Towards an African Knowledge Bank

by John  C.  Afele,  Ph.D.

Director, International Program for Africa, Ontario Agricultural College,
University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada N1G 2W1.
Telephone: 1-519-824-4120 extension 6419; Fax: 1-519-824-0870

A paper for the 5th Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference (tcc2000)
Writing Team on International/Multicultural Issues and New Technologies for Learning

Table of Contents


"The Rise of the Virtual State [in Africa]"

School Connectivity

Community Learning & Gender in Development

Youth and Skills Development

Internet Language and Local Area Networks

The Action Plan

Links & References

Global trends towards virtuality demand critical analyses of the preparations which Africa is making to participate in the Information Age. The World Bank, for example, has been preparing to transform itself into a global Knowledge Bank, assisted in this process by other global agencies of development, private sector businesses, and governments, in what is known as the Global Knowledge Partnership. In my imagination, every sovereign nation and citizen would have access to make deposits and withdrawals towards building their own future.

Effective banking requires visionary brokers, portfolio and fund managers; people who can take calculable risks, to maximize gains to the investor and the firm. The future banking brokers would be knowledge brokers, to guide the quality of the knowledge deposited and accessed. The new Bank would also have expert planners to process raw information into value-added knowledge prior to deposit, to achieve maximum dividend to the depositor. Thus financial planners would become knowledge processors. The better the broker and planner, the higher the dividend to client. The higher value-added the deposit, or the greater the efficiency of utilizing the accessed knowledge, and the greater the reward to the client. There would be no withdrawal fees but the penalty for misappropriation of accessed knowledge capital would be retardation of those the transaction was supposed to aid.

The Knowledge Bank would be multi-tiered, at global, regional, subregional, national, institutional, local, individual, program and project levels. Each group would have full access.

The future currency will be knowledge, with no physical structure to hold it, neither walls nor Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs). The funds will be housed in the air around you, and accessed via modern tools of communication, fitting into one's palm. The more powerful the device, the more efficient the client and portfolio managers would be in interacting with and manipulating funds. The more knowledgeable the group, the wiser they can use the accessed funds. The more such knowledgeable individuals a group has, the more collective social, economic, political, and technological advances would they make. Welcome to the Virtual World.

Africa, with this looming scenario - good or bad - has been designing its subsidiary of the future Global Knowledge Bank. All levels of the multi-tier future bank have been attempting to assist Africa in its transition into this Virtual World. Some of the most significant of such efforts might be the activities of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and those of Acacia and Leland. Subregional and national programs and workshops in Africa also abound, such as the RuralCom 99 Conference held in Conotou, Benin and Bamako 2000 (See Endnote # 1).

With all these initiatives, and a myriad of IT-related projects on the ground in Africa, it is probably prudent to begin using the term Digital Bridge in place of "Digital Divide," as a signal of the task ahead for Africa.

In designing the African Knowledge Bank, Africa needs to design strategic policy frameworks with imagination, innovation, and futuristic perspectives, since leapfrogging is the objective. Should Africans fail to do so, others would do so for Africa and, being less knowledgeable about African realities than African intellectuals, would send Africa back into economic bondage. Africa needs to reach back to previous declarations on communications and assess how far implementation has gone on such plans, that is, being action-oriented. Such policies should strive for nothing less than the full power of the IT system; long term visions with action now mind sets are required. Africa needs to develop a cadre of IT champions, people whose intentions are to develop Africa's brainpower, from academic, business, community, and individual orientations. Africans need to read the stories of the accomplished IT industry personnel, chiefly Africans. Moreover, Africa should invest in its future, its children, so as to begin the process of leveraging with other civilizations. Numerical targets, for example, To every village or community a POP - communications point of presence - within a defined period, to be undertaken by named entities, in a defined manner and pre-determined quality and scale, are necessary to indicate real intentions. Mobile communications units could be used to sensitize all citizens, as part of the awareness raising, and to stimulate a groundswell of support for government decisions to invest in communications infrastructure. The goal would be to develop a critical mass of users which would eventually lead to a drop in connectivity fees. Programs in virtual education should not aim to clone minds, instead should assist pupils in problem solving, teaching pupils how to learn, feature customized learning and develop educational packages which would make schooling relevant to local needs akin to global knowledge, local impact. It is essential that efforts in connectivity are not supplanted by e-commerce themes alone; a learning society of Africans should be the ultimate goal. Moreover, computer-mediated business transactions in Africa should emphasize local distribution of goods, inter-regional trade, methods of product standardization, start-up funds and mechanisms of line of credit.

