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Southern African NGO Network (SANGONeT)
History and Background

NGOs as the pioneers of ICT in Africa: the story of SANGONeT

This article was written by Anriette Esterhuysen, Executive Director of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), and former Executive Director of SANGONeT. It was first published in 2002 as part of “Rowing Upstream: Snapshots of Pioneers of the Information Age in Africa” (http://www.sn.apc.org/Rowing_Upstream/), a publication which reflected on the evolving role of the Internet and ICTs in Africa.

In the late 1980s, not long after Bill Gates had moved from his garage into a boardroom, a quiet ICT revolution was taking place in Africa. Organisations and individuals, working on the front lines of human rights and development efforts, were beginning to make use of computers, modems and telephone lines to exchange information.

Reaction from northern NGOs and donor agencies was skeptical. With few exceptions, the standard response was that other concerns were more “fundamental” and deserved priority. Those African NGOs that believed strongly that the use of new communication technologies would enhance their work struggled to get the support they needed, and were often accused of being misguided and elitist.

How did the revolution start? In large part, ICT use by NGOs in Africa was driven by the need to communicate and network in a context in which services associated with conventional infrastructure (postal service, telephones, roads and air transportation) did not exist or were unaffordable and unreliable.

The need to participate from a distance in international fora also motivated ICT adoption. The United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development (popularly known as the Earth Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 created an incentive for African NGOs to participate online through the discussion spaces initiated in 1991 and facilitated by the Association for Progressive Communications. The Nairobi-based EcoNews Africa played a leading role in this process, supported by one of the earliest e-mail service providers on the continent, Environment Liaison Centre International (ELCI). For African women’s organisations, the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing played a similar role.

In some places, another powerful incentive for ICT use was political repression that made sharing information difficult and dangerous. This is illustrated by the example of SANGONeT, which was founded as WorkNet in 1987 by the Labour and Economic Research Centre (LERC), an organisation that worked with the South African trade union movement.

During the 1980s, South Africa’s labor movement played a key role in the struggle against apartheid. The solidarity and support that South African labor unions received from unions and advocacy groups in the rest of the world was in effect support for the struggle against apartheid, and recognition of the role that South African unions played in that struggle. Its work with South African unions brought LERC face-to-face with the need for safe and effective modes of communication.

In early 1988, LERC convened a steering group for WorkNet. At the same time, through its links with the labor movement in the United Kingdom, LERC made contact with the Labour Telematics Centre in Manchester, England. LTC consisted of Manchester Host, Soft Solution and Poptel, together with the Workers’ Education Authority and the trade union college based in Manchester. Several members of this group came from church-based anti-apartheid groups. Through their connection with LERC, they became closely involved in WorkNet. Thus, it is no accident that WorkNet/SANGONeT’s early history was dominated by labor and religious organisations. At the height of state repression of the democratic movement in the 1980s, these were the only explicitly anti-apartheid institutions that were able to operate above ground. They were also involved in international networks, and were therefore predisposed to making use of emerging electronic communications tools.

Soon the most active users of WorkNet were journalists and political activists, who were relieved to have found a quick and easy way to get information into and out of the country. For SANGONeT, this meant that, from its beginnings, it was rooted in and governed by the organisations and community it aimed to serve. WorkNet changed its name to SANGONeT - Southern African Nongovernmental Organisation Network - in 1993 in response to the changing profile of its users, now mostly NGOs, and its growing links with development organisations throughout the Southern Africa region.

At that time, SANGONeT formed a partnership with the Development Resources Centre (DRC), an NGO established in 1991 to provide a platform for information and debate for South African organisations as they began to focus on reconstruction and development rather than resistance. Through the DRC, SANGONeT established its two most significant and enduring partnerships with donor agencies: the Ford Foundation and the C S Mott Foundation.

SANGONeT changed its technology several times, a feature which was common to all the pioneering NGO networks in Africa, and which did not make life easier for users. Through support from Poptel, GreenNet and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), it was able to move first to MajorBBS and later to a UNIX operating system, which increased its capacity and enabled users around South Africa to connect through local calls. This process brought APC pioneer Mike Jensen back to his home country, South Africa. The technical development work he did on the WorkNet system included installing a Fidonet gateway, which enabled SANGONeT to provide connectivity services to neighboring countries. Mike had previously enabled the UK APC member, GreenNet, to provide this service to several other networks throughout Africa. This transition to UNIX - which preceded that of other NGO service providers in Africa - enabled SANGONeT to become the second network in South Africa to link to the Internet (in 1993), and the first to use a Web site to publish content (in 1994).

