Thursday, March 21, 2013

Curtains close down on CRS' 5th ICT4D conference

Judy Pyane (USAID), Ben Ray (Zerion),
Mark Davies (Esoko)
and Kwame Bentil (Image-AD) panelists
discussing business models for ICT4D
The curtains have just closed down on the Catholic Relief Services’ 5th Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) conference, held in Accra from 19 to 21 March 2013. The event, which in my view was a success, brought together religious leaders, the private sector, public sector, non-governmental organizations, and entrepreneurs involved in ICT4D initiatives. More than 150 participants shared experiences and lessons learned in implementing ICT4D initiatives across the globe. Discussions and exchange of information focused on the conference theme: "Mobile Services that Empower Vulnerable Communities"

Being from the agriculture domain, I enjoyed the presentations focusing on various aspects of  ICT4D in agriculture. Among them, the following stood out:

  • Esoko – a market information service targeting projects and businesses and helping them to collect and disseminate information across the value chains. Esoko is based in Ghana and has operations and/or partners in 16 African countries;
  • Fambook – an application developed by the Catholic Relief Service for use by field agents to register farmers, farmers groups and develop business plans incorporating profitability analysis;
  • mFarm – an integrated platform aimed at helping stakeholders in the agricultural value chain to communicate and establish business relationships. mFarm is developed by Image-AD based in Ghana.
  • FarmForce – a cloud based solution for managing smallholder farmer production and out grower schemes. Sygenta International Foundation funds FarmForce;
  • ICT for Weather and Water Information and Farm Advice – an IFAD supported project by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The project is promoting the use of ICT-based technologies for the delivery of weather, water and crop information and advice to smallholder farmers in Africa;
  • Community Knowledge Worker – a Grameen Foundation’s programme targeting smallholder farmers and supplying them with information to improve their farming practices.  The CKW initiatives involves farmer leaders at the grassroots level and these trained to use mobile phone applications to provide information and advisory services to the farmers and to administer surveys.

Master class on Farmbook led by Shaun Ferris of CRS
After listening to several presentations and discussions, both in the breakout and plenary sessions, I was left with the following question:

Why do have too many pilot ICT4D initiatives, especially in Africa, and almost no sustainable scale ups?

If you are reading this blog post, I would be glad to have your views. Please, leave a comment.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

UNECA launches ASKIA initiative

ASKIA portal
Various initiatives to enhance the visibility and to improve access to digital content from and on Africa are under way across the continent. On 14 March 2013, I witnessed the launch of one such initiative, the Access to Scientific and Socio-economic Information in Africa (ASKIA), in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Mr. Makane Faye, Officer-in-Charge of the Knowledge Services and Library Services Section at the United Nations Economic Commission (UNECA), launched ASKIA at the plenary session of the Third Session of the Committee on Development Information, Science and Technology (CODIST-III).
According to Faye, the ASKIA initiative defines a framework for bringing together a variety of scientific and socio-economic information for the African community, including scientists, researchers, students, economists and policy makers, over an interactive online portal. The initiative, which responds to the recommendations made at various CODIST meetings and conference across Africa by African experts from the fields of information and libraries and policy makers, will focus on the following:
  •  ASKIA online portal: which will serve as a one-stop access point to all knowledge from/on Africa;
  • ASKIA Federated Search Engine: which will facilitate collation and discovery of knowledge  from/on Africa through a single search;
  • Geo-data repository: a repository of maps from Africa;
  • Knowledge hub: which will provide value added services through knowledge contextualization;
  • Capacity building: focusing on enhancing capacities of institutions in UNECA member states through partnerships.
ASKIA’s goal is to strengthen online knowledge discovery and access by tapping into global scientific and socio-economic knowledge on and from Africa.
ASKIA is also an implementation programme of the African Virtual Library and Information Network, which unanimously endorsed by an expert group meeting convened by UNECA at the second meeting of the Committee on Development Information (CODI-II) in September 2001.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Providing access to digital content from Africa discussed at CODIST-III

Gracian Chimwaza (ITOCA) and
Justin Chisenga (FAO) at CODIST-III
Over the past four days, I have been in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia participating in the Third Session of the Committee on Development Information, Science and Technology (CODIST-III). CODIST is one of the seven subsidiary bodies of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) composed of senior officials and experts from member States who meet on a biennial basis. The theme for CODIST-III was Measuring Innovation in Africa.

On 12 March, I took part in the pre-CODIST-III roundtable of the Knowledge and Library Information Services (KLIS) sub-Committee. The theme for the round table was “Innovations promoting information access and diffusion in Africa: best practices, challenges and the way forward”. Discussions mainly focused on initiatives that are working towards opening access to digital content generated in Africa. These included development of institutional repositories in African universities, the Access to Scientific and Socio-economic Information in Africa (ASKIA), the Database of African Theses and Dissertations (DATAD), Uganda’s implementation of the World Digital Library initiative, and the impact of social media in libraries. Following the discussions, the participants at the round table noted, among others:

  • The absence of necessary technical, legal and governance frameworks to support adoption of Open Access model and other emerging technologies that would enhance access to the continent’s digital content;
  • Proliferation of initiatives aimed at creating digital repositories. These are mainly externally supported/funded and in most cases, there is duplication of efforts.
  • The need for coherence in information management and dissemination initiatives existing in Africa;
  • Inadequate and/or limited capacity in many countries to manage digital information assets to support innovation for national development.
A key recommendation that came out of the round table is that UNECA should provide a forum for development partners, international organizations and member states to deliberate on the integration of their initiatives to avoid duplication and to leverage on the sharing of resources.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Access to free electronic resources at CAGRIC

Main entrance to CAGRIC
I have just come from visiting the College of Agriculture Education (CAGRIC) of the University of Winneba, in Ghana. CAGRIC is located in a small and quite town of Asante Mampong, about 60km from Kumasi, the regional capital for the Ashanti Region. The College has about 1,600 students who for their academic information services use a small college library made of a large reading room, bookshelves and a couple of offices.

