IT in Africa

The road to where is paved with good intentions?

Why am I only now discovering the ICT4D Jester? Oh, lost hero, how well you express my doubts and fears about ICTs and development. One of the reasons I no longer actively blog about technology for development and in developing contexts is because I feel like an asshole when I criticize some of the big movers and shakers in the sector. There are occasionally other critical voices, but many (and by no means all) of these critical voices come across as assholes, jealous of others’ success.

It’s true that I am, in fact, an asshole, but not because I mindlessly criticize others who are more popular and successful than I am. My view on ICTs is formed by my experience as a business owner who doesn’t work with the bottom billion. Or even the second bottom billion. Our clients are firmly in the middle billion, and that’s OK. Our clients’ employees are in the second billion, and some of them (orphanages, schools, etc) have clients in the bottom billion.

But we never interact with them because it’s really fucking hard to scale revenue from people who only make a few dollars a day.

I’m an asshole because it’s easier for me to bow out of the discussion and just run my business than it is for me to jump right in and tell you why you’re wrong. Here’s the thing: nobody’s going to inner-city Baltimore and handing out iPads and iPhones and whosits and whatsits galore. Nobody’s saying that better access to technology is the panacea. Nobody’s saying that better bandwidth is key to a higher standard of living. And certainly, programs that make wild claims about their impacts, based on limited short-term results, aren’t taken terribly seriously.

The problem in Baltimore isn’t access to technology. But when you make a statement like the above one, except you replace Baltimore with, oh, the DRC, Nairobi, or another city of choice, everyone jumps in to tell you, “No, Theresa! It’s not like that! Small scale projects! Social entrepreneurship! Empowering communities!”

I don’t doubt that the road to hell is paved with the best intentions. There are some wicked cool tools out there, but I see many of the best minds in America struggling with issues of technology, power, consent, and decision making … in America. Linda Raftree has written some very smart articles on these dynamics in the developing world, but from where I’m sitting, I see a lot more “cool toy” out there than, “how can community members harness existing resources to make their lives better?”

Here’s what I know: Wealthy young West Africans are on Facebook. There aren’t very many wealthy young West Africans. All of the mobile monitoring and Facebook use in West Africa in the world didn’t change the international community’s opinion of election results in Nigeria or Benin.

Hmmm.

3.1 Mb downloads in Benin? For 15 000 FCFA/mo? Are you out of your mind?

Kanakoo Liberty + Netbook

Somebody must have put Benin Telecom’s feet to the fire because they’ve launched a series of impressive initiatives to lower the price of bandwidth for Beninese consumers. They have:

  1. doubled the bandwidth for all DSL consumers. That means users who were paying 25 000 FCFA ($50) for 256 kbs are now getting 512. Users who were paying 80 000 FCFA ($160) for 512 now get 1Mbs. Pretty impressive.
  2. repaired the WiMax network, and we are now getting the 256 kbs that we pay 25 000 FCFA ($50) for, even during peak periods.
  3. launched a new CDMA service (Kanakoo Liberté), promising users download speeds of up to 3.1 mbs for 15 000 FCFA ($30) a month. The USB key to access the CDMA service is 45 000 FCFA ($90).

Suspicious of the good news, I borrowed a new Liberté modem from a friend and spent the weekend putting the service through its paces.

Benin Telecom’s customer service is horrifically bad. As in, I called and asked what the password to connect is, and they told me that not only is there not a password, but that I must be doing something wrong if the software’s asking me for one. A few emails to the Beninese tech community later, and I had a solution. Yes, there is a password, and yes, it’s the same password for every modem: 11111111. Don’t lose it, y’all.

This modem, unlike the previous Kanakoo version, works with Ubuntu out of the box. No more mucking around with wvdial. This is huge, as none of the GSM modems play well with Linux.

The modem consistently downloads at 600kbs. I got speeds of up to 1.2 mbs off-peak. Not as good as 3.1m, but definitely better than 256k.

I’m hesitant to call the new service an unmitigated success because I was in love with WiMax until Benin Telecoms overloaded the network, and oh! hey! weekly (sometimes daily) downtime is awesome. So let’s call this a reserved recommendation. It’s cheap enough to make it worth a try.

8 ways to create an inclusive work environment for women

Last week, I gave some concrete suggestions for improving participation by women in technology. Among them were exhortations to create an empowering environment to get work done. All of the mentoring and social networks in the world won’t help you if the atmosphere sucks. If men are actively silencing women during discussions you facilitate, you have failed these women. You have not lived up to your responsibility to create a non-oppressive safe space to explore and learn about technology. You may have failed to create a safe and harassment-free work environment.

Here are some concrete suggestions for creating a work environment that is inclusive to women.* Note that the vast majority of these suggestions have nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with creating an atmosphere that is not only non-oppressive, but actively encourages participation by women.

  1. Do not permit men to call women honey, dear, sweetheart, mama, or cherie. Be aware of local titles like aunt, uncle, and young woman, and pay attention to how they’re used. If all of the women are being referred to as “Young lady,” and all of the men are called “Uncle,” you have a problem.
  2. Do not allow men to tease women about whether they are single or married or have children. Yes, men will also tease men about this. Women will also tease women about this. It becomes oppressive when done by those with a vested interest in treating women like sex objects and primary child care providers instead of respected individuals.
  3. Do not allow men to make sexually suggestive remarks about women. Women are not great mothers, they are not beautiful, and they will not make a good wife some day. They are efficient, smart, and good business women. Focus on complements that complement who they are and what they do, not what they look like or their role in society.
  4. Women should not always be group secretaries (“recorders”). Men should not always be group reporters, nor should they always set the agenda for group work.
  5. If you will be serving refreshments, do not expect program participants to serve themselves. The women will end up bringing food and drinks to the men. This reinforces their social inferiority and their status as service objects. Find a fair way to pass out the food or pay for host(esse)s to distribute it.
  6. Call on women, and do not allow male voices to drown out female voices. The moment a conversation turns into an aggressive debate, women are silenced. They will not speak up in a confrontation with men and it is not fair to expect them to.
  7. Women may not be able to come in early, stay for lunch, or work late due to family obligations. Do not permit this to exclude them from social activities or possibilities for advancement, training, and advice. This is harder to do than you think.
  8. Women have been bombarded with messages about their inferiority and instructions to be submissive to men for centuries. It is not fair for you to expect them to throw off the yoke of cultural expectations because you want to “empower” them. It is not the fault of women that they have been socialized to react to men in any particular way. It is your fault for not knowing enough about their culture to facilitate the conversation.

I have not discussed child care, transportation, or timing because I believe that these things are very basic and very obvious. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Young children are not yet in school, and poor women may not have a domestic or a family member that can care for them. Babies are breastfed.
  2. Women often do not have their own means of transportation. They either pay for transportation, ask their husbands to bring them, or walk. They are vulnerable to assault and attack if your program is meeting at night or far from their homes.
  3. Women have family obligations at meal times.

Many of these suggestions are common sense; however, 5 years of designing and implementing ICT projects in Benin has showed me that common sense really isn’t, particularly when it comes to including marginalized groups. How do you make groups you lead comfortable for members of either sex? What should I add to this list?

* This is a heteronomative list that assumes a gender binary. I admit to having no idea how to account for a gender spectrum in a West African context and would love for readers to contribute suggestions.