The pipes of communications are important but the content is probably even more critical. Therefore, I have coined the term COMtent (Communications channels and content), to emphasize Internet content. The indigenous African knowledge system, previously ridiculed, has now been vindicated internationally, in many ways. However, that knowledge system, in its raw form, is unable to meet modern needs of Africans, for which it was not designed. Centuries of neglect have left the indigenous African knowledge system in atavistic states. It will require a great energy input to polish the indigenous African knowledge system to meet people's needs today. However, bridging that knowledge system with the modern, via an intellectualization process which is based on smart partnerships among intellectuals and centres of learning on both sides, and which would include custodians and practitioners of the African system, could be the most energy-efficient method.

A companion of the African Knowledge Bank would be an African Information Trust which would secure the necessary financial capital for competitive access by those who are involved in COMtent generation. Africans, and others, who are managers of funds on behalf of African Internet infrastructure and COMtent development should be selfless and develop critical project evaluation and analytical methods for projects funded to entail visionary outlooks, implementation and longevity, not to be based on whom you know. Recently, in Washington, D.C., I heard someone remark, "As a foot soldier on the side of Africa in the frontline trenches of the battle against rural poverty, one quickly learns that the African is also his/her own enemy; some at the armoury refuse your cry for weapons, preferring instead to honour requests from more innocuous frontlines," in reference to some who should have done better, given their institutional capacities. Knowledge may be power, but money rules. Africa should initiate efforts to secure the funds necessary to implement programs designed by those working for Africa. There should be some means to establish such a fund, although not to undermine existing programs, such as infoDev, Acacia, and Leland, which have limited funds themselves. It is probably prudent to bring to the foreground the need felt by program designers to have access to adequate funding, or current efforts would only result in pocket-style projects with little impact. It may be that researchers and program designers should have an idea of the total information and communications budgets of all organizations which are related to these fields on behalf of Africa. Knowledge about the volume of funds, eligibility criteria, public information on different phases of on-going projects, completed projects, those awaiting funding, etc., in a one-stop shopping system would assist outside evaluation of connectivity schemes. Back To Top

The Rise of the Virtual State [in Africa]
In discussing convergent information and communication technologies (IT) in rural poverty alleviation in Africa, the question often arises, "Food or IT?" Recently, during the Bamako 2000 conference which brought together experts to further refine Africa's entry into the Information Age, a local Malian friend, who confessed she was not conversant with IT, asked me, "Africa needs food, why are you talking about IT?" A few days later, at the Grand Marche in Bamako, a local fabric vendor attempted so hard to sell me some of his ware. My response was that he needed a market bigger than one customer, and that Bamako 2000 was to design how he could sell to 'Le Plus Grand Marche.' Or in the case of a Bamako hotel which was backlogged in checking in/out guests, due to drawn out procedures of manually entering transactions in a huge logbook, whose staff I advised to contact the organizers of Bamako2000 on how to computerize operations. Later the same week, I would make these issues central in my plenary presentation session "Le plurilinguisme et la mise en réseau / Plurilinguism and networking" under the title, "Information and Communication Technologies Meeting People's Needs."

