Civic tech in Africa: radiography of the existing landscape
Objectives and motivation: to make the leap from words to actions, when it comes to democracy
These civic tech initiatives are often launched because of frustration and dissatisfaction with the perceived gap between the official discourse (on democracy, transparency and the fight against corruption), and the reality on the ground.
All the projects have one thing in common: they offer ordinary people and web users a voice, and they allow that voice to be heard. The use of communication and mobilisation tools is starting a brand-new process of expanding the public space, enabling a new kind of interaction between the executive and ordinary citizens.
The stated objectives of the people we spoke to are focused on deepening and entrenching democratic practices. This involves, in particular, reporting abuse and corruption, and also a form of exemplarity of action, intended to make words coincide with actions.
Organisation and skills: small teams, strong involvement
Whether they are born from an idea by one individual, or by mobilising a small core of people, the civic tech initiatives whose leaders we met, all have one thing in common: they are mainly run by small teams that encapsulate a range of skills.
Usually started by people from an academic background or with considerable professional experience, they often seek to bring together a core of motivated volunteers, within a collective, before moving on to a more formal structure, particularly when it comes to sourcing finance.
Each project sets up an organisation whose structure will depend on the age of the project, the extent of the finance available, and finally the number of people actively involved on a full-time basis. Few of the people we spoke to had any prior experience of working with financial backers or implementation agencies.
In the case of Tunisia, we noted that a number of project leaders had international experience (particularly in France). In Tunisia in particular, we also noted the important role of people from the Diaspora.
Laws and regulations ara adapting, the authoritties ara lagging behind
The legislative and regulatory context is leading to a situation of contrasts, between countries where the framework is generally favourable to the development of digital projects - particularly civic tech - and those that do not have any specific answers in this area.
In Kenya, laws that lay the foundations for the development of civic tech projects have been adopted, mainly thanks to the existence of a proposed framework for accessing information. These laws may require, for example, that government bodies disclose information in the public interest, or prepare an annual report giving details of what they have done during the year. Penalties are also imposed on people or authorities who do not provide this information.
In Tunisia, the new constitution and the law on accessing public information provide a framework that is entirely positive for the development of civic tech activities, as was emphasised by the people we spoke to. In particular, Article 32 of the Tunisian Constitution provides that “the State guarantees the right to information and the right of access to information".
Data access systems are still rarely implemented
In Senegal, the authorities' attitude to civic tech initiatives is not very positive.Civic activists who highlight the shortcomings in public policies are regularly suspected of being political opponents. The new digital communications code adopted in June 2018 is concerning to activists and defenders of freedom of expression. They point to a certain vagueness and imprecision about the concept of traffic regulation by the Telecommunications and Postal Regulation Authority (ARTP) and operators.
The activists consider that the new law will give power to the regulator and to the operators to restrict, block, slow down, filter or survey access to WhatsApp, Viber, Messenger, Skype and similar programs.
In Benin, the 2015 law on communications and information established an important legislative framework for the respect of democratic principles and freedom of expression. However, the poor application of laws deprives the country of a stable, permanent framework that would give civic tech initiatives the best chances of developing. The government's plan - which was ultimately aborted - to impose a tax on access to social media, is an indication of this instability.
In all the countries we studied, we also noted that the attitudes of politicians and officials is often out of step with the laws. Data access and transparency systems are only understood and implemented infrequently. The tools used by the administration are a long way from encouraging sharing (low level of digitalisation and where digitalisation does exist, the formats used are of little relevance).
Research into the economic model
Civic tech projects are developed spontaneously, and in most cases are the result of their initiators'frustration. Each project develops its own
spirit, which determines the way it will operate, and guides the actions it takes. But the question of the economic model poses a number of questions.
While some initiatives want to remain charitable, mainly to preserve their freedom, and even limit their ambitions, most project owners we spoke to stated that they want to become professional, to expand the scope of their actions, or to make them permanent. However, this powerful upswing needs human resources and equipment, which the project owners can find it hard to mobilise.
To fund their actions, crowdfunding is often the first avenue they explore. Crowdfunding sites are little used in this context, as the activists prefer WhatsApp or Facebook, and cash payments. While the social networks and messaging apps are more commonly used by their target public, they are not real crowdfunding tools in the true sense of the term. Raising funds through this channel is temporary and informal.
