Women and ICT in Development of Africa

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Women and Information are two crucial elements in rural development, ICTs are an intrinsic part of this equation. Documenting the impacts and lessons learnt of ICT capacity development projects are likely to earn the support of donors and governments.

A case study
One of the female participants of an ICT training for women in Uganda gave me a hand-written letter of thanks. I met her during my visit to our ICT and gender partners in rural Uganda. Throughout a series of sessions in their local community information centre she and her fellow colleagues were taught how to use the computer, how to connect to the Internet, how to use such as applications as word processing, e-Mail, MSN and MS Office. Had they absorbed their newly acquired skills into their daily lives? Were they now among the connected, happily using ICTs to improve her livelihood? The hand-written letter symbolises part of the answer to this question and brings to mind a few important lessons to be reminded of in ‘engendering’ ICT at the grassroots level.

Many reports by multilaterals, governments and gender CSOs alike indicate that women in developing countries can benefit from ICTs. That’s nice but donors and government continue to favour classic aid over investment in gender friendly rural ICTs. It is also common knowledge that the digital divide is worst for those who are poor, live in rural areas or happen to be female.  And women in rural Africa often combine all three. As a reminder, only 12 percent of all Internet users in Senegal are female; 14 percent in Ethiopia, 36 percent in Zambia and 31.5 percent in Uganda. These data do not differentiate between rural and urban areas. Taking this into account one can safely assume that percentages are even lower for rural women.

In Africa and elsewhere a myriad of activities have sprung up over the years, trying to get especially rural women connected through the provision of access and by building ICT savviness. With the establishment of rural community information centres combined with ICT training especially geared towards women it was hoped  that these women would benefit from the economic and social opportunities ICTs offer. Now, almost a decade later, the time has come to reflect on the impact these initiatives had on rural women’s participation in the economy. Unfortunately, gender disaggregated statistical data and well-analysed and documented case studies are still rare. Nevertheless by studying what material is there, some interesting lessons can be learnt that practitioners and donors should take to heart.

CEEWA and Wougnet in rural Uganda
In this article two examples from Uganda will be used to look into the effects of gender based ICT capacity building in rural areas. The first is a women’s ICT training programme by CEEWA-U, a CSO that aims at the economic empowerment of Ugandan women ( The second  is a rural information outreach programme, run by Wougnet, a CSO that works in gender and ICT( These initiatives give a clear picture of the challenges women in Africa face to make ICTs work to their benefit and indicate some of the solutions that can be found.

Central African Uganda is a country that recently held quite a bit of economic promise, but now seemed to have slipped back on all economic ladders. With a UNDP Human Development Index of 0.509, UNDP in 2005 it is one of the poor countries of the African continent ( In the rural areas the HDI is even lower. Literacy rates for women vary between urban and rural areas and per district. On average 60 percent of women can read and write but this figure drops to 45 percent for men and women in the northern regions.  Women usually have very limited access to economic assets such as land, houses and finances. Women are often the breadwinners through farming and/or micro businesses. They usually combine this with care for the young and the elderly. Yet, it is common practice that what money these women earn is handed over to their husbands or other male relatives. The Ugandan Human Development Report 2005 notes that the weak economic and social position of women is undermining equitable development in particular. In short, women are the most important driving force to rural economic and social development.

The Council of Economic Empowerment of Africa (CEEWA) works to empower these women and supports women towards economic independence. CEEWA Uganda runs several rural information centres and through these centres implements ICT and business skills training for women. Three of their centres (in Nabweru, Buwamu and Mukono) are at easy travelling distance from Kampala and situated in relatively densely populated areas. Some of the women make their living solely through farming. Nevertheless a substantive part of the participants are entrepreneurs running small businesses such as restaurants, shops or stalls.

In its baseline study CEEWA noted that rural women found it difficult to get comfortable with ICTs due to literacy problems and general education levels. CEEWA also noted that, in the initial stages, some women entrepreneurs, not having access to credit, preferred money over the acquisition of ICT and entrepreneurial skills. This implies that initially  women were not able to see the connection between the added value ICTs may offer to the improvement of their economic activities.

