|Bridge Builders: African Experiences with Information & Communication (BOSTID, 1996, 304 p.)|
COMMON PROBLEMS - INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS
These sixteen case studies tell very compelling and specific stories about the introduction of selected information and communication technologies into African institutions. They also demonstrate that considerable progress has been made since the 1989 Nairobi conference, organized by the National Research Council, at which the participants identified problems and gave recommendations for their resolution. The case study authors demonstrate that, while many of these problems still remain, they have taken positive steps to resolve others.
Those information technologies and services that had been identified in Nairobi as most appropriate CD-ROM, desktop publishing, electronic networking, and the collection, management, and dissemination of local information resources - are beginning to be adopted across the continent and their benefits can be seen throughout the research community. As the services and technologies become more readily available and easier to use, others are encouraged to experiment with them. Information and communication professionals in Africa are discovering many opportunities to develop innovative and effective information systems. As they do so, the link between information and communications and economic development becomes more clearly established. The importance of ICT, networks, and linkages among institutions becomes even more evident to project managers and to the directors and ministers to whom they report.
The sixteen case study authors recount that they still face common problems and barriers. Some problems, such as incompatible equipment, poor access to consumables (such as paper and toner) or peripheral equipment, a shortage of repair options and spare parts, and poor institutional coordination, were very obvious in 1989. While difficulties with these certainly remain' they seem to be of less importance to the case study authors. Other problems identified in 1989 are still present and the authors suggest a number of innovative solutions. These problems include: a shortage of funds; communication difficulties; a lack of institutional capacity to train personnel; poor collection, management, and dissemination of local information resources; and an absence of an enabling environment.
Shortage of Funds
Many countries in Africa are experiencing fiscal shortages and most of the case study authors write that their projects face a shortage of funds. Some of them resolved this problem by designing smaller, more manageable projects from the beginning. Look, for example, at the experiences described by Albina Kasango, Ermias Dagne, and James Muttunga. Others, such as Charles Musisi, Moussa Fall, and Paulos Nyirenda, have implemented cost-recovery systems that spread the costs of a service throughout the user community. Agnes Katama and Alex Tindimubona discuss their efforts to put their scientific presses on a sustainable footing by instituting sound business practices. Public/private partnerships are another solution for chronic funding problems and Neil Robinson discusses how ZAMNET was developed as a private company to provide Internet services.
Communication difficulties, another problem identified in 1989, are still present in Africa. Maintenance of the telecommunication systems has suffered and, in many countries, it is often easier to telephone internationally than across the capital city, since the international service is usually the most profitable part of the service. The telecommunication monopolies in most countries still operate on the basis that they make their profits from international calls and from their services for a small number of large subscribers at relatively high cost, rather than from a large number of small local subscribers at low cost,
However, local netvvorking initiatives are gaining ground in many African countries. Emerging as a logical path in the development of full Internet connectivity are a series of grassroots electronic networks that use robust and appropriate hardware and software tools. Fidonet systems that are able to use even poor dialup telephone lines can provide electronic mail access to the Internet. Such systems are helping to build the local user base in many African countries and are proving to be highly effective feeder roads into the Internet. Because there have been few public subsidies for these grassroots developments, these networks have to be fully self-sustaining and capable of operating with only the simplest microcomputers, modems, and ordinary dial-up lines. Lishan Adam, Moussa Fall, Charles Musisi, Paulos Nyirenda, and Neil Robinson each describe how they have achieved success in overcoming communication problems.
Shortage of Trained Personnel
Each case study author discusses the problems faced in training personnel. As the computer revolution creates a demand for computer-literate and specialized personnel, more and more people need to be trained. Training in the broadest sense, including computer literacy and consciousness-raising, is needed at all levels. Several authors remarked that the lack of training for senior level managers is limiting the adoption of newer technologies. The lack of training affects information systems in several ways: it limits the effectiveness with which new technologies are used and it causes users to lack confidence in their ability to master the technology. Training programs can help "demystify" information and communication technologies.
Most of the authors found that they had to provide their own training programs when they introduced a new information service or technology. John Newa and John Villars describe their consciousness-raising efforts with senior management. Helga Patrikios, James Muttunga, and Xavier Carelse describe the more in-depth and targeted programs they had to provide. Each of the networking authors faced an uphill battle to educate their users. Each found that the training burden would rest on their own shoulders since so few other options were available.
Poor Collection and Dissemination of Indigenous Information Resources
The intellectual output of many African countries is not being captured or deposited in a location where it can be maintained and made available to others. The research efforts of African scientists are not reported in the literature since the journals in which they publish are not indexed by the major bibliographic sources. The authors describe many solutions to these problems.
Stella Monageng maintains a program that systematically collects records for inclusion into a local database. Regina Shakakata and Helga Patrikios collect records from their own countries and contribute these to the African Index Medicus. They and James Muttunga also publish digests of relevant material that are disseminated to the research communities in their countries. Since African scientists face diminishing avenues of publication, Xavier Carelse, Alex Tindimubona, Albina Kasango, and Agnes Katama tackled this problem by improving the quality of local publishing houses through desktop publishing.
John Villars and Ermias Dagne take a slightly different approach in their case studies. The former discusses his efforts to launch a nationwide network for the dissemination of scientific information relevant to decision makers. The latter describes his discipline-oriented approach to uniting scientists interested in natural products.
Lack of an Enabling Environment
One of the most serious problems faced by the case study authors was the lack of an enabling environment within which they could begin to build an effective information service. Many felt they were working in isolation because the "computer culture" in their regions was so poorly developed. There was no support network - no back-up, no documentation, no service, nor any spare parts - and they often resorted to trial and error to get a project off the ground. While this experimentation eventually resulted in successful projects, it proved very frustrating along the way.
