Riding out, offering solutions: harnessing idealism, tech skills for development
By Frederick Noronha
KALANGALA, AFRICA, 21 January 2006
Out of college, at a time when most young people would like just to have a good time, Rudi von Staden (27) is onto something vastly different. He believes his tech skills can really make a difference to those working for social change in southern Africa. This representative of an APC member organisation shares his vision and mission with APCNews editor Frederick Noronha.
Q: Rudi, could you begin by telling us something about your goals? How did you get into what you're doing?
Fine. I studied my B.Sc at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town, South Africa. I guess that I always saw technology as something which to apply [in working towards solutions that society needs].
Application of technology was always more appealing to me than developing the technology. And I wanted to do something that was contributing to the community, once I left university, and while I was still young and could take risks.
Q: Tell us something about your organisation. How did Ungana-Afrika come about?
Ungana-Afrika was initiated as a pilot project between AIESEC [an international student organisation creating cultural exchange between students from different countries and territories], and OSISA (the Open Society Institute of Southern Africa), with the objective
of improving the technology capacity in NGOs in Southern Africa. After a successful pilot run by seven international people, three of us
stayed on to transform it into an independent NGO. These are Ryan Jacobs from the US, Toni Eliasz of Finland and myself.
Since then we've been involved in projects in areas ranging from health to media, mostly focusing on capacity building. Our projects have received funding from the Soros Foundations Network, The Finnish Embassy and Hivos. We have also become members of APC (Source: APC website">Association for Progressive Communications) and our innovative approach has been recognised through a number of awards.
Q: What does 'Ungana' mean and signify?
When the Ungana-Afrika project was being started, we wanted a term that was not Western, and one that would appeal to an African audience. So we settled on a Swahili word, which means connecting, but in the sense of bringing together.
Q: What are your priorities? How have they developed?
In the beginning, our understanding of the NGO sector was fairly limited. We all came from university, so we didn't have much of an understanding of what was needed in an NGO context. So, initially, we split into pairs, and each spent some time in two countries in Southern Africa -- Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Lesotho and Mozambique.
In each country, we tried to have as big an impact as we could in the six months the project was scheduled to run.
But there were big issues in terms of having an impact in such a short time. It was very difficult to do so. So we kind of re-grouped, and we agreed that it was much more important to have projects that were sustained over time. And that short time projects were quite limited in terms of having a lasting impact.
[eRiders, or Circuit Riders, are travelling technology consultants. These technology assistance providers travel to small organisations in the not-for-profit sector to troubleshoot or support particular technology needs in those organisations. See more about eRiding at tacticaltech.org/eriders]
We decided to focus more on creating sustainable eRider projects. We had taken the eRider model from the start. We had good communications with the international eRider network -- eRiders.net -- who helped us a great deal when we were starting out, particularly Teresa Crawford.
When we were starting out we had very few resources to help us. So we started with our main focus on creating resources for others to be able to start technology support projects for NGOs.
Q: Looking back, what do you count among your achievements?
I would say that the achievements have definitely been in focussing not only on the projects that we were implementing, but also in ways to make those projects scalable. So that others could implement similar projects.
Also, we decided to focus on supporting networks of organisations, rather than individual organisations. This was quite a successful approach to take.
Q: Has the eRiding model been successful in Africa?
It's really encouraging to see, specially recently, the levels to which eRiding is actually catching on in Africa.
There are established projects in Kenya and South Africa and new projects starting in West Africa and in Zambia. Interest is also being shown from a few other countries, which is promising.
Q: If you had a chance to do things all over again, what would you do differently this time round?
I would probably try to find local champions within the networks. Finding effective eRiders is a lot more of a challenge than finding projects, or finding networks for eRiders to be effective in.
It's very difficult to find people who are both technologically skilled and with an understanding of the NGO community, and with a passion to serve that community as well.
I would also probably charge for the services we offer from the start. This is very important for increasing the committment of the client organisations. Free services are often not respected.
Q: One question many readers would probably have: how are the needs of a non-profit or non-governmental organisation different from those of any other similar-sized organisation?
The NGO community is very much focussed on, shall we say, a social mandate. Their bottom line is connected to community-outcomes, mission-focussed objectives. On the other hand, the commercial world has got a financial bottom-line.
So, communication is a key factor for successful engagement with an NGO. It's both a case of communicating well with an NGO, and communication is a big need that they have too.
Trust is also a very important aspect in your relationship with an NGO. You have to earn their trust. And, you need to show them that their mission is also your mission. That you are motivated by the same things as they are; and that you are here to help them do what they are already doing better.
Q: What have been your biggest challenges while working with non-profits and NGOs?
Some of the biggest challenges have been the fact that building sustainable projects is very challenging. And so, we've had situations where we find a very good environment to create an eRiding project, but we haven't been able to get funding to support that project. Sometimes, a lot of work goes into creating relationships that we then cannot follow up on.
It's been challenging to find eRiders, people who are sufficiently motivated to build a technology capacity of NGOs.
Also, it can be an expensive model because very often, there's high transport cost. Of course, there are different ways of building eRider models, where they can be located within a local community or supporting networks that are regionally more distributed. If the organisations being supported are very far apart, then ongoing support becomes challenging.
It is can also be very difficult to get organisations that are pro-active and willing to take ownership of the services we provide to
them. It takes a lot of effort and patience to get them to understand the value of technology in their daily activities.
Q: What's the structure of Ungana-Afrika like?
Our office is located in Pretoria, but one of our colleagues is actively involved in an eRiding project in Mpumalanga province in the north-east of South Africa.
Angel Kgokolo spends much of her time travelling between five community radio stations. Tshepo Thlaku is currently focussed on providing Angel with management support, and is also organising "Incubation of ICT Capacity Building" workshops in Southern
Ryan Jacobs is working with a network of HIV/AIDS support organisations in [the east African former Portuguese colony of] Mozambique, to develop a technology support strategy for them. And Toni Eliasz is our executive director, providing overall management responsibility. I am a project manager -- Ryan and I share the same title -- currently working with a network of legal support organisations in central South Africa. Also, we work to develop a technology support strategy for them. And the new project I'm working on is to look at ways that students can be used effectively to provide tech support to NGOs.
Q: What's the average age of people in your organisation?
I would say it's probably about 28.
Q: On the issue of non-profits taking to free/libre and Free Software Foundation ">open source software, what do you see as challenges and potential?
I think that GNU/Linux can have a big role to play [in non-profits]. There are a lot of positive implications for NGOs implementing GNU/Linux. Largely because it empowers them in ways Wikipedia ">proprietary softwaredoes not.
But unless there's an effective tech support environment and adequate training, they can be left floundering while taking to GNU/Linux.