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Nancy Hafkin interviewed by APC

Author's name: 
Agustina
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay

Nancy Hafkin was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame on April 25, after 33 years promoting networks and the internet in Africa. In an interview with APC, she talks about her career and main achievements.

APCNews: How did you first become interested in promoting the use of electronic communications (and later the internet) in Africa?

Nancy Hafkin: I had been working on information in Africa since 1975 – especially its dissemination and increasing access to it in Africa. By 1986 I was heading the Pan African Development Information System, a cooperative system of development information databases that called for exchange of information and easy access to them for users in Africa and elsewhere. The access was to have been through satellite communication, but by 1986, plans for the satellite had not born fruit and costs were far beyond the network’s ability to raise. I was enormously concerned by what saw I happening to education in Africa. Many university libraries hadn’t gotten new books or journals for more than a decade, and most of their collections dated from the sixties. In all of Ethiopia, there was no public library. 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. Besides lack of access to information, communication was exceedingly difficult in Africa.. There was a lack of phone lines almost everywhere, along with very high telephone costs. Sending a one-page fax between Mali could cost $30. Letters from Morocco to Zaire often took 2 years to arrive.

When the idea of low-cost modem-based electronic communication came along, I got very excited about it. Just on the personal level, I thought that this could make PADIS’ network a reality in terms of rapid user access, but on the larger level I felt it was essential for Africa. Without it, there was no way that Africa could be globally competitive. I became a true believer and a preacher of electronic networking by 1988, at about the same time that APC got started.

PADIS got started in electronic networking in the late eighties with a project called Computer Networking in Africa, to experiment with the exchange of information between African institutions, set up networks in Ethiopia, and connect with other local, regional and international networks. At first we tried linking researchers by long distance dial-up on 1200 bps modems to UNIX hosts in Canada and US to access large academic networks such as BITNET. We called in daily to collect and send messages for the research community in Ethiopia, using rudimentary terminal access programmes like ProComm. Lines broke constantly, and the costs were astronomical (everything was based on long distance telecommunications charges – Africa’s being the highest in the world).

APCNews: What do you consider to be the contribution of ‘store-and-forward’ email (such as FidoNet and uucp) in promoting early networking in Africa, and what was Padis’ role in this?

NH: Padis’ breakthrough came in 1990 with FidoNet and APC, through GreenNet in the UK. The GNFido gateway established at GreenNet provided the first means of exchanging email between email hosts in Africa and the rest of the world. The importance of FidoNet and uucp was that they were technologies designed specifically for networking in local contexts and at low-cost, in contrast to the networks that were being established in developed countries.

FidoNet, especially, and uucp, were the technological breakthroughs that made PADIS’ success as an early networker possible. At its height in 1996, before the monopoly Ethiopian Telecommunications Authority shut it down, it had 1500 subscribers with as many as 10 users per subscription, at the time the largest number of subscribers of any e-mail network in Africa.

Besides the technology the most important element was NGO collaboration – specifically with APC, GreenNet in London and Sangonet (transformed from Worknet in 1993) in South Africa. NGOs were at the forefront of electronic communications in Africa from the late eighties to the late nineties and southern NGOs were online before northern ones. The FidoNet connection to APC in London using public telephone lines became PADIS’ main link to global networks, using store-and-forward technology. Most use was of email and bulletin board services but some were searching the PADIS databases using email query, accessing Hornet and trying batch Internet services such as ftp, gopher and archie through mail. All this was done using dial-up connections on regular telephone lines before full Internet TCP/IP connectivity was possible in most of Africa. Very slow leased lines, if available (there were many bureaucratic requirements to get one) were going for $11-$15K/month, astronomical costs for a fledgling network, especially for NGOs.

PADISnet’s most successful project was called CABECA— capacity building for electronic communication in Africa (1991-1995), and it was made possible through collaboration with APC through its Global NGO network, GreenNet and SangoNet. SangoNet in particular provided training for operators, set up Women’sNet which was a fantastic resource for women on the net and inspiration for creating gender awareness on gender issues in ICTs, and provided links to online discussion and content, particularly through listservs and conferences.

With APC collaboration, PADIS set up the first e-mail networks in some 24 African countries and provided electronic access to PADIS’ development databases and other information resources. This was all pre-Internet dial-up store and forward electronic communication providing low-cost e-mail, conference mail, file transfer and database access.

Store-and-forward networking set the basis and fueled the desire for more. These new nodes, run largely by NGOs and universities in Africa, were creating the demand for full Internet, which reached clamor proportions by 1995. It created new ways of doing things and made contacts that were impossible or extremely difficult before. At PADISnet in Ethiopia Ethiopians who had friends or relatives or businesses in North America were eager subscribers. The services transformed many old ways of doing things. Academics and researchers throughout the region were thrilled with the possibility of communication with counterparts globally that were both fast and cheap. It facilitated intraregional and international contacts. The Ethiopian Studies Association meeting in Norway in 1996, with scholars attending from throughout Africa, called itself “the conference that PADISnet made possible.” Many things that were previously constrained by the high cost and slow pace of communications were now attainable. Networking brought huge savings in communication costs – for an African professor receiving $162.00/month, the cost to send a one-page fax to UK was $7.20 and a three minutes telephone call, $8.20. By contrast, e-mail communication cost only a few cents. It inspired introduction of standard computing operating systems such as UNIX and stimulated the demand for LANs. And it contributed to a significant culture shift in many organizations — from a hierarchal model of organizational procedures to information interaction at all levels. One of the most important outcomes, in my mind, is the way that 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.