The relevance of IT in Africa's endemic insecurities lies in the ability to use the system to create comparative advantages in which nation-states and subregional bodies could act as sinks to pull global knowledge and capital flows into the African system. Such knowledge and capital could be integrated with the indigenous systems which would serve as platform, for the benefit of the majority of its peoples. That is, to build the knowledge networks necessary to mine knowledge from the global data bank. IT would also enable Africa to tap into a human brain larger than Africa alone would ever possess, especially when labour has become international and Africa cannot compete for the brains it nurtures. This, I have previously referred to as brain convergence and enrichment, or which Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, has referred to as "brain gain."  That way, Africa could, for example, mine for, manage and conserve water systems; assist the rural engineer (the blacksmith) to manufacture tools of mechanical advantage, and develop more sustainable farming and cropping systems, design food storage, processing and distribution systems, etc., for increased efficiency in agriculture.

The information revolution is not about telephony. It is about convergent tools, and Africa should not design anything less than access to the full power of IT. In the Digital Age, it would be fruitless to dwell on the "digital divide" per se; to be conversant with the gap is wise, but thinking about the bridge might be more useful. Issues of geography, physical barriers such as mountains, poor infrastructure, and Internet language should not be bases to prevent deploying the full power of IT in Africa; technology has 'been there and conquered that.' Moreover, low teledensity should not be an excuse for lack of access (although saturation is a necessary effort), after all, one gong-gong summons, mobilises, and informs a community of 800 people in rural Africa. However, in establishing telecentres, today's experts, oblivious to the wisdom of African livelihoods, are using models which no one understands. Rural telecentres, featuring convergent communications, should be within the domain of the system which has nurtured rural Africans for all their lives, i.e., the community and its leadership arrangement.

Africa's unique and atavistic infrastructure, poor research and educational levels which are the challenges are also opportunities for the region to create new comparative advantages of the sovereign state and for regionally distributed tasks in the Digital Age. Which African cities would become the continent's financial hub, such as New York and Tokyo - Johannesburg and Lagos? Where would its centres of diplomacy, leadership and policy visions such as Washington, D.C. be located (Accra? For Kwame Nkrumah, like Abraham Lincoln)? Would Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, efficiently serve as Africa's conglomeration of global institutions, such as Geneva, Switzerland, and New York? Which would serve as Africa's entertainment, media, and fashion arcades, such as Los Angeles, Paris, and Rome? Will Zaire, Angola, Mozambique, Sudan, Algeria, and Sierra-Leone emerge from the ashes of war, like Germany and Japan? Which would be Africa's energy source, such as the Gulf Region - North Africa and the Niger Delta? Where would its precious metals come from - South Africa and Ghana? Would Nigeria and South Africa serve as Africa's military powers, such as the U.S., Britain, and France? Would the West Coast of Africa (The Slave Coast) be Africa's remembrance of the victims of aggressions past against Africa? Would Dakar, Senegal, become Africa's judicial centre, analogous to The Hague? Would Cairo and Tombouctou be the preservation of Africa's previous civilization, such as Rome and Athens? Would Kumasi, Ghana, and Swaziland be centres of monarchies such as The United Kingdom and Japan? Would Liberia, where freed slaves settled, and homes of Africa's independence leaders and resistance movements in Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, and Ethiopia, be seen as Africa's Mount Rushmore, Lincoln Memorial and Mount Vernon? Which would become Africa's playground, such as Cancun (Mexico) and Miami Beach ( Florida)? All along Africa's coast but especially East Africa? Where would Africa's tourist centre, such as Niagara Falls be - The Lake Victoria Region? Would Ethiopia become Africa's land of princesses?

The goal of the African Knowledge Bank and African Information Trust would be towards reinventing people's attitudes and institutional mechanisms, to educate society about learning new methods of productivity and distribution; in mobilizing the productive capacities of villages and civil society organizations; in rebuilding a society of learners and institutions of engineers of tools and processes; of education relevant to people's needs; of primary and preventive health for all; domestic commerce; data collection, interpretation, and utilization; of political and judicial reforms; of religion and spirituality in peaceful coexistence; and the free movement of goods and peoples, etc.

