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Bridging Digital Divides: Conversations on Empowering Africa’s Future at the NetHope Africa Chapter

The most attended regional event of the NetHope Membership, further strengthening our commitment to localization on the continent of Africa.

July 11, 2024

More than 30 representatives of NetHope Members from Burkina Faso, Côte D'Ivoire, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Tanzania joined in person and others virtually.

DAY ONE

At the start of the 2024 NetHope Africa Chapter meeting in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, hosted by Save the Children and CARE International, current affairs reminded us of the challenges faced within the continent and the reality of today's new and fundamental digital divides.

Our colleagues from East Africa left a disrupted Internet amid civil protests in Kenya. Nos amis here in Abidjan are grappling with climate-related floods that recently killed many and damaged roads and buildings. Last month, Côte d'Ivoire experienced internet disruption caused by a submarine cable cut. Everywhere around the world, we see the dependence of society's future on the digital world and governments seeking more sovereignty over it. The new digital divides of digital skills, digital inclusion, digital protection, digital transformation and innovation, and digital solutions to climate adaptation are themes increasingly present in governmental and public conversations.

Our hosts reminded us that digital accelerates everything, making our world more turbulent and demanding increased agility to respond to change. This is why it is essential for our African-based Members to regularly assemble and continue to advance collective action to bridge both fundamental and new digital divides. With a theme of empowering Africa through digital transformation and building a collective and inclusive future, the NetHope Africa Chapter agenda for the week covered satellite connectivity, localization, young people's digital empowerment, Artificial Intelligence (AI) use, and numerous other topics critical to bridging digital divides. More than 30 representatives of NetHope Members from Burkina Faso, Côte D'Ivoire, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Tanzania joined in person and others virtually. The Africa Chapter is the most attended regional event of NetHope, and, further strengthening our commitment to localization, NetHope's board has three directors located in the continent: Elizabeth Njoroge of Christian Aid, Priscilla Chomba of Greenpeace International, and Stephen Ciirah of WWF International.

Mazin Elamin, the Regional ICT4D Advisor from SOS Children’s Village, started us off by presenting the advancement of project Rafiki, which was initiated through a strategic consultation via NetHope’s IDEA Journey and the extension to Digital Villages. The project involves augmenting digital skills training and certification of youth, has upskilled more than 1,700 youth, including young women, and created a path for employment opportunities or digital entrepreneurship. One learning from the program is to resist the temptation to import devices and systems, instead leveraging local ICT capabilities, such as employing local talent and using local systems and vendors to ensure long-term digital sustainability. Providing a platform for digital skills, certification, mentorship, and business skills in 9 languages, Rafiki has reached out to more than 50,000 people to date.

Localization is about shifting power.

Giving young people agency through an AI chatbot based on collective knowledge also enables youth to connect with each other and with experts. The learning here is about inclusion, engaging youth to steward their own digital solutions. This has resulted in young people creating a podcast show of short videos on the topmost important themes for them, such as mental health, and community development. The short video episodes are shared on social media such as YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. Technology can transform lives – many program participants have found full-time employment in digital jobs that would not have been otherwise possible.

Gidraf Wachira, NetHope's Climate Intersections Lead, showcased the three pillars of the initiative. Research has identified that 95% of NetHope Members are engaged in climate activities, with the highest interest in climate adaptation. The Climate Intersections program, funded by Cisco, focuses on giving people early warning of extreme weather events, which is essential to reduce damage and loss of life, upskilling nonprofits with the data and digital skills they need to accelerate their climate initiatives and augmenting climate equity by giving a voice to women, youth and marginalized people impacted by climate shocks, in partnership with Ushahidi. The program also aims to increase connectivity and resilience in Tana River County, Kenya, to strengthen anticipatory action to the effects of climate change, such as receiving early warnings by developing internet connectivity that is climate shock resilient. Tana River County is vulnerable to two climate hazards, floods and drought, which heavily disrupt local communities' well-being.

Collaboration and coordination are key, and NetHope is recognized for this role.

Participants engaged in a panel discussion on localization following a presentation by Vija Shunmoogun, Director of the Localization Initiative at Save the Children International, who presented the commitment and journey of the organization’s localization, including changing to be demand-driven. Local and national actors must be in the same space to connect with global actors such as international NGOs. Localization is about shifting power. 

Martin Bucah, Save the Children, Roselyne Muringo, MSF, and Dr Nwokedi Ndulue, Christian AID.

The panel comprised Martin Bucah, Save the Children, Roselyne Muringo, MSF, and Dr Nwokedi Ndulue, Christian AID. To empower local actors, the panelists encouraged participants to start by engaging local or national actors to understand what they need. Engaging with the communities is essential; however, we are reminded that cultures and social contexts may not allow some groups, such as children, to participate. Global nonprofits must assess the digital capacity and resilience of local partners. This likely means assessing the digital competency of INGOs' local people. Collaboration and coordination are key, and NetHope is recognized for this role.

Panelists further recommended that NetHope, leveraging our collective power in the technological and humanitarian space, should bridge dialogues with local digital actors and make sense of legal norms. Members asked NetHope to harness more funding to test new ideas that can be scaled through the Membership – especially focusing on mechanisms that reduce compliance, due diligence, audit, and Cybersecurity administration burdens on community-based organizations. However, we must acknowledge that digital skills are not enough; strengthening administrative and financial capacity is complementarily needed. The panel also addressed the important question of how much localization is more strategic than reactive and pointed out the need for iterative approaches, testing, and learning to do it better together.