APCNews: What were the main problems you identified and how did you think networking and using the Internet could help solve them?

NH: One of the biggest problem areas was government policy and regulations that constrained communication, set artificially high communication charges, especially for long-distance, import and control restrictions on satellite communication and on computer and computer communication equipment leading to its unavailability (all of us involved in early networking projects in Africa have our personal stories of smuggling in modems in purses and checked baggage). At the level of planners and decision-makers, there was widespread skepticism about whether this was needed in Africa, when there were so many basic needs to be met.

All forms of infrastructure were lacking. Direct telephone lines were scarce, even in major institutions, and power supplies unreliable or even non-existent. As Anriette Esterhuysen has said, 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.”

At the technical level, there was a lack of trained personnel and lack of management understanding and support for the concept of networks. Standard formats for the exchange of information in databases were not in use. Low-cost security systems were not yet available. Intra-African communication was difficult, with telecoms switching systems still linked to former colonial powers and political situations where some countries didn’t talk to each other.

The problems were so many, it is amazing that we were able to do what we did!

APCNews: Besides this great honor (induction into the Internet Hall of Fame), what have been other significant milestones in your career as a communications and women’s rights champion and “activist”?

NH: I have to point to APC’s creation in 2000 of the Nancy Hafkin Prize for innovation in communications in Africa.

APCNews: How did you get involved with gender-related work?

NH: I think I was born a feminist. I was the fourth-generation of female breadwinners on my mother’s side, and I came from a family of two daughters. There wasn’t much possibility that the girls in our family would get second-class treatment. I was rather shocked when I first encountered overt sexist bias at university (this was in the Boston area of the US in the early sixties), especially in history, which was my major. I had the great luck to find a woman professor and mentor in Ruth Morgenthau who stimulated my enormous interest in Africa and encouraged me to pursue African studies in graduate school. I did, and as it was a new field, burgeoning in the excitement of African colonies becoming independent in the sixties, it didn’t have an old boys’ network. The number of young women in the field was quite striking. I think that was the time that I first fell into my pattern of thinking local, then acting globally (a reversal of the usual stratagem!). A close friend of mine, Edna Bay (now a retired professor from Emory University and a leading Africanist) and I organized a women’s caucus in the African Studies Association. But we said to ourselves, why are we thinking only of women academics (mostly from the West) in the field of African studies—what about women in Africa in general? That led us (I was a university professor at the time) to research and publish in 1975 a book Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change that was one of the first writings on African women and development (it came out not long after Ester Boserup’s seminal book on women’s role in economic development) and that is still used as a college text. I was also an activist on behalf of equal rights for women at the university where I was teaching and organized the women faculty of public universities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in a sex discrimination suit on hiring, salary and promotion in the early seventies.

At that time, my husband Berhanu Abebe (who I had met as an undergraduate in my African Politics class) was very active in organizing the Ethiopian Students’ Union in North America. He finished his PhD just as the Haile Selassie regime began to topple in 1974, and he was anxious to return to Ethiopia to be part of building an equitable new order. We moved back to Ethiopia, and I found a small assignment ($300 to do an annotated bibliography on African women and development) at the African Training and Research Center for Women (ATRCW) of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa. (ATRCW was the first international programme for women in development.) 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 (PADIS) and founder of the ECA’s programme in information technology for African Development.

I worked on behalf of African women in economic and social development at the ECA for some 11 years, including planning and working on the world conferences on women in Copenhagen and Nairobi. When I joined PADIS in 1986, I maintained my focus on women in Africa, and interestingly, to this day, the ECA programme on science, information technology and development is women-led and with a large number of women professionals, in a field that generally sees very few women.

APCNews: When you first started promoting women’s participation in networking initiatives, what was the response from those around in the UN, governments and elsewhere?

NH: Perhaps surprisingly, it got very positive response. At ECA, our Executive Secretary from 1995 was KY Amoako, from Ghana. From his arrival, the women’s programme and the programme to promote information technology in Africa became the highest priorities. At major international conferences, we highlighted the theme of women in networking initiatives, and secured champions who supported it from many African governments. We were very lucky to have a platform and responsive support. The African Information Society Initiative, which African governments adopted in 1996, gave a prominent position to the full participation of women in information society. Given the difficulties that we saw in achieving that at World Summit on the Information Society (2003-2005), we had remarkable support a decade earlier.

APCNews: What is the key to understanding how networking influences development?

