By WANJOHI KABUKURU, NAIROBI, KENYA – It all began in the Ashanti region, Kumasi in 1957. Little did the little girl then know that she would end up one day effecting major policy changes and influencing information, communications, science and technology decisions all across Africa in her later years and not just in her home country of Ghana?
The little girl from Kumasi is today the go-getter Aidah Opoku-Mensah. Her name and presence are well known within the corridors of governments, civil societies and academia across the continent. It has been a long journey for this former BBC African Service journalist, who is today the Director of the Information Communications Science and Technology Division (ICSTD) at the Addis Ababa-based United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).
“I spent some of my childhood in Ghana and in UK. I undertook my primary and secondary education in UK then returned to Ghana late in my secondary school to complete my secondary schooling. I went and lived in London after University. For many years I worked in London as a freelance journalist working for BBC African Service.” Says Aidah with a mirth donning her tale.
Like most UN bureaucrats Aidah is multilingual. Interestingly for her she speaks the ‘language of East Africa’ Kiswahili. Her Swahili is fluent and devoid of an accent. On any day she would pass as a ‘mwenyeji’ (local) in any East African country. How did she manage?
“While in university I studied linguistics at the University of Ghana and did Swahili proficiency. Then spent a year at the University of Dar es Salaam where I did my Swahili language proficiency program at the Taasisi ya Kiswahili (Institute of Kiswahili).” She tells me this in perfect Swahili.
I first met Aidah in 2004 at the Rhodes University in South Africa’s historic town of Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape Province. We were both attending the Highway Africa conference, an annual congress of African journalists, who mingle for an entire week with New Media scholars, communications academics and ICT industry mandarins to exchange notes on the latest developments on science and technology and its ripple effect on Africa’s newsrooms, general development and the fast-changing face of the continent’s journalism outlook. At the time Aidah was driving the African Information Society Initiative (AISI) Media Awards and was also presenting a paper on how UNECA was lobbying African governments to adopt ICT friendly policies in line with AISI’s framework at the conference. We later met in Accra in 2005 as she organized the African Preparatory Conference for the World Summit on the Information Society and several other ICT forums. It was always difficult to get her for an interview due to her crucial role in all these high-powered meetings.
How comes a lady has found herself at the apex of the continent’s male dominated field? Aidah’s rise has been a long journey of self sacrifice, strategic choices and an in-born belief that Africa is the next frontier of development.
“I worked in the development field for a pretty long time. For some years I was at the Panos Institute, Southern African regional office where I served as director for Southern Africa and helped set up the eastern and Southern Africa office in Lusaka, Zambia.” She says.
She worked in Panos Institute for two years before she moved on to Lagos, Nigeria to work for Ford Foundation. The lessons she picked up while working in these two development agencies.
“When I worked in development I was always struck by the power of technology and its ability to transform lives. I knew technology and proper information were the keys that would transform Africa and drive her development agenda. I have a Masters in Communications Quality and this is a subject I keenly studied and internalized it so as to be able to make it applicable for Africa.” She reveals.
ICTs and their collateral ripple effects is an issue that captivated Aidah and in her graduate studies she concentrated on ICTs and how they contributed in socio-economic and political transformation of communities across the globe.
“The ICT revolution and how it was transforming lives is a subject that I keenly studied. While pursuing my studies and watched it first hand as the director of Panos, I reckoned ICTs were a mandatory empowerment tool for Africa’s development. There were no two ways about it.”
In 2001 she joined the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) a critical UN economic policy think tank on Africa.
“How did you manage to bring politicians, media and civil society together to agree to help the continent embrace ICTs and lobby Africa to put in place ICT-friendly policies?” I ask.
“As UNECA we had a role to play and the only way out was to bring all stakeholders on board. The reason for this is because we believed and still hold on to that belief that if we had to achieve an all-inclusive information society then we had to reach out to all stakeholders and make them bring their various aspects and expertise on board irrespective of their ideologies. Nothing is easy. When we started it was difficult but the concept of the information society and its all inclusive nature has made it imperative that we seek everyone’s support.” She answers.
Though the continent has largely been considered as a ‘digital desert’ owing to the low penetration of the internet in hinterland Africa and its subsequent monopolistic control by the West, Aidah has been at the forefront of Africa’s claim for internet control and its subsequent spin-offs of the info-knowledge societies. At the Geneva 2003 and Tunis 2005 World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) Aidah was at the nerve centre of Africa’s participation in these two critical global summits.
