|Africa and the Middle East 2007
|Africa: half full – half empty
|Founder and CEO
|West African NGO Network, WANGONeT
Tunji Lardner is the Founder and CEO of the West African NGO Network, WANGONeT. He is an internationally recognized journalist, social entrepreneur and development communications consultant with substantial experience and notable achievements in various capacities inside and outside of Africa. Mr Lardner has over 25 years of media and communications experience, the past 16 as a top consultant to the UNDP, UN, The Ford Foundation, DfID and lately the World Bank. Mr Lardner has managed many projects within the United Nations system in more than a dozen countries. He has served on several non-profit advisory boards and as a board member of US-based Social Science Research Councilís ICT, Networking and Development Sub-Committee. Mr Lardner holds a Bachelorís degree in philosophy from the University of Lagos and has studied and taught at Stanford and Columbia universities. He served as Adjunct Professor, Centre for New Media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and as a Research Fellow, Freedom Forum Media Studies Centre also at Columbia University. Mr. Lardner was a Reuter Scholar/Knight Fellow with the Department of Communications at Stanford University.
WANGONeT, the West African NGO Network set out to stimulate the use of the Internet as a tool for creating and distributing content. Its ëThe Internet Content Projectí, using ëlow tech in a NO tech environmentí, soon faced critical problems – those that need ICT help most were not computer literate and had no Internet access. The rollout and growth of GSM gave Africans user-friendly devices to access the Internet, but the problem – getting appropriate content to the public – remains.
I have just returned to Lagos from the idyllic foothills of the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro. Ordinarily this would have been the perfect segue into a clichÈd reference about a life affirming adventure climbing up to the snowcapped peak of Africaís highest vantage point. But no, there is no snowcapped peak here; global warming has reduced the once magnificent snowy pinnacle to speckles of white sprinkled on the bare, morose rock face. And there was no adventure either, having being cloistered for four days attending an extraordinary meeting of Africans, the African diasporas and those who love Africa. I was there attending the TED Global conference entitled Africa: The Next Chapter. The entire experience listening to and interacting with Africaís creative brightest and best, lassoed in from every diasporic corner of the world, showed me the outer boundaries of what is possible, indeed what has been achieved by Africans in all spheres of human endeavour. But even so, the elasticity of this almost surreal experience meant that at key moments of astonishment verging on disbelief at the possibilities of Africaís next chapters, I would be rudely snapped back to the default position of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of my own experiences in running WANGONeT, West African NGO Network, a small, technology-based non-profit organisation that I have spent the past decade gestating and birthing. The initial idea for WANGONeT as broached in the first set of exploratory grant proposals in 1997 was to create an organization that would use the Internet as a tool for facilitating indigenous content on the World Wide Web. To quote from one of the early proposals, ìIt is often remarked that 80 per cent of what is known about Africa resides outside the continent, mostly in the academic, cultural, financial and policy institutions of the technologically developed world. This project focuses on using technology as a tool to redress historical and institutional under representation in the global marketplace of ideas. It entails the use of this new medium via appropriate technologies to create new information products that reflect and represent the fullest canvas of indigenous creativity and intellect.î In a word, the WANGONeT idea, or as its original title suggests, The Internet Content Project, was designed to create an electronic community within the West African sub-region, that shared content and ideas using the Internet as the networking platform. The plan was to start in Nigeria, consolidate and then organically expand in West Africa through agreements with other NGOs and non-profits. The choice of Nigeria was informed in part by the fact that our major donor, The Ford Foundation, is based in Lagos and, as Nigerians, we were more familiar with the terrain. That choice itself was to determine the evolution of the project for good and for bad over the past seven years; it was, as someone wryly put it, ìlow tech in a NO tech environmentî. As the WANGONeT idea evolved, the idea of helping NGOs generate content for the Internet was going to be more involved that at first imagined. In practical terms, we were faced with a conundrum: okay, so you help NGO clients with issues of content development for the Web and then what? First, your client is probably not computer literate and is therefore shut out from using the very ICT tools that can add value to his/her work. Second, your client invariably does not have access to the Internet and therefore cannot see the NGOís content on the Web. The necessary and logical solution to these challenges was to design an organization that addressed these environmental and info-structural problems, without losing mission and vision focus. As I look back seven years, I marvel at our naivety in thinking that the challenges we faced then – and to a lesser degree now – were purely hard technological challenges; put in the machines, lay down the processes, we thought, and you could plugíníplay. Not so, it turned out. Adapting a logical and scientific approach to problem solving in a culture predicated on loose, personalized and highly informal adaptive systems and a different – if not psychologically opaque – dynamic turned out to be a frustrating experience. I discovered that people were at once the strongest and the weakest link in the value chain. So in addition to the major infrastructural challenges that are evident everywhere you looked, ìthe NO tech environment bitî, the issue of technological adoption and adaptation was a major challenge in getting