NH: So much of what constitutes underdevelopment is marked by isolation and lack of resources. Simply put, networking means an end to isolation and access to resources that were formerly unavailable. It opens doors and leads to avenues that were closed to most people, especially those in developing countries,

APCNews: And, how women’s empowerment influences development?

NH: There are thousands of proofs of this! Empowered women produce empowered children. The education of a women is the education of a family. Women invest their earnings in the family. Women are half the resources of the world – if a country doesn’t invest in its female resources, it loses half the productivity it might have.

APCNews: What were the biggest difficulties/obstacles you have faced in your work?

NH: Neither the women’s programme nor the information technology programmes at ECA had any regular source of funds from the UN budget. With regard to women, it is only in the last year that the United Nations has put its women’s programme on a firm footing. Until then, women’s programmes were scattered and enormously underfunded compared to other areas. At ECA, at the time I was in the women’s programme, all of its funds had to be raised from outside sources: foundations and bi-lateral donors, for the most part. It was the same situation with the programme for information technology for most of the years that I was running it. It meant that everyone has to do at least double effort – you must do the work, at the same time as raise the funds to do the work. And the raising frequently takes as much time as the doing.

In promoting networking, the major constraints were – at first – cynicism on the part of governments as to the utility of information technology for Africa, and unwillingness of national telecommunications operators to give up monopoly positions. In the early years, customs regulations and tariffs also constrained much development.

APCNews: What are the most important changes that have taken place regarding the internet in Africa since you started working on the subject?

NH: First, is its enormous growth in Africa. In 1995, when we organized the first regional meeting on networking in Africa, bringing together people from all African countries, there were only two sub-Saharan African countries with Internet connectivity – South Africa and Zambia. At the end of the decade, it was in every African country (Eritrea was the last, in 2000), and now you find cybercafés in rural hamlets all over the region.

Second, the nature of its use – in the beginning we thought of Internet as bringing access to the information of the outside world – gaining access to the world’s great collections of knowledge. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Web 2.0 has taken a firm hold in Africa. Africans are no longer Internet consumers, but Internet content producers as well. I wrote this is 1995: “We talk about getting connected; being connected makes you a receiver. The more important point is to become a producer, not a consumer.” That has become reality now.

The third huge change is the contribution of the African diaspora. When we started our networking efforts, once someone left Africa to study or work in Europe or North America, contact was cut off for the most part. One of the first achievements of early networking efforts was to bring the diaspora back into contact with its roots. This has become a big part of the Internet revolution in Africa. Many young people have returned with their education and other resources and use them to promote networking initiatives in Africa.

APCNews: What is the level of awareness of gender in information technology and development now, as compared with that of 10 years ago?

It’s been about 15 years now that some of us have been promoting the awareness of gender in information technology. APC has done a fantastic job in this area! The number of resources on the topic is huge now. But what about its impact? If you look at the last eLearning Africa conference held in Benin last month, there were NO presentations on gender. The number of young women studying computer science or information technology remains abysmally low, despite the fact that there were a number of pioneer women sysops in the earliest days of African networking. This is an area where we have to keep up the struggle.

APCNews: What are the main challenges ahead in this field? For you, what are your next steps after this important recognition of your achievements?

NH: To convince girls that they can do math and science and engineering.

I don’t have any big plans or next steps. I am retired in the sense that I no longer have to go to an office every day, but I am addicted to working. I like researching and writing about women and technology and trying to convince people of its importance. I am sure I’ll continue to find interesting ways to continue doing this.

APCNews: Optionally.. some personal questions: What took you to Africa in the first place?

NH: I did a Ph.D. in African history (a history of northern Mozambique from the 18th through the early 20th century), and I married a wonderful man from Ethiopia (he passed away in 2003, sadly). As I said above, we came to Ethiopia in 1975 when he wanted to work to build a new Ethiopia. Things didn’t turn out in the way he had envisaged, but we built a wonderful life there, with two great children, for 25 years. It was only in 2000 that we returned to the US, when his health condition deteriorated to a point that care was not available in Ethiopia. I still have a house in Ethiopia, and I manage to get back there just about every year. My daughter lives in South Africa now, and my son is constantly tempted with the idea of returning to Africa.

APCNews: Do you feel living in Africa for so many years changed you in any way? Or changed how you see the world?

NH: Absolutely. It changed my whole way of thinking. I can understand life in many parts of the world now. Whenever I approach a problem, I try to see it in its global dimensions, how it manifests itself differently in different cultures, environments, and countries. What did you like most about moving back to the US? Fast and cheap Internet connectivity, ice cream, the Boston Red Sox, and thrift shops.

APCNews: What do you miss most about living in Africa/Ethiopia?

NH: Community, the depth of human relations. Every Sunday in Addis Ababa, a dozen or more people would drop in to our house. I loved it. In the US, social relations are much more formal and structured. No one just drops in. And most people don’t have time for it, either. I miss the social aspects of life in Africa most.

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