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12. Women and information technology in Sub-Saharan Africa

Research method
Current status of information technology in Sub-Saharan Africa
Overall status of women in Africa
Women and information technology

A topic for discussion?

Mayuri Odedra-Straub


This chapter examines, at a macro level, the current state of the information technology industry in sub-Saharan Africa and the situation of women there in general. From this analysis, a few deductions are made about the role of women in the information technology area, and the impact it is likely to have on them. The paper also poses a number of questions about the relevance of the issue of women and information technology.

Before going any further, it is necessary to ask why we need to look at the issue of women and information technology (IT)1 anywhere, not just in sub-Saharan Africa.2 Why is this issue attaining increasing importance? Is it because the technology affects women's and men's work differently? Is there concern because of women's low participation in the IT professions? What about other fields and professions, such as engineering, where women's participation is also lacking? Is it really true that the 'IT world' is dominated by men and that women are discriminated against, as some feminists believe, or is it just that women find it increasingly difficult to participate in various fields because of the greater demands placed on them? Has the focus on women gained importance because there is a shortage of skills in the area and women can play a vital role? Women may have certain skills which men often lack, such as business aptitudes, people and communication skills and management potential, but should these capabilities be exploited to maximize their impact on IT? Is there interest because it is thought that women's jobs are either becoming less skilled or are being displaced by the new technology?

The author has few answers to many of these questions, especially with reference to the African situation. Subramaniam also raises some of the above questions in her report but makes lime constructive attempt at answering them (Subramaniam, 1991). Apart from the work done by Soriyan and Aina (1991), which focused largely on Nigeria, I have found very little literature focusing on the impact of IT on women in Africa.

Few doubt the significance of information technology for economic and social development. IT is widely proclaimed to have the power to allow the developing countries to 'leapfrog' development, and as having the potential to tackle many development problems. Yet few developing countries, especially those of Africa, have succeeded in exploiting this developmental potential. Maybe it is just an illusion that IT helps with the development process. Although no other comprehensive surveys have been done to prove this, the author's own research in the last five years (Odedra, 1990a, b, c, 1992a, b), including field trips to many East and Southern African countries, shows that there is extensive under-utilization, or non-utilization, of equipment. Some major computer-based projects have failed. These signs may indicate why IT is playing little role in Africa, at least at the moment.

As there is little literature on the area of women and IT in Africa, and as difficulties were encountered in conducting a survey to find out what was happening in a few African countries, this paper is largely based on the current status of IT in Africa and the general role of women in these countries. It is important to examine the overall status of women in the existing sociocultural environment before considering the impact, if any, of IT on women.

Research method

There is little information on the role women play in the IT area, or the impact it may have had on them in Africa. An attempt was therefore made to conduct a postal survey in a few countries to find out what the current position of women, as users, was in this area. A simple questionnaire was prepared in early February 1992 and posted to over 200 organizations in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Although even a good response from the questionnaires would not have said much about the impact of IT on women in general in these countries, it would have given us some indication of what role women are playing in some particular organizations - what positions they hold, what qualifications they have, how many women are employed in that area, etc.

By May 1992, less than 5 per cent of the organizations had responded-either to say that they did not want to take part in the survey or to say that they had few women playing any major role in the area. The poor response was not surprising as a previous attempt, for a different project, at conducting such surveys by mail had yielded little. Experience had shown that personal visits to the organizations were required, but it proved difficult to find someone in these countries who would do the job. Those approached made responses such as: 'Women are not playing much role in the IT area', 'There are many other important areas of priority which need to be researched rather than women and IT', or 'IT has made little overall impact on our countries. How then do you expect there to have been some impact on women?' Attempts at finding a paid graduate student who would be willing to do the leg-work produced no results, despite generous compensation in foreign currency.

What is presented in this chapter therefore derives from the author's own research and experience on IT in Africa, and from secondary sources. Using the current status of IT in these countries, and a general picture of the role of women in Africa, some deductions are made about the possible impact of IT on women in Africa.

Current status of information technology in Sub-Saharan Africa

Measured in terms of the number of computers bought, Africa's information technology market has expanded considerably in the past decade. This trend is expected to continue over the coming years. Most major computer manufacturers are represented in Africa, and the technology has penetrated all sectors, including banking, agriculture, mining, transportation, research, defence, medical services, accounting and communications. Systems are primarily used for planning and administrative functions in both the public and private sectors. But the level and sophistication of software applications, and the attitudes, business practices, government policies and regulations concerning the use of computers vary from country to country. Several, including Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, are making some progress, but others such as Uganda and Tanzania have lagged behind.

The growth in the number of computers purchased in Africa has been spurred by the increased availability of computer hardware, the advent of microcomputers, an increase in computer awareness throughout the continent, and help from international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development and the Canadian International Development Association. There is an increasing emphasis on acquiring and using microcomputers in many countries. For example, Zimbabwe which had less than 10 personal computers before 1980, had more than 10,000 PCs by 1990. Ghana had more than 2,000 microcomputers in the same year, compared with none before 1985.

