ICT Stories Competition

In 2002, we won the InfoDev/IICD ICT Stories Competition with a story Kim and I wrote about the founding of Kabissa and the successes we had had so far. I remember it being a pivotal moment, because we thought hard about the case for Kabissa and the role we could have in empowering civil society organizations in Africa. It was also taking place when my mother, Jutta Philippi Eigen, was very sick with cancer. She died just a few months later, but encouraged me to work on the story and submit it. Winning the prize gave us tremendous encouragement.

The stories were archived on the IICD website but are no longer available there, as IICD has closed doors as an organization. So I reposted it below.

Author : Kim Lowery
Date added : 2002-04-15

Brief Project Background

In the words of Tobias Eigen, Kabissa founder: “When I was in Nigeria in 1998 working on a capacity building project with the World Organisation Against Torture (http://www.omct.org), my task was to provide 10 human rights groups in five cities with access to Electronic mail so that they could do a better job of reporting human rights abuses to them. In actual fact the organisations were desperate for capacity building training and access to the net. Access to Email was helpful, but they had already heard about the potentials of the Internet and were hungry for more. On the fly, I added a website component to the project by providing them with space on my web server, creating websites with them and training them on maintaining their websites.”

On his last night in Ikeja, Lagos after the OMCT project was completed, Tobias sat in the “Goat Hunters” Café with Innocent Chukwuma, the director of the Nigeria’s Centre for Law Enforcement Education, and the two of them brainstormed on the implications of the lessons learned on this project. Innocent agreed with Tobias’ assertion that organisations throughout Africa share very similar needs for affordable Internet services and training on how to use computers and the internet better. Together they laid out plans for establishing an entity called Kabissa which would aim to fill this gap. Kabissa, meaning “complete” in kiswahili, would be operated on a non profit basis and headquartered outside of Africa. Kabissa would ensure that non profit organisations throughout Africa working in human rights, health and in other ways are agents for improving the lives of people in Africa, would have a presence on the Internet. Through an unbureaucratic and simple online procedure comparable to Geocities but without the advertising and other hidden costs, organisations would be able to complete an application form at http://www.kabissa.org to request space on the Kabissa server. Organisations that provide their name, mission statement and contact details for at least two people working in the organisation would be accepted and provided with mailboxes and web space provided by Kabissa. The modest server costs would be recovered through donations and provision of additional features such as domain hosting, mailing lists, and online databases.

Upon his return home to Oxford, Tobias met with Firoze Manji , the director and founder of Fahamu (http://www.fahamu.org) and shared with him the story. Firoze responded with enthusiasm and immediately encouraged Tobias to set up shop and begin to offer services through the http://www.kabissa.org website. Firoze convinced Fahamu’s website designer, Judith Charlton, to donate a logo for Kabissa. Together, Tobias and Firoze coined the phrase “Space for change in Africa” – which connotes web space to savvy netizens as well as the small wedge of space that the Internet affords to civil society organisations which they should be taking fullest possible advantage of to build coalitions and networks online and to engage with likeminded people and organisations throughout the continent and the world.

As the project advanced, Tobias felt that Kabissa could serve other needs. For example, African organisations have serious difficulty accessing the internet reliably and on a regular basis. Many do not even have access to computers of their own, and even if they do, they often do not have telephone service or power. To deal with this, Kabissa began offering access to net resources via Email using a www4mail server (see the www4mail story also submitted to the ICT Stories competition). Organisations that know the internet address of an online resource can send it to www4mail@kabissa.org - and get a copy of the resource delivered to them via Email. As a result, they can plan their Internet research and spend less time online. Later, the power of www4mail was augmented when Kabissa joined forces with Fahamu and the Southern African NGO Network (http://www.sn.apc.org) to collaboratively put out Pambazuka News (http://www.pambazuka.org), a social justice newsletter delivered on a weekly basis via Email. Pambazuka News provides African viewpoints on important advocacy issues as well as direct, timely access to essential news and information relevant to Africa – complete with direct links to hundreds of online resources each week.