The ICT training focussed on business applications such as word processing and spreadsheets, the use of the Internet, e-Mail and the use of additional business tools such as mobile phones, faxes and photocopiers. The ICT training was part of a package which included other business skills training such as book keeping.

At the end of the training all women recognised the possibilities using ICTs in general and felt grateful and empowered to have been introduced to them. A much smaller group really integrated the use of ICTs into their day-to-day lives. They would use those tools that proved worth the investment either in terms of effort, money and time. This was particularly true for the mobile phone. The phone is easy to use, affordable and it can be carried with you wherever you go. It allowed women to organise their social and economic logistics from home and the benefits were instant and tangible (one call and you have placed an order, as simple as that). The use of Internet and e-Mail was much less embedded in their lives. Because women have few financial assets and difficulty in accessing credit, it is not easy for them to purchase the necessary equipment. Even if they could afford the first investment, the dependency on (male dominated) ICT service firms for technical maintenance continues to be another major barrier.

Alternatively, women could go to their local community information centre or Internet cafe. Those women who live close enough and felt that the social or economic gain were worth the investment of time, money and effort, did so. However, those living farther away from the centre would not. A woman who is travelling to town to access ICTs is not working, or caring for the children and someone else in her community needs to carry the added burden. The investment of effort, time and money is much higher and often will outweigh the perceived benefits.

Another interesting observation about the absorption of the ICT skills into these women’s work life is related to the line of business in which they were active. Farmers are first and foremost consumers of information. Their primary interest is to be up to date with market prices and learn as much as possible about farming techniques, health, education and so on. ICTs can help, but there are alternatives such as the rural extension worker or brochures and leaflets. The entrepreneurs not only consume information but are also producers of information. They write invoices, place orders, write menus and some even had websites. Although this line of research has not been pursued, one can assume that the women entrepreneurs are more willing to invest in ICTs because the perceived benefits in terms of efficiency and effectiveness are more substantial and they have fewer alternatives to reach the same level of efficiency and effectiveness.

Wougnet  is a membership organisation which aims at harnessing ICTs as a tool to strengthen information exchange and address common issues. Part of its programme focuses on the improvement of information access and exchange amongst women in rural areas. The organisation tries to address the previously identified challenges of distance, effort and costs  of deployment of ICTs through its outreach programme in the northern province of Apac. The heart of the programme is the Kubere information centre in Apac town.

The Kubere centre aims at improving access to information for rural women on the basis of the outcomes of information needs assessments. Women indicated that their main interest was in farming techniques, market prices for farmer produce and health and education issues. The information centre has newspapers and magazines, distributes leaflets and brochures on a variety of topics, many of which are agriculture and health related. It has Internet connectivity and makes use of World Satellite Radio as a source of external information. A reporter seeks out rural communities and collects local information. The material thus gathered is repackaged from their original to suit the needs and capacities of the recipients. This results not only into folders and leaflets, but also in special radio programmes, produced by women for women, which are then broadcasted through Radio Apac (the local community radio). Women in rural communities have established women listeners group and will gather to listen to the radio. Each of these groups has a mobile phone through which they receive information on market prices and with which they can phone into radio Apac for Q and A sessions. The women were very enthusiastic about both the radio and the mobile phone as they are easy to use, create a sense of community and does not require them to travel or to acquire complex technical skills. The user threshold and level of investment is relatively small and well balanced with the perceived gains.

Similarities and differences: whichever way – it’s worth the effort
Rather than providing ICT capacity building activities as part of a business training programme, the way CEEWA did, Wougnet linked ICT capacity building directly with information brokerage in agriculture. They combined application of ICTs in close cooperation with physical agents, using more traditional avenues for information exchange through rural extension workers. The combination of digital, analogue and physical information channels empowered the participating women groups and stimulated new ideas and initiatives.

