Nancy Hafkin: 30 years of building Africa's networks

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By AF for APCNews

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, 14 June 2012

After more than 30 years of working to promote information and communications technology in Africa, Nancy Hafkin was inducted into the Internet Wall of Fame. In an interview with APCNews, she shares the history of her work and that of communications technology in Africa, her interest in Africa, obstacles and achievements.

First steps: Education and interest for Africa

Born a feminist, it wasn’t until she started undergraduate studies at Brandeis University, in Boston, in the early sixties that Nancy Hafkin was faced with sexist bias, which was quite a shock to her. Girls in her family had never been given second-class treatment. Luckily, she found a woman professor, Ruth Morgenthau, who became her mentor, encouraging Hafkin to follow her interests in Africa and get involved with African studies. As this was a relatively new field, it had not yet been overrun by men; on the contrary, there was a great number of young women working in the area.

Hafkin moved to Ethiopia in 1975 after completing her PhD in African History and marrying Berhanu Abebe, an Ethiopian man she met in the US during her undergraduate studies. Abebe was eager to return to his country and help build an equitable new order. Hafkin inmediately started working at the African Training and Research Center for Women (ATRCW) of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in Addis Ababa. This was the first international programme for women in development. For Nancy, it was only the beginning of a long and active career. “That part-time job turned into 25 years of full-time work, first in the ATRCW as head of research and publications and later, as the head of the Pan African Development Information System and founder of the ECA’s programme in information technology for African Development,” explains Hafkin.

The need for faster and cheaper access to information

After working on information in Africa for 11 years (especially dissemination and increasing access), Hafkin led the “Pan African Development Information System,” a cooperative that facilitated the exchange of information and easy access to their databases from Africa and all over the world. However, the satellite technology that was supposed to guarantee access to information was not a reality at that time and costs were far higher than the network could support.

In the 1970’s, basic communications proved to be a challenge in Africa. There were very few phone lines, and where they existed, the costs were prohibiting. “Sending a one-page fax between Mali and Ethiopia could cost $30. Letters from Morocco to Zaire often took two years to arrive,” illustrates Hafkin.

Government policy and regulations were not a great help. Artificially high communications charges, especially long-distance, restrictions on satellite communications and on computer communications equipment were prohibitive conditions for information exchange and access to information. People questioned whether or not it was worth focusing on communications when there were so many other pressing and immediate demands that needed to be adressed.

Looking at the level of education in Africa, she was concerned about the lack of access to information. The newest books in university libraries were one decade old and most collections dated back to the 1960s. “This was the beginning of an information age and Africa had no entry to it. Those that had the least access to information needed it the most,” she says. As the executive director of APC, Anriette Esterhuysen, put it, “there was a need to communicate and network in a context where conventional infrastructure of all kinds either didn’t exist, didn’t work or were unreliable.”

Technical infrastructure was also underdeveloped. There was lack of trained personnel, of network management understanding, and of low-cost security systems. Intra-African communications were even more difficult than international communications given the political situations causing some countries to isolate themselves from one another.

It’s not surprising that when Hafkin heard about low-cost, modem-based electronic communications she was immediately sold and began praising the idea. Not only would rapid user access facilitate communications within the PADIS network, easier access to communications in Africa would place it as a global competitor.

PADIS first started using electronic networking in the late eighties in a project called Computer Networking in Africa, which consisted of exchanging information locally at first, but later connecting to international networks. At first the work was hard and slow. PADIS used long distance dial-up, the lines constantly broke, modems were slow (1200 bps) and costs were very high (still today, Africa’s long distance communications charges are still the highest in the world). With great effort, Ethiopian research networks connected to Canadian and US-based academic networks, such as BITNET, to collect and send messages as a way of exchanging information.

Store-and-forward technology

Formation of the Assocation for Progressive Communications (APC) and FidoNet represent milestones in PADIS’ work in 1990, as the GNFido network, through GreenNet in the UK , enabled email exchange between Africa and the rest of the world. Technologies such as FidoNet and uucp (UNIX to UNIX copy protocol) were designed especially for local contexts to be run at low costs, in contrast to the networks that were being established in developed countries, which couldn’t be affordable in Africa. Hafkin believes that PADIS owes its early success as a network facilitator to these two new and cheap technologies. In 1996, before it was shut down by the monopoly Ethiopian Telecommunications Authority, PADIS was the biggest network in Africa with 1500 subscribers.

Before the internet was available in all Africa, PADIS worked to provide the African continent with low-cost e-mail, conference mail, file transfer and database access. The FidoNet connection to APC’s servers in London was PADIS’ main link to global networks, using store-and-forward technology. Most of the work had to do with email and bulletin board services, but there was also the ability to search the PADIS databases using email query, and access to Hornet internet service. All exchanges were done using dial-up connections on telephone lines before full internet TCP/IP connectivity was possible in Africa. This made for few, slow, high-cost lines available to NGOs. Despite the problems PADIS, with help from APC, finally set up the first e-mail networks in 24 African countries and provided electronic access to PADIS’ development databases and other information resources.

Networking outcomes: desire for more

“Store-and-forward networking set the basis and fueled the desire for more,” explained Hafkin. Organisations and those running the nodes saw that the internet opened up new potential for innovation and networking possibilities both intra-regionaly and internationally. It improved contacts between Africans and the new African diaspora. “Its contribution was enormous in changing people’s thinking about what could be possible in so many ways.”

Networking brought huge savings in communications costs; it inspired the introduction of computing operating systems and it stimluated the demand for LANs. It also led to a change in organisational culture. Hierarchal models became outdated and made way for more participatory processes.

The importance of networking to women’s empowerment

According to Hafkin, “networking means an end to isolation and access to resources. It opens doors and leads to avenues previously closed to most people, especially those in developing countries.” She also believes that by teaching women, whole families can be taught. “Women invest their earnings in the family. Women are half of the resources of the world – if a country doesn’t invest in its female resources, it loses half of the productivity it might have,” she says.

But after more than fifteen years of promoting gender awareness in ICTs, women are still largely absent from the processes. “If you look at the last eLearning Africa conference held in Benin, there were no presentations on gender,” she states. There are still very few women studying computer science or information technology, so one of the main the challenges is convincing women and girls that they, too, can be successful in math, science and engineering.

Obstacles and achievements

Hafkin has always had to deal with not having “any regular source of funds from the UN budget. It is only in the last year that the United Nations has put its women’s programme on a firm footing. The lack of funding for women’s programmes was only part of the problem. Dealing with cynical governments that did not see the use in ICT programmes in Africa and the unwillingness for the national telecoms operators to give up their monopoly was the other main challenge.”

Despite these barriers, internet in Africa has come a long way. By the year 2000, every African country had access to the internet and cyber-cafés can now be found even in rural areas. Africans are now also content producers in their own right and the internet has enabled the Africa diaspora to come back to its roots. Thanks to the internet, “many young people have returned with their education and other resources and use them to promote networking initiatives in Africa,” explains Hafkin.

Retirement and life in the US: nostalgia for working days in Africa

Nancy Hafkin returned to the US in 2000 and though she no longer goes into an office everyday, she is a self-confessed workaholic.

An activist at heart, she enjoys writing about women and information technology and trying to convince people of its importance. “I am sure I will continue to find interesting ways to continue doing this,” she says.

Read also the full interview .


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