Although the college library is small and poorly stocked in terms of books, students and staff at the college have access to thousands of electronic resources (e-resources) mainly available through international initiatives such as the Research4Life initiative and the Programme for the Enhancement of Research Information (PERI). Under the Research4Life initiative, staff and students have access to electronic journals and books available through:
  • AGORA (Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture) managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); 
  • HINARI Access to Research in Health programme managed by the World Health Organization (WHO);
  • OARE (Online Access to Research in the Environment) managed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); and
  • ARDI (Access to Research for Development and Innovation) coordinated by the World Intellectual Property Organization.
CAGRIC Librarian demonstrating e-resources to students
Under PERI, an initiative of the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, staff and student access EBSCO database, JSTOR, Brittanica Online Academic, Africa Online Journals (AJOL), World Bank publications, among many others.

Provision of access to e-resources at CAGRIC is not without challenges. According to the Head Librarian, Mr. Theophilus Fiawatoafor, frequent power outages and un-reliable Internet connection have a negative impact on the use of e-resources in the institution. Other problems faced are inadequate computers for use by students to access the e-resources. While a large number of staff access e-resources from their offices, students who decide to use Library facilities have to share only three PCs.

CAGRIC Library
 Despite the challenges faced, access to e-resources is filling the gap for academic and research information that exists in the College. Students and staff have access electronic resources that otherwise may not be available to them. Subscription costs to the e-resources available to staff and students are very high and way beyond the Library budget for acquisition of information resources.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Issues with mobile Internet connectivity in Ghana

With the widespread of mobile telephony in Africa, access to mobile broadband Internet through mobile devices such as smart phones and mobile phones, 3G modems/USB wireless modems and other portable modems, is no longer an issue. I love to access the Internet on my laptop (large screen) and I have 3G modems for Ghana (country of residence) and three other countries (Kenya, South Africa and Zambia) that I visit regularly during the year. This arrangement ensures that I am guaranteed access to the Internet whenever I am in any one of these four countries.

In South Africa, I use Vodacom mobile Internet service. I have been using the service for almost three years now. I have no complaints with the service. Whenever I am in the country, I purchase a pre-paid 1GIG data plan for about US$28 and I have instant access to the Internet. I can Skype with the video facility on, and download watch music videos YouTube without encountering any problems. I once (in 2012) used my modem to link up a colleague who was Rome, Italy and he delivered a paper presentation to conference participants via Skype (with video), and on two occasions followed training sessions on Adobe Connect. The connections are flawless.

Kenya is my second home. In the last 10 years, I have been to Nairobi more than 100 times. While in Kenya, I use Safaricom broadband Internet services. Pre-paid 1GIG data plan costs me about US$11.50. The service is reliable and I have never had any complaints.  I am always able connect to the Internet. In 2011, I used the service to connect, via Skype (with video) and take part in the presentation of a PhD research proposal by a student I was co-supervising at the University of New York, Albany.

In Zambia, my birth country I use the services of Airtel. 1GIG of pre-paid data plan costs me about US$25.50. The speed of the Internet connection on Airtel modem is no comparable to that of Vodacom SA or Safaricom in Kenya. However, I am able to do access, read and send email. I avoid using Skype or downloading large files.

In Ghana, I have issues with mobile broadband Internet access. This is evidenced by the fact that I currently have three different broadband modems, for Airtel, Glo and MTN, in addition to iBurst Ghana modem, which unfortunately could only allow me to connect to the Internet when I in certain parts of the house. From iBurst I migrated to Airtel and in the beginning, everything worked well. Along the way, the connection started to get slow and frustrating. Well, Ghana is one of the few countries in Africa with more than five mobile phone service providers. So I have a wide choice and migrated to MTN.  Everyone I asked told me that MTN mobile Internet service was the best. Unfortunately, it was not meant for me. The service failed me when I urgently wanted to send a 300K PDF document (class assignment). The time was about 21H50, and I needed to send the document before 20H00. It was not to be. The 300K document only went through at about 20H05 and cost me marks (deducted for submitting the assignment late). I instantly dumped MTN and went for Glo (Globalcom), then the “new boy” (if not new
girl) on the block.

The first week of using Glo Internet services was great. The speed was super. Nine months down the line, things are no longer the same. Just the other day it took me about 30 minutes to access my office email. When trying to publish this post, I spent over 40 minutes trying to access without any success. I guess Glo is telling me that it is time to migrate to another service provider. I have Tigo and Expresso, the remaining two mobile phone service providers in the country whose mobile internet services I am yet to try. 

Viva Vodacom SA and Safaricom!