At the heart of Africa's insecurities is a thirst and hunger for knowledge, not only for water and food. The challenge for Africa in the Information Age would be management of the convergent communication tools to intellectualize its own indigenous base, to create new comparative advantages, particularly for its majority populations who are rural and who have borne the brunt of the depravity, profligacy, and ineptitude which have characterized the region's leadership and bureaucracies for nearly the entire lives of those who now possess the continent. That is, since independence, Africans have not been able to redefine their strategic goals, and many still whine about the past and not busy themselves about strategies for tomorrow.

In The Rise of the Virtual State, Richard Rosecrance described the evolution of "Head Nations" and "Body Nations." The former produce intellectual outputs or knowledge products, invest in research and development and engage others (Body Nations) in the translation into tangible products (manufacturing). Here, I propose a third category, the Mouth Nations, since Africa is neither Head nor Body. Africans consume the products of the Head and Body Nations. And with a low purchasing power, only a few in Africa are able to consume the tangibles of the Body Nations, leaving about 80% of Africans to derive all their possessions from the land, a definition of poor people in poor countries. National policy makers in African keep talking 'will ..., will ..., will ...,' with little action. Some even claim to be doing all that is required for rural poverty alleviation, with little evidence on the ground.

When I first began building knowledge frameworks and networks for science and technology policy which would meet rural African needs, I was fascinated by statistical indices such as: 'Africa as a whole currently has 0.36 per cent of the world's scientific potential, 0.4 per cent of the world's research and development (R & D) expenditure, and produces 0.3 per cent of scientific papers that are published in mainstream science,' etc. I have since realized that such statistics are only academic and reflect little about the condition of my village. Therefore, I developed my own indicators. Hard-working rural Africans have been reduced to a state of atavism, where the tools and processes involved in production and livelihood activities are ancestral and have not undergone innovation for centuries (500 years, according to some accounts), e.g., the quintessential hoe. In some cases, humans and animals drink and bathe in the same creeks and ponds as if it were the Garden of Eden, except Paradise was long lost; most agricultural implements are manufactured by the blacksmith and are sharpened on rocks; grains and vegetables are milled and grated on rocks; people hunt for mushrooms from the wild, Stone Age style, etc.

Such indices of Africa have resulted partly because of failure in realigning the operational domain, following independence, to reflect the philosophical, social, and technological realities of Africa. Hence the knowledge hunger.

The nation-state in the Information Age, as Rosecrance saw it, would not be so much dependent on territory (hence the United Kingdom parted with its last colony in 1997) since value-added knowledge products will yield more than raw commodities extracted from land, and other sovereign nations can be enticed to use their lands to translate the Head's intangibles into tangibles. Therefore, Africans should realize that land and its contents are good but they alone are not critical requirements for development any longer. Africa's future should no longer be tied rigidly to gold and diamonds, the proceeds of which have never been used to rejuvenate the land or to nourish the lives of inhabitants. The proceeds and the passion for these 'precious' metals have turned Africa into killing fields, some of its leaders into thieves, and the ruled into victims of the brutality in the quest and passion for gold, diamonds, and oil. Fortunately, the Rise of the Virtual State has meant reduction in the need for territory. All that the Virtual State needs to move out of abject poverty is to act as a thinking machinery.

Those who are managing The Rise of the Virtual State [in Africa] should not accept tokens for which Africans would have to sing praises later. They need to think deeply, to design mechanisms with far and wide-reaching implications. They should not ponder the question "Food or IT?" but rather Food and IT. That is, they should contemplate what, how, where, and whom?; the why? aspect should be a known element. Back To Top

