A long, long time ago there was a band I quite liked. They were called Latin Quarter and their big song was called ‘Radio Africa’. In the mid-80s a band that actually commented intelligently on current affairs was a bit of a rarity. Duran Duran were in their pomp, chanting ‘Hungry like the wolf’, ‘Rio’ and some other ditties. All this while filming endless videos featuring boats, tropical beaches and suits which, in retrospect, deserved the death penalty or at least a sustained period of hard labour.
Back to Latin Quarter. The lyrics of radio Africa kept repeating the mantra ‘I’m hearing only bad news, on my radio-oh-oh-oh’. And to be honest, there was a lot of truth in the lyrics. Wars in Mozambique, Angola, unrest in South Africa, and famine in many countries. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was still a few years down the road, but the storm clouds were gathering.
Fast forward to 2015, about 30 years on. I’m in Rwanda, of all places. Working on a project focused on female economic empowerment, courtesy of IBM, my employer of many years. On the Corporate Service Corps #IBMCSC Rwanda. I have to confess I thought of the song more than once as I and my colleagues worked to try to find realistic proposals that our sponsors would see as implementable. Our first conversations were centred on ‘what exactly does female economic empowerment look like’? I’m sure there are many definitions we could have referenced but by thinking up our own we felt more engaged. So our homespun version was ‘having more disposable income to improve the lot of herself and her family’, which seemed like a reasonably all-encompassing proposal no matter which economic stratum you started from. But more to the point, what did we come up with?
We produced a comprehensive report with 11 specific recommendations. I don’t intend to list them all hereunder (cue sighs of relief) but I will outline the key ones we identified as having a good chance of success.
- We concluded that the process for females to obtain small business loans to begin to raise themselves up the economic ladder was intimidating for many, overly-complex, slow in terms of decision making and made limited use of ICT tools on the lenders side. This combination reduces the availability of finance. So we recommended an end to end review of the lending methods across all loan-givers, to simplify the requirements, build electronic forms for speed, and ensure that good advice is available free of charge to any women considering this option.
- There is a very well developed co-operative movement in Rwanda. Many of these have a high female representation. But agricultural co-ops can ‘lose out’ by not getting the best market prices for their crops when ripe. We realized that there was already an awareness of this, but success in addressing it has been limited. We suggested a mobile phone based solution that could help female farmers maximise the return on their labours by getting up to date information on what price they could legitimately get for their crops from middle men or end purchasers. This would be made possible by the fact that the price point for simple mobile phones has dropped to be available to all, and coverage is good. So you could get this kind of information in your own (often remote) house, a major benefit.
- There is a developing tourist industry in Rwanda, which may yield more waged employment for females in hotels, restaurants and other associated enterprises. But there is no such thing as an ‘employment office’ and transport links are limited, as is personal ownership of motor vehicles. So this leads to limited information on waged employment, and when combined with the absence of a skills database for women seeking jobs this means that employment opportunities can be missed. We suggested developing a ‘matching program’ for jobs and skills using mobile phones to match both sides of this equation where possible.
- We met with a number of co-operatives during our time in Rwanda and this enabled us to form another recommendation based on our observations. It was clear that the more successful co-ops had strong leadership and a clear game plan, not just for ‘the next crop’ but also slightly longer term, for the next 12-18 months. Also co-ops were experiencing varying levels of success, but there was no clear evidence that the better ones were helping the other ones to adopt the same models. So in effect no sharing of best practices. We suggested that a better integral co-op communications framework and networking among independent entities would be to the benefit of all. And that a study of the more successful co-ops in each sector would identify a framework that could be shared with others to help them, and create a template for new co-ops to thereby get off to a strong start from the outset.
I think you get the picture. More information sharing, using mobile phones for ‘reach’, and deploying templates originated from acknowledged best practices were seen as practical steps that could be implemented quickly and with impact. The rest of the report expanded on these and some ancillary suggestions. We do plan to re-connect with our sponsors after a decent interval to see which of these recommendations they are focusing on, but we’re hopeful that our work will deliver some kind of lasting dividend. I think we’d all say (sincerely) that we have a vested interest now in seeing these initiatives and more implemented. So we’ll be watching the news bulletins coming out of Rwanda with interest.
Maybe for a change we’ll be hearing some good news on Radio Africa.