Four main trends emerged with regard to funding:
1. Small-scale volunteer projects driven by one or more people.
The volunteer model is the same one as is used for Elle Citoyenne. The project team fears above all that potential backers would impose restrictions. The three permanent members of the team, and the contributors, all work without any financial consideration.
Winou Etrottoir, there are no backers, as the association is fiercely independent, and is run exclusively by volunteers. The members' contributions allow the association to meet its financial
Save Dakar on donations from the online community. The cleanups of beaches, schools and residential streets in Senegal's capital city are all funded by charitable donations. When the project was launched, Mandione Laye Kébé investigated which kind of economic model would allow the association to operate professionally, by mobilising people on social media.
2. One-off projects benefiting from subsidies from different backers (embassies, NGOs and international organisations), whose work falls within the backers' sphere of activity.
In Benin, 95% of the funding of
Citizens' voices and actions came from the Accountability Project Support Fund (FOSIR) set up by the House of civil society and Swiss Cooperation. The rest of the funds came from the project owner, on an ad-hoc basis.
The Africtivistes movement also relies on donations. However, it is exploring options to fund the work of a small, full-time team within the association. The funds obtained from backers and some embassies only fund the association's projects, not its operational costs.
3. Projects that sell services or promote knowledge.
PolitAgora obtained the funds it needed to launch its work by winning a hackathon with a prize of €3000.This enabled the young team to launch their project during the municipal elections in Tunisia, in spring 2018. To fund itself, the project relies mainly on its reputation, and ability to mobilise people.The team now wants to develop paid services as a start-up, based on the technologies and data it produces.
Écoles du Sénégal, which was launched after winning social or digital enterprise competitions, has now evolved into an incorporated company, with share capital of 6 million CFA francs. Agrifood businesses and high schools are willing to pay for a stand at events organised by the association, which can attract hundreds of students.
Ushahidi has opted for a business model based on fundraising, and on sponsorship from businesses and foundations. Specialist services to support capacity to use the product post-download are also offered. The platform is funded by eight financial backers. All of Ushahidi's Kenyan team is paid.
4. Projects run by large, mainly professional organisations who can respond to complex calls for projects and bear the costs of managing the allocated funds.
To publish its “Présimètre", the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (
WANEP) can rely on funding of up to 90% from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).
The organisation, which relies on a team of almost twenty employees, works on multiple projects funded by various backers.
KICTANet collaborates with local and international organisations and enterprises.
The platform is supported by eight organisations, mainly through donations or funding for specific projects.
Contributions from the private sector and from the local and international members of the platform also allow it to pay its staff.
Narrowing the gap between project owners and international backers
On several occasions, we noted that there was a large gap between the expectations of the project owners, and those of the financial backers from international funds or implementation agencies.
As civic tech is a new world, populated by “beginners" in the field of project management, this is a dynamic, unscripted and as yet informal sector.
For their part, the backers have put in place procedures for the project owners who have more experience in elaborating this type of programme. There can be misunderstandings about the expectations or priorities of one side or the other.
There is a need to reduce this gap, by encouraging exchanges between project owners and backers or agencies, by means of regular meetings, providing training on project management, and on how to respond to calls for tenders or projects.
On their part, backers can be asked to adapt some of their systems to make them more accessible to project owners who are used to working in a digital world where fluidity and speed are the keywords.
Potential performance indicators for civic tech actions
The question of the impact that civic tech initiatives have, beyond their audience, is rarely considered mainly due to the conceptual and methodological complexities of this issue. It is also partly due to the costs involved in dealing with this aspect.
According to several of the project owners we spoke to, data concerning traffic and the volume of interactions on social media take precedence over the real, long-term impact of the projects. “It is difficult, and expensive, to carry out a survey to measure a project's impact. Basically, we rely on the volume of interactions with our posts on social media." Mandione Laye Kébé, photographer and founder of the Save Dakar project
The capacity of social networks to provide audience or engagement statistics is used to measure the impact of the implemented projects. In reality, these indicators are chosen more for their ease of access than because of their actual relevance. In a number of civic tech actions, it is the audience indicators similar to those of the media, which are taken into account.
In Kenya, the volume of downloads and the number of users are the main performance indicators for Ushahidi. There is a similar trend for PesaCheck, which is essentially based on the number of web users on the site.