We wrapped up the day with a session on Artificial Intelligence and a discussion of what Africa-based Members can do to leverage this opportunity ethically and safely. The Africa Chapter is historically a pioneer in collective AI/ML innovation, such as the Mama Africa Chatbot, which was collectively created by Members within this Chapter.

Ethical principles, continuous evaluation, and robust bias assessment must be applied and embedded within the services used.

Building on this innovative history, Jean-Louis Ecochard of NetHope’s Center for the Digital Nonprofit brought forth a challenging message, highlighting the promise of AI and the risks and noting AI as driving most of the energy in this space. Specifically, he noted the historical underrepresentation of minorities that is being amplified by AI.

The 2024 NetHope Africa Chapter meeting was held this month in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, hosted by Save the Children and CARE International.

The amplification of the human condition by technology is not new. So, we should increasingly look at how our data (and who we have data on) reflects our inequitable reality. AI at scale will amplify bias and widen historical existing imbalances. The seeds of this can already be seen in the lack of language diversity, racism, or similar in Large Language Models, for example. Jean-Louis challenged the room to consider that a simple answer may be not to collect data about people, yet, on the flip side, their voices and experiences may then not be part of the decision-making landscape that AI will be used for. This tension needs to be explored in all stages of the AI-enabled project lifecycle: from data collection and data pre-processing/curation to model creation and evaluation, to problem identification on which to use the AI, to deployment, to maintenance and ongoing learning/training. Ethical principles, continuous evaluation, and robust bias assessment must be applied and embedded within the services used.

Jean-Louis, Joan Orina from Winrock, and Elizabeth Njoroge from Christian Aid all noted the extensive list of resources and toolkits created by the collective NetHope community to robustly and safely guide this journey, with Elizabeth specifically calling out the NetHope AI Ethics training that she received. She challenged the room to spread the learnings from such training into their organizations and be champions of good AI practices. Joan led the room in a vibrant round of Q&A, which noted specifically that young persons are already heavily using AI compared to their older peers.AI, compared their older peers.

DAY TWO

The second day of the NetHope Africa Chapter began with a focus on localization and a reminder of the value of active inclusivity and adaptation. After realizing on the first day that technical English presentations were difficult for French-speaking attendees from West Africa to understand, we began ad-hoc French translations. Soon, every bilingual Member and NetHope staff quickly pitched in to ensure everyone could follow along better—a great example of collective action in action!

We started with a highly topical presentation given the unprecedented number of elections taking place worldwide during 2024. Rhoda Omenya, Implementation & Development Manager at Ushahidi, shared some sobering information about how technology is often used to undermine democratic processes, for example, by spreading misinformation or intimidating candidates online. She made a strong case for the need for us to change this narrative and to start using technology to support and protect the integrity of our elections. With that in mind, Rhoda presented two of Ushahidi’s initiatives – Reclaim Naija in Nigeria and Uchaguzi in Kenya, which harnesses citizen reporting for election monitoring. These platforms aim to gather real-time data on election incidents where voter rights are threatened and put this in the hands of citizens as a tool through which governments can be held to account. This is combined with training groups of volunteers to identify and monitor election-related misinformation online.

The room discussed topics on digital rights and privacy ranging from biometric identification to social media’s role in spreading disinformation.

The second presentation of the day was provided by Babacar Faye of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), who talked to us about their Data for Youth Employment Case Study: The Senegal Youth 4 Data Pilot Project, which enables young people in Senegal to gain digital and data skills to access employment. With digital skills increasingly important in the employment market, the program aimed to support youth in gaining experience and understanding the types of roles and income-generating opportunities available. The program focused on marginalized young people who may typically struggle to access opportunities, for example, due to disability or lack of formal education. Each young person was tracked throughout the program to understand the relationship between skills and experience gained and employment access. Many of the young people accessed self-employment opportunities in their own communities by offering their skills.

Next on the agenda were Elizabeth Njoroge and Colin Thompson of Christian Aid, who presented on their organization's data migration journey to the Azure platform; an initiative to promote their data security and business continuity. Colin described the factors contributing to the decision, the lessons learned, and the challenges faced during the process. This was followed by a discussion as to how smaller NGOs can be better supported with their data security systems, with points made about the establishment of Microsoft data centers in South Africa and Kenya, support for migration provided by organizations such as TechSoup, and the ability for INGOs to pass on nonprofit discounts to partners. 

Lastly, the esteemed Chair of the Africa Chapter, Bill Marwa, Digital Rights Advisor at Oxfam in Africa, brought the topic of Digital Rights to the table. In a panel led by lawyer Jane Muhia of Oxfam in Africa and Kondwani Mtalimanja, Regional IT Advisor, Africa & Eurasia at HIAS, the room discussed topics on digital rights and privacy ranging from biometric identification to social media’s role in spreading disinformation. We were brought to think of a time in 1922 when there was no technology enabling this much information overload and the implication of this kind of access in the present day.

In conclusion, Members appreciated the value received, and the inclusion (French and English) and resolved upon their return to share their experience with colleagues in their respective countries. The conversation continued during the group dinner.

Merci Côte d’Ivoire!


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