Although African companies have had little success in producing their own hardware, software houses catering to the local market are emerging, particularly in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria. Off-the-shelf software packages have largely been used in African countries because of the lack of programmers to develop in-house applications. However, there is a growing demand for applications appropriate for local needs. While the present quality and sophistication of local software may not be on a par with current world standards, it should improve with increasing demand.

However, although the number of computers has increased rapidly in some places, the process of computerization has not been as successful as it should be in a majority of these countries. There is extensive under-utilization of equipment and major computer-based projects have failed (Odedra, 1990a). Examples abound of systems that are simply not used because of the lack of secondary equipment, suitable electric power, or training. The spread of computers in Africa owes more to hard selling from manufacturers and vendors, the urge to keep up with the latest technology, donations from international assistance organizations (half of the computers in Africa acquired in the early 1980s were 'aid-donated'), self-interest, and pressure from computer professionals than to evidence of their successful use in solving real problems.3

In many African countries, there is a notion that, if the more developed countries use the technology and tell us to do so as well, then we should. But there are no IT policies or strategic buying plans which clearly identify the needs that are likely to bring overall benefit to the nation, or which determine what may be achieved with the available resources. Some regulatory policies covering procedures for the acquisition of hardware and software do exist in a few places. These regulations typically mandate centralized acquisition for the public sector and tax private companies and non-government organizations in order to discourage imports or to raise convertible currency for the state. Such taxes range from 0 per cent in Mauritius to 60 per cent in Kenya. However, a number of countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Mauritius have recently taken initiatives to formulate more comprehensive IT policies.

Although IT has been a mixed blessing in different African countries, overall there have been many negative consequences. Scarce foreign currency has been spent on equipment which is not used. Dependency on multinational corporations and expatriate personnel has increased, and sociocultural conflicts have been introduced. Moreover, what Africa has experienced for the most part so far is not IT transfer but transplantation, the dumping of boxes without the necessary know-how. Donor agencies, in particular, have a reputation for doing this.

A reliable power supply to operate the computers, a well-functioning telephone network to transmit data, foreign currency to import the technology, and computer-literate personnel are all prerequisites for the successful use of IT. Such infrastructural elements remain inadequate in many African countries. For instance, the number of telephones per 1,000 people ranges between 12 and 50, depending on the country, and many of the lines that do exist are out of order much of the time.

Africa lacks computer skills in all areas, including systems analysis, programming, maintenance and consulting, and at all operational levels from basic use to management. Most countries lack the education and training facilities needed to help people acquire the proper skills. The few training centres that do exist have not been able to keep up with demand. Only a handful of countries such as Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Zimbabwe have universities that offer computer science degrees. The programmes available in the other countries are mainly diplomas and certificates. As a result of unskilled and untrained personnel, user organizations are forced to hire expatriate staff, who in turn lack the knowledge about local organizational cultures and thus design poor systems. Many African governments and organizations are waking up to this situation, but few serious measures have been taken. Moreover, it will not be enough to merely institute courses; books, teachers and equipment are also required but unfortunately have been overlooked.

Unless managers are computer-literate, poor strategic decisions will continue to be made. The applications of computers in Africa have so far been mainly the result of isolated initiatives without any preconceived strategies or plans. The lack of long-term business plans in many organizations results in systems being purchased but not used properly. Managers need to understand that planning is essential before, not after, hardware and software is bought. At present, the most pressing need in Africa is not new systems, but rather the know-how to effectively use what is already there.

Information technology can be of great advantage in various economic sectors if used for decision making. But computers in Africa are still largely used for routine data processing with very little computer-based decision making. There is still minimal recognition that information is one of the major determinants of economic and social development. One of the reasons for Africa's underdevelopment is bad or ineffective public sector management because of the lack or inadequate use of data. Computers are often introduced to overcome some of these problems but few realize that computerization does not correct ineffective manual systems

However, the above bleak picture is changing, at different paces in different countries. Computer literacy and awareness is increasing in many countries, and many users have come to believe and accept that computer systems can help organizations make more effective use of financial, managerial and socioeconomic resources. With the cost of IT falling dramatically, and with systems becoming much easier to use and maintain, some of the prohibitive cost and infrastructural problems are being lessened. Many Africans are beginning to take advantage of this. But lack of skills in the area still remains a major problem. Overall, people are learning from their mistakes and are trying to address some of the issues.

Further research is needed, but it is already clear that what Africa needs most is the ability to exploit existing equipment effectively. This will require education and training to develop the human resources needed to integrate the technology into the development process. Development is all about people, their needs and their potential, and not the technical sophistication of technology. Women should be given the opportunity to play an equal role in the education process, but, as we will see, women in Africa are still held back in various ways. The inflow of IT cannot be halted, and there is no reason why it should be. IT can play a role in the development of these countries if some of these constraints can be addressed.

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