Several authors report that they had trouble dealing with vendors. Often they did not know exactly what to ask for - as a consequence they were given older, more complicated, or inappropriate technologies. Other times, they had difficulty communicating with vendors who did not respond to faxes or email, or who did not understand the situation in Africa. James Muttunga turned to mail order; Neil Robinson finally found a vendor who would deal with Zambia, and Helga Patrikios got the right combination of software and hardware only through perseverance. The ability to attend international trade shows and conferences improved the authors' understanding of the technology and allowed them to establish personal relationships with the vendors.
Another problem that was identified only by a few authors was the shortage of good, easy-to-use software in local languages. Lishan Adam reports that Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries using its own script. Generic native-language software interfaces that allow easier storage and retrieval of textual information in local languages and scripts are not well developed. Some new programs have features for processing data in all languages simultaneously but these are not readily available in Ethiopia.
Another manifestation of the poor information environment was the discovery that many researchers had little incentive to use information services. In some cases, they were unwilling or unable to pay for information even though they valued the information service. In other cases, they had little understanding of the value of electronic information resources as compared to more traditional information products. The deterioration of libraries due to poor storage conditions and lack of foreign currency to maintain journal subscriptions contributed to a serious underuse of information resources.
Such low expectations on the part of researchers had to be overcome by aggressive marketing techniques. Some of these are described by Regina Shakakata, John Newa, and James Muttunga. Helga Patrikios reports that the introduction of the CD-ROM improved the status of the library staff. By being in a position to provide better service, her staff was better able to interact with the requestor on a professional level, Using information technologies in an "everyday" setting demonstrates to the users that these technologies need not be feared, that instead they can be manipulated to give the user the information wanted.
Despite these adverse conditions, the case study authors found unique and innovative ways to create enabling environments within which their own projects could thrive. Many of the authors credit one or two individuals for helping and inspiring them. These experts served as support groups and as objective sources of advice - often filling in the gap caused by a shortage of journals, other literature, and conferences and exhibits. Other authors credit the donors, especially the Carnegie Corporation of New York, for having the vision to fund projects that involved new, untested technologies. Organizations such as the National Research Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science also played enabling roles by helping with proposal writing, providing technical advice to the authors, and convening frequent meetings so project managers could learn new skills, share ideas, and foster collaboration.
An examination of the case studies as a whole reveals several common conclusions that can be summarized quite briefly here.
· Pilot or demonstration projects play a critical role in
the introduction of information and communication technologies. They allow for
experimentation and demonstrate the use and costs of CD-ROM, desktop publishing,
electronic mail and computer conferencing, and software development using
personal computers and off-the-shelf database management software. They provide
a low-risk, non-threatening environment in which users can try new
· Training programs - both for information providers and for organization directors and managers - are still badly needed throughout Africa. Training should include broad overviews of microcomputers and networking, as well as consciousness raising about the importance of information. It should include formal instruction through high-quality schools as well as shorter-term workshops, seminars, and computer-based instruction. Improved documentation and manuals will also help fill the training gap.
· The most sustainable projects are those that start small and follow a logical growth pattern. Local networks seem to be a prerequisite for the successful introduction of the Internet.
· The successful implementation of STI systems and services often relies upon a combination of technologies. Libraries need to offer both CDROM and network access. Publishers need desktop publishing and access to local information. No single technology will solve all the information needs of the research community and a suitable and coordinated mixture of technologies seems to help all parties.
· The informal networks, personal contacts, and user groups that have been formed in Africa have been very helpful in providing information about the costs and suitability of different technologies. Networks and professional associations are also good mechanisms for sharing information about innovative outreach and cost-recovery programs.
· The development of indigenous databases through the collection and publication of locally-produced material is extremely important. Local databases provide resources for solving local problems by assuring that the scientific research of a country is being captured and entered into a database to which others in the country have access. Once such databases exist, project managers must make major efforts to disseminate information about their availability to researchers in the country and region.
Many of the lessons learned by the case study authors should be self-evident but the fact that projects are still being designed, implemented, and managed without much thought to these lessons proves that more active dissemination activities are needed. Bridge Builders takes an important first step in outlining remaining problems and barriers to the introduction of information and communication technologies. It also demonstrates that innovative solutions to these problems are available.
Still needed are venues at which these lessons can be identified and discussed with others. Networks, professional associations, trade shows, and other events provide an appropriate meeting ground where project managers can discuss the choice of suitable technologies, get help in defining needs for information products and services, offer technical assistance to others, and share information about information services and technologies.
By reading these case studies, donors, government ministries, and project managers alike should be encouraged to see just how much can be accomplished with relatively small amounts of funding. Echoing the strongest recommendation from the 1989 Nairobi conference is this advice from the case study authors: small amounts of funds can be highly leveraged and can provide a low-risk environment that allows for experimentation and innovation.
The advisory committee sincerely hopes that Bridge Builders will help counterbalance the "afro-pessimism" that pervades the halls of policy- and decision-makers in both the United States and Africa. These people might choose to dwell on the institutional weaknesses, poor economic environment, inadequately trained manpower, cultural and attitudinal values, and generally low levels of technological awareness that work together to prevent the further development of effective STI systems and services in Africa.
Or they might look at the efforts of these few, representative individuals and be inspired by how their activities and efforts have helped to overcome these barriers. They too might find that the possibilities and the opportunities are limited mostly by their own imaginations; they too might be infected by the pioneering spirit demonstrated by these case study authors.
Then, perhaps, they will choose to help by working with these "bridge builders" and the many, many others whom they represent.