our small enterprise started. Even so, on a parallel track in those early days some seven years ago, something truly remarkable happened in Nigeria – the newly elected democratic government privatized the telecommunications sector by auctioning GSM licences at about US$287 million a pop. Then the utterly inexplicable happened: the GSM companies rolled out their networks to meet the massive pent-up demand in Nigeria and the consumer base grew from around 400,000 lines in 2001 at a rate – one of the worldís highest – estimated to put 40 million phones in the hands of the population by 2009. This has been great for investors and shareholders but raises questions about the limits of such explosive growth in the overall equation of African development. Put another way, while there have been some remarkable feats of technology in deploying various ICT tools for the people there has not been enough focus and emphasis on the soft adaptive issues of Africaís socio-economic development within the framework of the global knowledge economy. The 21st century promises to be driven by knowledge-based economics in which the factors of production, the products and the dynamics of the market place are radically different from what has existed previously. It will, perforce, be an integrated and technologically networked global economy, recasting comparative advantages with strong pressure on for goods and services. Within this collective economic future, raw materials and the processing of them into other articles will continue to decrease in value but knowledge – that particular element added by humans employing information and judgment – will increase in significance. This clearly calls for a different understanding of economics, information and the framing of socio-economic policies, as well as decision-making processes within a radically different intellectual paradigm. In this brave new world, the economic currency and commodity value will be encapsulated within the information-knowledge continuum (info-knowledge) aided by various ICT/Internet-based learning tools. Against this background is the often-quoted observation that 80 per cent of what is known about Africa resides outside Africa, mostly in Western knowledge and cultural institutions. In spite of this handicap, Africa is willy-nilly part of the global market place of ideas and increasingly forced to compete globally. Understanding and addressing this reality is the central but unspoken challenge of grappling with our social and economic problems in Africa. Some questions How can Africa harness this expropriated intellectual capital and other knowledge assets for her own development? I proffer two broad areas of engagement. The rudiments of a knowledge economy The primary economic commodity is info-knowledge and its economic value is tied to its value in use as a function of its applicability, accuracy, timeliness and completeness, ease of use and access. All these qualities are value enhanced because information once digitized can be integrated and re-purposed to create new value-added products. The value in use is determined by the relevance of info-knowledge to problem solving and its capacity to address effectively and tame the uncertainties of the market place. The human resource/intellectual capacity nexus is of special relevance to Africa. While the two are joined at the hip, they are not necessarily conjoined twins. Human resource, ie labour as a factor of production, is the intermediary stage of the development of info-knowledge as a product. Because of the intangible nature of the product, authorship is becoming increasingly unimportant in view of the end user. With or without African participation, valuable info-knowledge about Africa will continue to be produced and traded without royalties paid to Africans. The solution is for Africans to provide their own content, re-purpose info-knowledge and effectively trade and collect royalties on the global information market place. Info-knowledge – for African development Most of Africa now has full Internet connectivity and the continent is effectively connected with the rest of the world. The economic necessity to maximize the benefits of instantaneous and real time info-knowledge fully, however, remains. The information, the knowledge, if fully harnessed will render obsolete old ideas about national political and economic sovereignties. It can only serve to strengthen existing regional economic arrangements and ultimately a pan-African economic union. If such a union is to thrive, it must concentrate and consolidate intra-African trade on the one hand and fully participate in the world financial and commodity markets on the other. The development of Africaís formal private economic sectors, especially the growing list of countries publicly trading stocks in respective stock exchanges, is a sign that the free market philosophy is now squarely within the economic realm and no longer subject to ideological debate. If this presages Africaís emergence as the next and last economic frontier, as things stand, it is clear that national governments will have little understanding or control over the domestic impacts of global market-place imperatives. Lastly, how can Africa play in the global market place without losing socio-economic control and its accrued profits from info-knowledge to the vagaries of the global market place? The great paradox of the African situation is that to survive in the 21st century, the continent must rapidly interface with the technology driven nodes of the age, while concurrently living out the intermediate stages of humanityís great epochs. Essentially, Africaís past co-exists in a developmental time warp along with her present and possibly her future. By this, I mean that – arguably – Africa exists simultaneously in the agrarian, pre-industrial and information ages. This interesting continuum has to be fully understood and managed before the continent can make that necessary quantum leap into the 21st century. An interesting corollary is the concept of todayís Africa as occupying more than a geographic space. Beyond geography, Africa exists in the various diasporas and neo-diasporas, a vibrant, colourful, creative, technology savvy and enterprising intellectual space that is waiting to be fully explored and engaged. Are we up to the challenge?