School Connectivity
A major goal in school connectivity should be integrated learning, where knowledge flows interactively among schools of all levels, and feeds into research, communities, and industry. Africa's problems are not due to lack of education. The lateral system of grammar schools has produced a dependent educated population most of whom expect governments to employ them and who often think politics is the solution to every problem. African newspapers and magazines reflect this aberration, devoting all their writings to political events and very little to the impact of technologies. We should begin to focus on the tools and processes of daily living and occupations. In the Digital Age, all pupils would be able to access high quality curricula, to enable rural pupils to access the same high quality modern education which is available to richer children of urban dwellings. In a period of personalized learning enabled by IT, African "pupils do not have understanding of the basic rules of grammar," and "university teachers do not have chalks to write." The African learning environment terrorizes some pupils; it quickly identifies the 'brainy' from the 'deadhead' but provides no further assistance to the latter. IT would allow customized learning for all pupils and thereby activate the learning skills of both the 'brainy' and 'deadheads' simultaneously. Computer-assisted learning and virtual education should not lead to cloned minds but to stimulate the inherent motor skills for learning and problem solving. Not education for its own sake but education which is integrated into research and product development. The challenge is not the ability to design such learning systems but the ability to re-learn how to design systems which work for people, not against them. In talking about reinventing learning systems, stronger emphasis should be placed on the early stages of education and not disproportionately concentrating on institutions of higher learning. Even if not for other reasons, universities are full of knowledge as they have all the big brains of society. Primary schools are full of young minds which can be shaped for a better future, and they are children who have little strength without guidance. In creating a new culture, where knowledge and information determine the level of civilization, it is prudent to mentor tender minds full of creativity, for to change old minds from what they know and stick to is an uphill task. Without a strong foundation in learning, concentrating on older minds would only bring more confusion and self-aggrandisement. Consequently, "the collaborative regional groups of the emerging Global University System (GUS) [through which I got to know about this online conference] intends to foster youngsters around the world for the 'Virtual State' of the 21st Century with competition for excellence through affordable and accessible broadband Internet. GUS aims to prepare children, through education, for the transformation of the world, from the industrial age where obedience predominated, into the knowledge age, where creativity and competence predominate." (Prof. Takeshi Utsumi, December 19, 1999, SEASON'S GREETINGS FROM GLOSAS/USA) Back To Top

Community Learning & Gender in Development
In building knowledge bridges to intellectualize indigenous African knowledge and ideas, the livelihood realities of the majority - rural communities - should be dissected. All Africans are conversant with the rural realities but become oblivious once an elitist educational system has educated him/her out of the village. There have not been significant conscientious and systematic plans to plough city-acquired modern knowledge back into the rural communities which nurtured the early developmental stages of modern African elites. Villages produce all the food consumed by urban elites. Yet though the blacksmith manufactures all the agricultural implements for rural Africa, and the traditional birth attendant assists in the delivery of many from mothers' wombs, the elite do not feel obliged to integrate these professions into the curriculum of technical schools and nursing institutions. African women, particularly those in rural areas, are the most vulnerable in the world. Frequent childbearing, high levels of pregnancy-related maternal mortality, and an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS, all take their toll on the African woman. About 40% of all pregnancy and childbirth related deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa although its women constitute only 10% of the world's female population, and many of these deaths are avoidable. African women give birth anywhere - at home, on the farms, at markets, or at commuter stations, with the majority of childbirth assisted by traditional birth attendants (TBA) as the highest forms of obstetrics in rural Africa. TBAs deliver almost all the babies in rural Africa, including people who become policy makers, but little effort has been made to provide general training and resources to this profession.

Gender and development issues in Africa should be critically designed to become academic, research and market-oriented frameworks. Frustration was obvious among a group of African women traders who had come from all over Africa to Miami in 1999 for a meeting, with their ware, mostly fabric, planning to retail one item at a time. Globalization of markets should mean opportunities to sell virtually, in large quantities. That requires market analyses and business partnerships; not to travel to Miami to retail one item to each customer.