Anne-Marie Befoune, from Elle citoyenne mentioned that there is a focus on the short-term impact, to the detriment of the long-term benefits and impact of the associations' actions.
Without being restricted to the online audience or social media, some projects use informal indicators to evaluate the effectiveness of their work. “ The fact that the Tunisian government involves the Cartocitoyenne project in workshops with the authorities and civil society regarding the implementation of the law on data access might be an indicator, although a very informal one", commented Khalil Teber from Fondation Rosa Luxemburg, the project's main financial backer.
Winou Etrottoir has different impact data. The Tunisian association gives a label to the candidates in the municipal elections, and relies on the number of labelled candidates who are elected. “ In the municipal results, we noted that Winou Etrottoir has had an impact. We gave candidates the possibility of running, and for some of them, of being elected", was the enthusiastic comment from Rafik Al Falah, Secretary General of the association, which has transitioned from civic action to political action.
Women's places still limited
We did not find any more women involved in civic tech projects than in other areas of activity, digital or non-digital. In Benin, Senegal and Tunisia, we did encounter women, but mostly in projects linked to health or environmental issues, for example. There were few women in other areas of action.
“ Men and women have the same energy, but often the subjects they deal with are different", remarked Florent Youzan, an activist who works to defend open source, and who is currently the Director of Société Générale's Innovation Lab in Africa.
When asked about the low female numbers, the men and women we spoke to indicated that women were reluctant to take the step into entrepreneurship, and to formalise their ventures.
Kenya is an exception, to the extent that we noted that parity does exist: we found just as many women as men in civic tech projects, even though the women appeared to be slightly less represented when it came to speaking publicly and taking centre stage.
Issues of transfer between young people and veterans in civic tech
The first initiatives in civic tech on the African continent date back around a dozen years. The pioneers, then aged 25-30, are now in the 35-40 age bracket and are capitalising on their experience with civic mobilisation and the management of digital projects.
The question of how to transfer knowledge between the veterans of civic tech and the younger generations arises because the mobilisation of young adults who engage in these civic projects is often spontaneous.
Angry in the face of the abuses of corruption or the lack of consultation of the public in political decisions, young people often have no method to attack these problems. This sometimes leads them to target political figures individually, rather than the system that allowed the abusive practices to emerge.
The issue of training appears to be key, in facilitating the sharing of experience between the veterans and the young activists, for example mentorship schemes have been launched in Kenya and could be deployed in the other countries, particularly for the bloggers' associations.
Hindrances and obstacles to the development of civic tech
“Finally, what do you think is missing?"
This is the question we asked all of the people we spoke to, in order to identify the main hindrances and obstacles to the development of civic tech in their countries. There are various types of hindrances. The first is the capacity to mobilise the public, and to involve them in projects launched in connection with civic tech initiatives.
Convincing the authorities and the political world that these projects are well-founded is another difficulty. At best, bureaucratic rigidity can stifle good intentions; at worst, the owners of these projects are considered to be opponents.
“ Initially, I was 'lynched' on the social networks", remembers Mandione Laye Kébé (Senegal). “People didn't understand the approach, which consisted of photographing the unhealthy condition of the streets. They accused me of tarnishing the image of Dakar. Then, a few days ago, people posted public apologies on Twitter, recognising that they hadn't initially understood the approach. They even suggested taking part in the next city clean-up days".
“The law stipulates that you can write to the decision-makers to request information, but they ignore your questions." Francis Monyango, Kenyan lawyer Bureaucratic rigidity can also stifle good intentions. We have even seen political exploitation taking place, where civic tech players are approached and sometimes even hired by the administrations, in West Africa.
Access to funding is one of the main difficulties pointed out by the project owners. There is also increasingly strong competition between the organisations, in a context in which funds are becoming harder to source.
Finally, the lack of human resources with the skills needed to manage complex projects such as those connected to civic tech, is also mentioned as an impediment to the development of initiatives in this area. “It is not just civic tech, but in general the field of associations and entrepreneurship in Tunisia that lacks even basic skills (replying to an email, knowing how to communicate, using digital devices)" comments Khalil Teber from the Fondation Rosa Luxemburg.
The challenge over the next decade consists of gradually removing these hindrances and obstacles in a way that allows these civic tech initiatives to become firmly rooted in Africa's democratic landscape.