Adapting to change

Tobias Eigen

As the internet has grown so has Kabissa, responding to problems and offering solutions to activists and member organizations throughout Africa.

Ten years ago, an activist witnessing a human rights violation in Nigeria had few options when it came to publicizing her findings to a global audience. She could fax a press release, make a phone call, send a letter. If she were lucky enough to have access to the internet, and could afford the exorbitant costs of service providers, she could rush off an email alert. Few of these activists, however, had the kind of immediate, unfettered access to the internet that their counterparts in rich countries had, even though the need for such access was arguably much greater.

Aware that the world wide web had tremendous potential to give African civil society a global audience, we founded Kabissa in 1999. Our idea was to help organizations put information and communication technologies (ICT) to work for the benefit of the people they serve. At that time, this meant providing accessible, affordable and secure website hosting and e-mail services.

The internet transformed the way many of these organizations worked. Government controlled media, poor infrastructure, and a lack of resources and training all worked against activists and development professionals and isolated them from the rest of the world. Eager to communicate with each other and with the international community, Kabissa members embraced email and mailing lists in particular from the very beginning. WOUGNET, the Women of Uganda Network, was an early pioneer, actively using its email networks and newsletters as early as 2000 to bring attention to the work of its members and to create connections amongst them. Fantsuam Foundation, in rural northern Nigeria, successfully created a global web presence for their village development project and used the web to find and connect with donors and partners.

Since then the technology has evolved and the needs of African organizations have grown. In response, Kabissa has adapted and expanded its offerings, including running a www4mail server for a number of years that enables users to request web pages by email. A training programme was also established, tailored for African civil society, and information shared on ICT through a monthly member newsletter and website. Kabissa now serves more than 1100 member organizations throughout Africa.

Learning to get online

A shortage of basic internet access has been a continuous theme and remains a major obstacle. Despite great progress over the last decade in the spread of internet access points in Africa, the vast majority of Kabissa members still get online primarily through cyber cafés and generally battle with the logistics of reliably and consistently utilizing internet resources. One result of this shortage is that African organizations generally are unable to effectively use ‘traditional’ domain hosting accounts: that is, having a dedicated web address to host a website, mailboxes and mailing lists. Instead, organizations rely on services they can easily get through a web browser and have largely given up on offline e-mail clients, web design software, FTP (a method for transferring data over the internet) or any other tools perceived to be more efficient for internet communication. This is exemplified by the comparatively powerful but largely underutilized domain hosting services offered on the Kabissa server in favour of web-based tools such as Yahoo mail and now blogging and social networking sites.

To counteract this lack of capacity, the Time To Get Online training programme was launched in 2001. Organizations needed trained and inspired ‘Internet Champions’ to motivate decision makers to prioritize the internet. They needed encouragement to take the steps required, at an appropriate pace, to connect to the internet and to interact with other organizations. More planning was also required to develop a web presence, and ultimately integrate the internet into everything the organization does. Time To Get Online places a strong emphasis on intensive hands-on training workshops as well as self-learning through a coherent, self-contained manual that can be used for training everyone in an organization (available in print, as a PDF download and on the Kabissa wiki).

Due to the cost involved and broad geographical spread of its members, it was impracticable for Kabissa to directly offer workshops, so local training partners throughout Africa were recruited and given an intensive training-of-trainers programme. These partners continue to operate training courses to this day and they have been very effective. Another valuable learning experience, however, has been that the workshops remain costly to run and have not reached the numbers of member organizations that had been hoped for. Kabissa has been experimenting with various e-learning models to spread the benefits of Time To Get Online more widely.

Organizations that have participated in the programme have definitely benefited, such as Media Rights Agenda, which has developed a sophisticated ICT program in its efforts to promote and maintain media freedom in Nigeria and throughout West Africa. However, many other smaller organizations have fallen through the cracks: even if they do benefit from Time To Get Online they have not come far in their strategic use of the internet. It appears that a lack of awareness remains about what the internet can actually do for organizations. They are very focused on the day to day struggles and as a result are unable to invest the time and effort to investigate how the internet can help them to achieve their mission better. They see the internet as something new, perhaps threatening, and overall as an additional obligation that will increase their workload rather than as a tool that can help them to improve the work they are already doing.

Internet diplomacy

While access to the internet has allowed African organizations to be more effective, their use of the internet is still fairly two-dimensional. The speed and ease of communication and information retrieval is unprecedented, but the needs being met are essentially the same as they always had been. The arrival of web 2.0 over the last two years has changed all that. Rather than replicating traditional modes of communication at a faster rate, web 2.0 provides people and organizations that embrace it with a multi-faceted presence on the web. They are now able to participate in – and indeed drive – global conversations about social change issues that affect them.

In order to bring all these potential benefits to its members, Kabissa has been working on several web 2.0 projects to give African organizations a greater presence on the internet. The organization has launched a new interactive site with web 2.0 features including blogging and has transformed its member database into a fully fledged social networking site. Printed ICT training materials have also been published online as a wiki and this autumn, Kabissa will launch a powerful new ready-to-use website hosting and consulting service.

But all of these technological improvements won’t bring the revolutionary social change Kabissa seeks without the vibrant member community putting them to use. Through its Web 2.0 Ambassadors project, the organization plans to recruit 20 key partners throughout Africa who are very motivated to serve their local communities as well as the larger Kabissa community. These ambassadors will organize meetings and workshops with civil society organizations on the local level, keep in daily contact with each other through web 2.0 tools, and gather for regional face-to-face meetings on a regular basis.

As a result, Kabissa and its partners will develop a shared understanding of how web 2.0 technologies work in Africa, their application to the member community, and how they can be used by different types of African civil society organizations working in different environments. Kabissa will support its partners in applying these lessons to their own organizations, and also to the larger community, creating a viral spread of tech-activism throughout African civil society.

Tobias Eigen is the founder and co-executive director of Kabissa.

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More information:

Web 2.0 in African Civil Society (available in September 2007)

Kabissa 2.0: Strengthening the Social Web in Africa

Kabissa 2006 Member Survey Results

Drupal: Open Source Open Source Content Management System used by Kabissa

CiviCRM: Open Source Constituency Relationship Management Module for Drupal used by Kabissa

DokuWiki: Open Source wiki tool used by Kabissa

Human Rights Watch: Blogging Resources for activists

Global Voices Online Sub-Saharan Africa

Pambazuka News: Blog Roundup and Podcasts

Media Rights Agenda

26 October 2007

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