“At the beginning it wasn’t easy bringing everyone on board. We had to assure governments on the need for dialogue with the civil societies, academia and also the private sector. This way we enriched Africa’s participation at the two WSIS Summits but also helped the continent make much-needed reforms in her ICT sector. Right from the moment when African governments through the African Union gave us the mandate to spearhead AISI we knew of the tough task ahead, but we were not scared. We implemented AISI and ensured not a single stakeholder was left behind. The results are there for all to see. Today Africa is the fastest growing market for mobile phones.” She says with a smile.
Indeed the vogue issues of e-learning, e-government, e-health, e-commerce, and e-environment which are no longer alien in Africa all have Aidah’s fingerprints.
“You cannot leave everything to government expecting it to do everything. Governments are too busy delivering on their electoral consent. And the governments know this. That is why the African countries themselves had requested the UNECA to develop a framework for the information society in 1996. This they did by giving us a mandate through Resolution 795 entitled ‘Building Africa’s Information Highway’ of May 1995 where 53 African ministers of social and economic development and planning agreed under the auspices of ECA Conference of Ministers. African governments knew ICTs would have a impact on their economies and wanted to fully understand and grasp it. UNECA formed a high level panel of African ICT experts, who came up with the African Information Society Initiative (AISI) Action Framework. You need stakeholders for the information society who include academia, parliamentarians, civil society, media and even private sector. But to make them come in sync we brought in the media to highlight on such issues and bring out the benefits. We did this because we know the media are key and closer to communities. ” Aidah says.
So how did UNECA rope in all these players?
“We built programmes around media, academia, civil society and specialist groups and parliamentarians. Actually parliamentarians have been ignored for along time yet they are keys to policy implementation and formulation as they pass the necessary laws. That is how we brought them in and incorporated them.” She explains.
Though many African government civil servants are largely looked down upon Aidah has a lot of respect for them and the role they have played in opening up the continent for ICT revolution.
“For this change to happen as rapidly as it has in the continent we must give credit to the African governments who realized that they needed requisite policies to buttress their economic agendas and make use of ICTs in leapfrogging their economies. The democratic dispensation throughout the continent and a highly educated civil service percolating most African governments has helped greatly in allowing the phenomenal growth of ICTs in the continent.” She says.
Aidah who has traveled extensively across the globe is now working to demystify Science and technology and the jargon associated with the subject by mainstreaming it to the development needs of the continent.
“To fully grasp the effect of science and technology and ICT revolution one needs to look at it not from a scientific point of view but as a development concern for Africa. Africa’s sustainability in ICT will depend to a large extent on sound policies. We will have to anchor our development and digital soundness on how they transform lives for the better. The ICT revolution in Africa is both a science and technology revolution on the one hand and a development revolution on the other. It is the information society which gives us the knowledge economies. ICT is an enabler of science and technology and we need to explore that with development in mind.” She says.
Owing to her experience and interaction with the continent, Aidah has her finger on the pulse of the continent. What are her views?
“Africa is busy neglecting in solving its problems by itself scientifically and even politically and as a result we end up borrowing heavily and becoming largely depended on aid at the expense of homegrown solutions. There needs to be a paradigm shift on this approach. It is in Africa’s best interest to invest in science and technology.” She asserts.
With such a glowing revelation and ability to translate science for the common folks in the far flung hamlets of Africa, it is easier to understand why Aidah has not only made a mark in the continent but has been able win the respect and admiration of many across the globe, in her quest to popularize ‘knowledge societies’.
“It is interesting that in all the places that I have been too across the African continent, all I have seen and experienced is nothing but hope. Africa’s hope is beyond measure. When you visit the village markets, see women groups, talk to the youth the message you get is that of strong resilience devoid of despair. It is this hope that African governments need to cash in and harness.” She reveals of her interaction with the continent.
Does she have special memories?
“Yes I do” she mutters as she stares wistfully on the sky blue Nairobi skies.
“The day my eldest son graduated from college. That moment was so fulfilling and I cherish it.”
Any low moments in life?
“Losing my mother. The pillar of my life who gave me character and taught me the values of standing up for what you believed in. I remember when I got the news I was in Malaysia attending the Global Knowledge Partnership (GK3) meeting. I miss her and am grateful for the good she gave me.”
“Reading….oooh yes am a voracious reader. Walking and soft Afro music.”
As we conclude our interview at the Pan Afric Hotel where a high powered Science and technology workshop that has been organized by UNECA and the African Union is taking place I pose. So what is your secret?
“By being myself but most of all, my strongest attribute is that am passionate about my work.” She surmises.
In May this year Aidah will host the entire continent’s top policy makers and scientists under the aegis of Committee on Development Information Science and Technology (CODIST 2). This year’s theme is “Innovation for Africa’s Industrial Revolution” at the United Nations Conference Centre (UNCC) in Addis Ababa.
There you have it. Africa’s unsung ICT icon is an unsung heroine.