In the Digital Age, opportunities exist to monitor the blacksmith's shop from detached technical colleges and universities, guide the smith into making tools of mechanical advantage; not only to assist the traditional birth attendant and pregnant mother during the critical period of delivery but to continuously monitor fetal development and guide the early child growth period - the most critical period in determining a child's future. Mothers can be connected to nutrition experts at global centres during perinatal and early child development phases. Back To Top

Youth and Skills Development
A looming danger for Africa is the rise of a young, able-bodied yet inactive population - the youth. This is Africa's largest dispossessed group, the 'deadheads' who are left to fodder for themselves in the urban sprawls or villages, who have been sentenced to a state of "survival of the fittest" rule. To survive in such states is a skill of itself. Yet, these are the people who build city houses, repair motor vehicles, and drive families in luxury cars or the public in rickety commercial vehicles. Indeed, the majority of drivers in Africa - commercial transport operators (not owners) and chauffers - have only basic education. No doubt, they drive with brute force and not with their minds, and in the process kill and maim many; their tools are primitive and unable to provide proper diagnosis of imported machinery and processes, hence constant repair requirements. If they are not provided with the mechanisms for self actualization through skills development and channels to access global capital to build their shops and market their products globally, they will continue to drag down economies and become fodder for militia groups. Back To Top

Internet Language and Local Area Networks
Further still, if all the contents of the Internet were available in my native African language, what would that mean to my mother who is literate only in that African language? Little, probably. Instead, it is in the conversion of the global data into knowledge and at that level would be relevant to rural communities when in the language of their domain. Therefore, building strong Intranets or Local Area Networks, where schools are networked in curriculum delivery, when hospitals and traditional health practitioners are connected together, when technical schools and rural engineers are interacting, etc., that local languages matter. Access to the Internet is good, but only for those who are literate and functional in the Internet language of English or others. But African intellectuals, who are literate in all modern languages, as a group, can mine information from the Internet and input that into the LAN systems for relevance to the rural communities. Back To Top

The Action Plan
If I have been so critical but fail to provide a viable scheme for the Virtual Age in Africa, I would be a traitor. Some of the programs and projects, networks of individuals and institutions in Africa and outside of Africa, and the dreams and imaginings I have been part of inventing can be found at my digital page. Since this is about the Digital Age, it should suffice to point the mouse and click on "Intellectualizing Indigenous African Knowledge and Ideas" Back To Top

Links & References

1. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has an on-going program in developing Africaâs Information Age, through its African Development Forum, the African Information Society Initiative (AISI), and the National Information and Communications Infrastructure (NICI) program. Other relevant programs in Africa include The Acacia Initiative (Communities and the Information Society in Africa) of Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC)  and the Leland Initiative of United States Agency for International Development (USAID).. For a more complete listing of African connectivity projects, funding agencies, and beneficiaries, please refer to Mike Jensen's database. RuralCom Î99 was held in Conotou, Benin, in December 1999, and Bamako2000 was convened by Malian President Alpha Oumar Konare in February 2000.

2. Richard Rosecrance. The Rise of the Virtual State: Wealth and Power in the Coming Century (Basic Books, New York, N.Y., 1999)

3. Afele, John Senyo C. 1999. Information and Communication Technologies, Rural Agriculture, and Twenty-first Century Africa. In: Loeper, A., R. Helbig, U. Rickert, G. Schiefer (eds.) Role and Potential of IT Systems and Communication Networks for International Development. EFITA 99. ILB-University of Bonn Press, p. 67-83

4. Dr. Mahathir Mohamad's speech, during the Second Global Knowledge Forum, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 7 - 10, 2000.

5. The West African Examination Council released its 1998 annual review recently. The examination board is responsible for secondary and high school examinations in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra-Leone, and The Gambia. That is GCE O and A levels. It said "... there was a high failure rate  in the November/December 1998 SSCE for private candidates ... in which the Chief Examiners reported "massive show of poor knowledge on the rules of grammar." In a separate case, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and vice-chancellors of universities of Ghana met on September 23, 1999 and deliberated on the crisis in funding tertiary education and observed that "Purchase of items such as chalk, chemicals, books and journals, equipment and what goes into direct teaching has been virtually impossible. This has made it very difficult for the Universities to effectively carry out their programmes." Back To Top

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