The VITA-Connect Email accessible information portal (http://www.vita-connect.org), funded by infoDev and being developed by Kabissa and Forum One, takes this even further by enabling development professionals in very remote areas to get information and answers to their questions on a timely basis via a range of topical Email newsletters and a www4mail server. Tobias plans to replicate the VITA-Connect portal, which was developed as open source software, to provide African non profit organisations with access to essential practical information (ie. Events, funding opportunities, contacts, internet and computer resources, etc) online via web, Email, and offline on cdrom and in print.

African non profits also access the Internet in a variety of creative ways which Kabissa is in a position to respond to. Fantsuam Foundation, for example, has its project in a village several hours by bus from Abuja where power and phone lines do not yet reach. They travel once weekly to the British Council office in Abuja where they collect their Email and copy it to a diskette to take with them, and likewise send Email messages they have prepared from a diskette they brought from the village. Periodically, Fantsuam have their entire Email mailbox sent to them in the form of Outlook Express folders burned onto a CDROM disk. This is a particularly motivated and inspired group of people – nevertheless all African non profits, even those far enough along to have their own Internet-connected computers, need quick access to their Email mailbox when they are on the road or when the power goes out and they need to go to the cybercafé down the street. In response to this need, we set up a comprehensive webmail postoffice and a type of mail server (IMAP) which allows them to store their Email in folders on the server.

Results

The response to Kabissa has been overwhelming. In 2001 membership grew over 200% and we now have over 300 member organizations from over 25 African countries, each working for positive social change in Africa. Based on a survey carried out in November 2001, Kabissa members are also very satisfied with the services they receive as members, giving Kabissa a satisfaction rating of nine out of ten. As one member said, “I think the success of Kabissa proves that there was an urgent need for this sort of service. Keep up the good work!”

The Pambazuka newsletter has also been extremely successful. Within months of establishing it, the weekly mailing went to more than 400 subscribers. In December 2000, Kabissa and Fahamu merged their respective newsletters, resulting in a subscriber base of more than 700. In September 2001, we added SANGONeT as a newsletter partner. Today, the Pambazuka newsletter reaches over 7,500 individuals in NGOs, international organizations and networks, funding agencies and foundations, governments, and the private sector in Africa and around the world. Free advertising space is provided for non profits to promote their own eNewsletters, post job openings, or publicize upcoming events. Based on our research and excellent reader feedback, we are constantly innovating the contents of the newsletter, which now has nearly 20 printed pages and 20 content categories.

Some statistics from our server:

  • Kabissa has 310 registered member organisations in 32 African countries
  • There are 348 domains hosted on the Kabissa server
  • The Kabissa website averages over 100,000 ‘hits’ per month (this does not include member sites) - There are 48 publicly available mailing lists hosted on Kabissa (newsletters, networks, discussion conferences, working groups)
  • Pambazuka News has over 7500 subscribers
  • The www4mail@kabissa.org web-to-email server gets thousands of requests daily.

Below is a selection of Kabissa member organisations, which have been making remarkable use of the services provided by Kabissa.

  • Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) has been a Kabissa member since the very beginning. WOUGNET is an organization promoting the use of information and communication technologies among women, and has the only website and mailing lists that provide information about and for women’s organizations in Uganda. WOUGNET’s programs and services include: 1) a website at http://www.wougnet.org that features profiles on 34 women’s organizations involved in different fields such as human rights, agriculture, health and education. The website also contains practical information and documentation on topics of interest to women’s organizations and the general public, and links to national and international projects 2) a monthly newsletter sent out to over 100 members and an additional 150 newsletter subscribers, which provides details on upcoming conferences, workshops, training programs, funding opportunities and tips on computer/internet usage 3) a Web Design program started in collaboration with InterConnection.org (a Kabissa partner) to develop websites for WOUGNET members, free of charge. These services have not only increased women’s access to vital information about policies and programs, but provided opportunities for new partnerships to emerge between local women’s groups and even international partners.