SANGONeT formed regional links early on through a relationship with the Harare-based Ecumenical Documentation and Information Centre for Eastern and Southern Africa (EDICESA). At that time, I was seconded by the South African Council of Churches to EDICESA to work on a project to link human rights NGOs and World Council of Churches affiliates in the region in an information-sharing network. The goal was to establish South-South exchange and engage regional organisations in the struggle in South Africa.

Part of my brief at EDICESA was to organize training in documentation techniques in collaboration with the Rome-based International Documentation Centre (IDOC); these workshops focused on the use of ICT in documentation work. In December 1987, IDOC arranged for a Dutch Interdoc member to come to Zimbabwe to demonstrate the use of modems and e-mail. Subsequently, we included e-mail and modem training in all our workshops. We supplied our group with modems and, astonishingly, at least 5% managed to stay connected using long distance modem-to-modem connections until, by the early 1990s, they could use the far easier and cheaper Fidonet networks established with support from the Economic Commission for Africa, IDRC and APC.

EDICESA, along with Africa Information Afrique (AIA) and the Southern African Research and Development Centre (SARDC), facilitated the establishment of a Zimbabwean NGO service provider, Microcomputer Access for Non-Governmental Organisations (MANGO), with support from IDRC and the APC members in Canada and the United Kingdom, WebNetworks and GreenNet. To this day, MANGO uses Fidonet to provide low-cost e-mail services to more than a thousand users in Zimbabwe. According to Jim Holland, MANGO’s coordinator, many Zimbabwean NGOs actually prefer this basic service to more expensive and cumbersome full Internet packages.

SANGONeT (which was still called WorkNet at the time) offered services that ranged from basic e-mail and bulletin boards in the late 1980s to online discussion and content services in the early 1990s. Through support received from the Ford Foundation in 1993, SANGONeT was able to develop ICT training as a core service, and has continued to expand the quality and variety of its training. In 1998, also with support from Ford, SANGONeT launched Women’sNet, an information and capacity-building initiative by and for women. It has just launched another content initiative, Africa Pulse, a regional development information portal.

SANGONeT has been a remarkable success. Key contributing factors to this success include:

Continuity of governance: SANGONeT’s governing body has been chaired for more than a decade by the same person: Taffy Adler. Other Board members have also had long-term connections to the organisation.

Continuity and diversity among staff: Simone Shall, who currently coordinates user services, has been with SANGONeT since 1987, and Fatima Bhyat, currently a technical consultant, has been with the organisation since 1992. My own tenure as SANGONeT’s Executive Director lasted for seven years. Having a core of senior and long-serving staff has helped to preserve institutional memory and integrate learning. At the same time, “new blood” has added innovation and diversity. Many non-South Africans have spent time working with SANGONeT, contributing international perspectives that inform regional and local work.

Ongoing responsible donor support: While SANGONeT has always generated income and, between 1996 and 1998, recovered around 75% of its expenses from earned income, it has also enjoyed long-term support from the Ford and Mott foundations. In the late 1990s, it established a relationship with IDRC, which commissioned work on a number of projects. Earning income provided SANGONeT with a degree of financial independence, while long-term relationships with responsible donors provided the security needed to develop and expand within a competitive sector.

Close relationships with the NGO user community: This is perhaps SANGONeT’s strongest feature. The hands-on approach SANGONeT employs in its training and support means that, as user needs have changed, the organisation has been well-positioned to respond with new products and services. The closeness of this relationship is evident in the recollections from SANGONeT staff members that follow in the next section of this chapter.

Constructive engagement with government: An important element of the post-apartheid context has been active engagement between NGOs and government. SANGONeT has worked closely with government at various levels, from training to advocacy and policy development.

Identity as a socially-oriented business: Through a business planning grant from the Ford Foundation in 1995, SANGONeT conducted a market and competitors analysis and developed an understanding of how to link pricing to cost in order to remain viable.

Africa-oriented focus: Over the years, SANGONeT has earned the legitimacy it needed to gain clients from all over the continent and play a leadership role in discussions of ICT, development and gender equity. Exposure to the rest of Africa has helped to make SANGONeT a more mature institution that is able to think and act strategically in international contexts.

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