a daily basis; products that are not just mimicking what is being done in Silicon Valley or Bangalor, but actually taking into account the constraints of the African environment and needs of the African population. A few examples of mobile technology-based solutions from Africa include:
- Mobile phone-based money transfer and banking solutions, such as the M-Pesa in Kenya, which cater to the majority of Africans who are not part of the formal financial system;
- SMS solutions to monitor elections in countries such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone or Mozambique;
- Health promotion solutions such as Cellphones4HIV which uses mobile phones to strengthen the HIV sector in South Africa through mass messaging for prevention, counseling, monitoring and evaluation, or the Substance Abuse Mobile Counseling service offered by RLABS still in South Africa, etc;
- The FreedomFone project in Zimbabwe, which uses an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system and the mobile phone to deliver critical information to marginalized communities;
- Crisis mapping and crowd sourcing solutions, such as Ushahidi, an open source software initially created by Kenyan bloggers to map post electoral violence in Kenya in 2007 but which has been deployed in crisis situations around the world. In fact, when the Haitian earthquake occurred, the US State Department turned to the folks at Ushahidi rather than to Silicon Valley for assistance in communicating with, and identifying, disaster affected communities in real time [Click here for New York Times article ].
Ushahidi was also deployed in Chile after the recent earthquake, and was used by the Washington Post during the recent snowstorm in Washington to warn of roads blocked by snow.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg of mobile technology-based innovation coming out of Africa today…
4) Can you put into words the satisfaction in having addressed the Digital Citizen Indaba in South Africa last Septemeber?
Not only was it a great pleasure to take part in the Highway Africa conference which is the largest gathering of African journalists, media practitioners and educationists, it was a mind-blowing experience to be the keynote speaker at the DCI, thereby joining a very select list of "digital citizens" who've had that privilege. Most significantly, being selected as keynote speaker proved that my modest contributions to the development of the African blogosphere and digital activism on the continent - all the way from my base in Chicago, USA - were being noticed and appreciated by the people on the ground in Africa.
5) What overall message did you leave your audience with?
In my keynote address, I traced the evolution of civil society in Africa and its appropriation of digital media to promote social justice. I explained why the African civil society needed to make its voice heard on the digital public sphere, and analyzed current challenges to the establishment of a viable digital civil society on the continent. I pointed out that one of the major challenges facing the digital civil society in Africa was what I termed a “digital disconnect”, i.e., the fact that the digital civil society in Africa is operating in a largely unwired continent, and that the bulk of Africa’s digital activists live out of Africa and do not share the same geographical space as the people they are representing or trying to influence. I also proposed a number of “best practices” for digital activists and civil society organizations, the most significant being that in order for any online campaign to be successful, that online engagement must translate into offline collective action.
6) Please tell me about your work assisting civil society organizations in Africa establish an online presence and devise strategies for using new media for social advocacy purposes.
The most significant work that I do is through a group which I co-founded with Dr. Emil Mondoa called “Jimbimedia”. We have thus far created 50 or so blogs for civil society organizations and actors, journalists, opinion leaders, activists, etc. Thanks to this effort, many civil society organizations and activists who would otherwise have been restricted to their narrow geographical space are now able to carry out cross-border advocacy, link up with and benefit from the experience of similar groups around the world. I also assist a good number of these groups to design and implement viable and online and social media strategies that allow them to effectively engage the online community for networking or fund-raising purposes.
7) What are some of the key issues that you believe an online community can and should address via online and mobile communications?
Online communities vary, so there is really no one-size-fits-all recommendation on what they should address via online and mobile communications. However, a golden rule is that no matter their focus or target audience, organizations or groups that create online communities, be they via the Internet or via mobile technology, must be able to transform their online engagement into effective offline collective action or else they will remain mere ‘talking shops” with little or no impact on their target communities. For example, the much talked about Obama online strategy that helped him win the last US presidential elections could not have been successful without the complementary work of foot soldiers who physically went from door to door, block to block, city to city, county to county, and state to state to personally sell the Obama agenda.
8) Have there been any early success stories?
The successes can be seen in the number of civil society organizations and activists that now have an online presence, and in the growing appreciation of the fact that blogs and websites are not just online business cards and virtual bulletin boards, but dynamic spaces for online engagement and mobilization. .
9) What motivates you to devote your time in this space?
I am motivated by my belief that Africa’s problems are not as intractable as they seem, and that Africa is in a perpetual state of take-off due to its largely untapped or mismanaged socio-economic and human potential. Digital technology with the unfettered freedom, flexibility and creativity offers an incredible opportunity to bypass or even leap frog over many of the socio-economic, structural and political hurdles that obstruct Africa’s development. This is why I am part of that growing army of activists who are determined to spread the word about the transformative capabilities of the digital technology or ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies) across Africa.
10) What goals have you set forth, and what the biggest challenges that lie ahead?
My goal is a fairly simple one; use my knowledge and experience in the digital sphere to assist those in Africa who are trying to seek solutions to the myriad of socio-political and economic issues confronting the continent today. And as I have pointed out earlier, the biggest challenge that lies ahead, that is, apart from the broader issues of technology accessibility, availability and affordability, and human capacity development, is the “Digital Disconnect”. In other words, how do you successfully engage people in the digital sphere when the majority of them are not wired? The solution as I discussed earlier may lie in mobile technology.
Interviewed by Jim Masters, Accenture News Channel – Spotlight on People