  • Fantsuam Foundation, a long-time Kabissa member, was established in 1996 and has been a pioneering NGO in facilitating access of its members in rural communities to microcredits and ICT services for health, education and economic empowerment. From the Fantsuam website: “The Community Learning Centre at Bayan Loco was the first winner of the Hafkin Africa Prize, 2001. Fantsuam realized quite early that ICT access for women is more meaningful and sustainability is enhanced when it is part of a larger programme that addresses other basic problems confronting women. As a result, they have a Microcredit programme and it is within this, that we have gone into IT skills training and provision of ICT access. The goal is to provide Internet access, in an affordable manner, to our Mobile Community Telecentre in Kunyai, Nigeria, where there is no electricity or phone lines. The Mobile Community Telecentre is a van that can carry up to four computers from one rural community to the next within a 20 mile radius.” Kabissa and Fantsuam Foundation have agreed to enter into a partnership with the specific goal of strengthening NGOs in Nigeria. Through its Mobile Community Telecentres, Fantusam will provide face-to-face technical support for Kabissa members in Nigeria and conduct introductory training programs for organisations new to technology. One project we are considering is a system for registering births and deaths in the Bayan Loco area, with the records stored safely in print, on local computers and on the Kabissa server.

  • Bisharat! Is a language, technology, and development initiative. From the http://www.bisharat.net website: “Bisharat (Arabic for “glad tidings” or “good news”) is an evolving idea based on the importance of maternal languages in sustainable development and the enormous potential of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to benefit efforts in the area of language and development. Anticipating the gradual introduction of computers and the internet to rural communities in Africa, the current focus of Bisharat is on research, advocacy, and networking relating to use of African languages in software and web content.” Bisharat is currently hosting a very active working group on Kabissa intended to: 1) facilitate communication among individuals working on codepages for scripts for African languages; 2) promote collaboration on other projects on technical aspects of use of extended Latin-based character sets and non-Western scripts on computers and the internet; and 3) contribute to laying the groundwork for a separate, broader-topic, and open-archive list(s) on African languages and ICT.

  • The African Youth Foundation (AYF) is a non-profit development organisation based in Germany. AYF was created to aid young people in Africa, as well as African Nationals abroad, especially college dropouts and unemployed graduates, to undertake projects which will enable them obtain skills necessary for their future livelihoods. AYF hosts the “AfrikaTalks Discussion Board” on Kabissa. From the website: “An independent discussion platform of an African-European NGO, created for Ghanaians interested in expressing their views on the development of the Nation. Our goal is to foster interaction between Ghanaians through online communication in the arena of a ‘global village’. This Meeting place will strive with a will to provide prompt and precise information, to make information available in all fields of humanity. We want to provide some of the means to help Ghana on its path to economic and social self reliance. All opinions and discussions are welcome on the forum “FRANKLY SPEAKING. Tell it as it is, don’t hold back! At AfrikaTalks, we believe in freedom of speech.”

Lessons

Through working with these organizations, we have learned a great deal about both the non profit sector in Africa and the process of establishing an internet-based organisation.

1. There is no “typical” African organization

While the original assumption made in the “Goat hunters” Café regarding the fact that African organisations have similar overall needs in terms of internet services, there is in fact no straightforward profile of an African organization. The only thing they all have in common is that they are all working to improve the lives of people in Africa. This makes for interesting and varied work for us. Still, the geographic, economic, and political diversity of the continent has ensured that Kabissa members have different priorities, different experiences and work under different conditions. Each organization has had different experiences with information technology and therefore has different expectations of us.

Some organizations are very experienced in website design, netiquette, mailing list administration, etc. and are able to make much of their accounts on Kabissa. Others, however, are not very far along at all, in large part because of the lack of access to computers and the Internet. This makes it difficult for organizations, especially those in rural and remote areas to learn the skills that are needed to effectively use the net for more than an “enhanced fax machine”.

Anyone working with African organizations needs to be careful to take into consideration this diversity of IT capacity. In all of our activities, we strive to give organizations as much flexibility as possible and offer a range of options that each organization can pick and choose from to form their own “customized” service. This approach also allows organizations to expand their use of Kabissa as the build up their IT skills.

A comprehensive survey of organisations in Africa would be useful to better tailor services provided to organisations in Africa, and to enable us to do a better job at matching them with other organisations interested in collaborating with them or helping them.