In general, the women targeted by Wougnet have very little education, live far from urban centres and agriculture is the dominant source of income. They have neither the financial means nor time to travel to a centre or to invest in ICT equipment. There is no electricity in their communities. Their information needs are relatively homogeneous. It is difficult for women in Apac to access and then process information to meet their own requirements. Wougnet adapted its information strategies accordingly to address these women’s most urgent needs and thus became an information broker. ICT capacity building of the target group remains limited to the necessary skills to be able to receive, understand and act upon the information presented. In this case, part of the burden of the investment is taken over by the information brokers as they have to prepare the information for the farmers and find suitable avenues to get it to them. The consequence of this is that the women in Apac are more dependent on the information brokers for the information that they require.  Their choices are based on what is presented to them. They are less well positioned to compare, weigh and value different content and sources of information. Economic empowerment and independence is, in this particular case, intertwined with the equality of the relationship between information brokers and information producers.  Not only is it important that the rural women can trust the information presented to them, they should also feel free and be able to question this information. This implies that the information brokers present more than one angle to the same topic, provide the women insight into their sources, the opportunity to value different information and last, but not the least, encourage debate.

The women targeted in the three CEEWA centres were more heterogeneous including farmers and business women, resulting in more heterogeneous information needs.  Not only were they eager recipients of information, they produce information themselves too. Education levels on average were a bit higher than those of their peers in Apac. CEEWA addressed their needs by building their capacity to access and process information using ICTs. In other words, the information broker is the woman herself. She is less dependent on the ‘middle-man of information’, and can do the weighing and balancing herself. For those women who can and will access these ICTs ( in the case of CEEWA, mostly the entrepreneurs) this gives an enormous boost in terms of economic empowerment. However, for those women who cannot access these sources for information, the impact will be a lot less noticeable as they have no one they can turn to for assistance.

Nevertheless, the not to be underestimated outcome of both initiatives is the increased sense of empowerment by the women that participated in these activities. In both cases, their self-confidence had increased by the fact that they understood better what ICTs are and can do. All women spoken to felt empowered and inspired. This had led to several new ideas and the courage to actually take these ideas in hand and do something with them. One women’s group in Apac had started a piggery. A woman in Buwama scaled up her small restaurant to a full fledged catering business. Their newly acquired knowledge, skill and self-confidence also gave them increased status amongst their peers, in their communities and even with their husbands.

Readers, who implement similar activities will not be surprised by these outcomes, yet donors and governments still favour more traditional aid over investments in gender friendly rural information disclosure through ICTs. Many of them still question the effectiveness of ICT capacity building activities for rural women, because the impact has not been captured in happy statistics.

I would like to encourage all practitioners out there to monitor more closely the effects of their work, not only during, but also after they have completed them and to make this information publicly available. Not only will this yield lessons learnt that will help all of us. This will also lead to factual evidence on impact that may encourage donors and governments to recognise what we all know: Women and Information are two crucial elements in rural development. ICTs are an intrinsic part of this equation. g

AWORC – facilitating net-advocacy for Asian women
An Internet-based information service and network in Asia for women, the Asian Women’s Resource Exchange (AWORC) aspires to contribute to the global efforts to address the gender disparities on the Internet. The members of the growing AWORC commu-nity includes women’s information, resource and documentation centres, women’s information providers and users and communi-cations organisations working closely with gender networks.Some of the nation wise AWORC Participating Organisations are:

• Japan:  AJWRC (Asia Japan Women’s Resource Center ), JCA-NET (JCA-NET)
• South Korea: APWINC (Asian Pacific Women’s Information Network Centre)
KWDI (Korean Women’s Development Institute)
• Malaysia : ARROW (Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women)
APC-WNSP (Association for Progressive Communication – Women’s Networking Support Programme)
• Mongolia: GCSD (Gender Centre for Sustainable Development)
• Philippines: IWS (Institute of Women’s Studies), Isis Manila (Isis International-Manila), UP-CSWCD (UP, College of Social Work and Community Development)

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