2. Good things come in small packages

Late last year, we evaluated Kabissa’s mission and strategies to set the direction for the organization in the coming years and came to the conclusion that it was preferable for us to focus on a limited number of key projects and programs that are built on the successes we had already achieved. We can expand our scope and reach through partnerships with other organizations that can complement Kabissa services – we don’t need to (and shouldn’t) try to do it all ourselves.

When a small organization starts to gain momentum, it is very tempting to start growing a large organization around all of the different projects that the organization could undertake. Every organization has big dreams, but in the case of Kabissa, an organization that effectively plays a brokerage role on the Internet, we will be very effective by remaining lean and mean, making a deep impact with a small budget.

3. Collaboration is key

A small organisation with a limited budget such as Kabissa with a broad mandate to serve the entirety of the African non-profit sector will not be able to get far on its own. This is where partnerships come in. Strong relationships with like-minded organizations will support our activities in a number of important ways.

For example, Kabissa has joined with Fahamu and SANGONeT to produce the Pambazuka newsletter, which has brought advantages for each partner. First, by having editorial staff in all three organizations, much more content can be put in the newsletter than if any one organization was producing the newsletter on its own. Second, each organization brings its own strengths to the table – Kabissa takes care of the technical administration of the newsletter, Fahamu writes keen editorials, and SANGONeT provides content and perspective from its southern African NGO network.

Kabissa has the advantage of being able to draw from its membership base for potential partners. With our partners we can jointly write proposals, market our activities to a wider audience, for example through the Kabissa website, and provide support to each other, both in terms of advice and hands-on help.

Development Impacts

Cotonou, Benin, February 13: Great news! The guy down at the Internet café told me about this organization called Kabissa that can provide us with hosting services – for free! Not only that, but they can also help me set up our own website – all via email. Now we can finally start publicizing our work and bringing in more support from all over the world – not just from our networks in Cotonou. Since they also provide this service to others, they’ve got this directory of organizations and I found an organization in Ghana that’s working on a project just like ours! I’ve already sent them an email to see if we can arrange a meeting somehow or at least a phone call. Or maybe we can just communicate via email – that would be much cheaper for us. And I’ve had an even better idea – maybe we can use these free email accounts and newsletters to allow the students that are participating in our project to talk to students in Ghana. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? There are just so many ways we can use these services from Kabissa…

Johannesburg, South Africa, February 14: My web surfing habit has finally paid off! I just found this site called Kabissa – not only do they have a directory of African organizations, but if we sign up as members, we can get free eNewsletters to set up ourselves. I’ve already found two organizations in Johannesburg, one in Botswana, and one in Lesotho that are all working on similar projects. We should really be networking to share resources, experiences, and to make sure that we’re not duplicating work – with funding so tight these days, we need to make sure we’re all working together. I’m going to talk to my boss today about signing up, so I can get this discussion group started right away. I’ve already emailed the other organizations to see if they’d be interested. Maybe this will be the beginning of something much bigger…

Washington DC, USA, February 15: What a coincidence – one of my colleagues just forwarded this Pambazuka eNewsletter. It’s got loads of great information for me, from the latest news in the world of anti- corruption to a listing of conferences and workshops that are going on in the coming weeks. And since it’s all via email, I’m reminded to keep up with things every week, but I also have the flexibility to read it whenever I get the time. Ah look, there’s an interesting training session going on in Nigeria next month. I don’t think I’ll be able to go, but maybe someone from our partner network would be interested. I think I’ll forward this on to them, I’m sure the newsletter would be just as useful for them…

At Kabissa, we don’t pretend to have all the answers. But there are thousands of organizations out there who, in their own way, with their own expertise, are working to improve the lives of people in Africa. Together all these organizations can make an incredible impact. Our job is to make sure that these organizations have the technology at their fingertips to be as effective as possible so that they can get on with their work.

Project Information

Organisation : Kabissa - Space for change in Africa
URL : http://www.kabissa.org

Are there any partners involved : yes
What is partners role?
Kabissa relies on partners to deepen our impact in Africa. For example, ACDEV in Benin, West Africa delivers Kabissa services to the non profit sector in Benin. Another good example is that SANGONeT and Fahamu collaborate with Kabissa on the Pambazuka Newsletter.