Isolation and Information Famine Stifling Africa’s Growth

by Ellen Tise

President of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) for 2009-2011

Thursday, October 22, 2009
4:00pm in the
Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Room 126

Read the Abstract and Introduction here.

Listen to the Lecture MP3 here.

Lecture Text:

During the scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century, European countries staked claims to virtually every part of the continent to tap into the vast natural resources of Africa. To support their anticipated protracted stay in Africa, the colonial powers, began developing sound infrastructures. Running in tandem with the colonial agenda was the humanism issues and the quest to ‘illuminate the dark continent’ through missionary work for the betterment of the African people. To aid in the ‘illumination’ process,Africans were taught to read the Bible and the Koran. The missionaries had to spread literacy among the converts and create new literature for consumption. However, libraries and reading were alien to communities that had very strong oral communication networks for the sharing of information and knowledge.

The withdrawal of colonial expertise and the relegation of the African content to a status of inferiority flung Africa into the throes of deprivation and poverty. This withdrawal of expertise,against the backdrop of the relegation of African culture and tradition during colonial rule,created a major void which fueled Africa’s downward spiral. The G8 Gleneagles report which states that “Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world that has actually become poorer in the last generation”.

For Africa to break out of this spiral it needs to produce its own knowledge that is relevant to its own educational, entertainment and problem solving needs. However, for Africa to travel down this road, Africa needs ”to study, read, and know itself, to define itself to itself and to the rest of the world, and to see that world through its own eyes and not the warped lenses of others”


Information a contributor to the woes of Africa

Given that reading was alien to Africans and the colonially cultivated demise of the oral tradition, the tool for growth and development, that is, information and knowledge, was clearly absent. This information famine must be considered as the most significant contributor to the woes of Africa. The chasm between the developed world and the African continent with regard to availability and accessibility of information and knowledge has relegated Africa to a position of non-entity in the eyes of the developed world. The interpretation is that information and knowledge emanating from Africa is inferior. This information famine is exacerbated by African authors wishing to publish in international journals in the developed world making African content inaccessible to Africans further isolating Africa from the information and knowledge world. This isolation is compounded by the geographic spread with large sections of the African population living in, rural areas that are geographically isolated because of poor communication and transport systems.

It is an established fact that information and knowledge is crucial for the growth and development of Africa especially within the global economy. In fact, the scarcity of information and knowledge has contributed to growing unemployment and widespread poverty and backlogs in social services such as education and health.

This information famine is a significant contributor to stifling the growth of African countries. Corroborating the detrimental influence of the lack of information and knowledge is the view that, one of the pre-requisites for the alleviation of poverty is equitable access to resources. One of the most fundamental of resources is knowledge and the lack of such a resource will have the totally opposite effect, that is, the growth of poverty and deprivation. The literature supports this view as it reveals that knowledge and information are fundamental pillars for freedom, the exercising of political power, and economic, social and personal development.Therefore, it is imperative that Africa seeks solutions to alleviate the information famine and to integrate Africa into the global economy and as a supplier and user of information and knowledge.


Ubuntu and social capital

A significant positive emanating from Africa is the principle of Ubuntu, a philosophy focusing on people’s allegiances and relations with each other: knowing that he or she belongs to a greater whole and subscribing to the principle that whole is destroyed through selfish behaviour.  This principle of Ubuntu is built on a strong oral communication culture where,  issues are raised, deliberated and resolved as a community though formal and informal meetings.

There is synergy between the principle of Ubuntu and the western concept of social capital.Essentially, social capital refers to the norms and networks that enable people to act collectively, focusing on the sources rather than the consequences. A well developed social capital network and Africa’s large human capital augurs well for the development and growth of the continent. Human capital (which Africa has in abundance) is one of the most important factors that facilitate development and economic growth. The most valuable asset of a knowledge society is its intellectual capital and African governments must therefore invest in its people.

However, there is a need to stimulate this social and human capital onto the path of growth and development. Access to information and knowledge is viewed as the stimulant necessary to link that social and human capital to growth and development. The Indian National Knowledge Commission confirms the fact that libraries play a crucial role “in providing widespread and inclusive access to [information and] knowledge.” The Commission pronounces that a library has to play two distinct roles – to serve as a local centre of information and knowledge, and to be a local gateway to national and global knowledge. LaFond points out that, librarians have a “catalytic role” to play in the development of an information society in Africa. Librarians can make important contributions toward an ethical and democratic information society by empowering citizens to take up and use the resources.


Content that is relevant

As an intermediary for information and knowledge, libraries need to ensure that the information provided is relevant to educate, entertain and resolve local issues. Chan and Costa justifiably ask, “Is it useful for doctors in Nigeria to read about the latest high-tech treatments for infertility published in a western journal when it is not economically feasible to implement these procedures in a cash-strapped public hospital in Nigeria?”. Going hand-in-glove with relevance is the issue of the availability of the resources. Information alone in many cases does not solve problems. The actual resources, to which the information refers, must also be available.

Therefore, it is can be argued that content produced in Africa is potentially of higher relevance than non-African content, but this depends on the mindset of African scholars. There is acknowledgement that research done in Africa does not always meet the international quality standards set by scientific journals. However, there are mitigating circumstances which can be attributed to a variety of reasons, varying from poor education to poor command of English as well as inadequate access to other published research. Therefore, often relevant research done in Africa never gets published and is effectively lost to the global body of knowledge.

As much as it is important for local information to be captured and disseminated as widely as possible, to contribute significantly in Africa, libraries have to play a functional role in information transfer. This transfer must be in a format that supports the fundamental right of people to gain access to relevant information. Libraries have a moral imperative to go beyond the exchange of the written tradition.

To truly accommodate the spoken word and to support relevance, the African library must provide a location and an environment designed to be conducive for an oral information exchange. This oral exchange will address the needs of the illiterates within the community. Du Plessis presents six reasons to support the creation of a space for an oral exchange:

  • There are not enough books to address the needs of the public;
  • Books often are limited to a one-to-one unidirectional transfer. When it comes to information transfer, the African cultural norm supports a bidirectional or multidirectional exchange;
  • A sizeable portion of the population cannot read;
  • The language and context of a book is not always clear to the reader;
  • In the African context, knowledge is often bound to a human context, based on seniority, or on one’s role in society. Book bound knowledge is not equally acceptable; and
  • Books and journals are often dated or do not cover the context, which can be better addressed through an oral exchange.

As much as it is important for libraries to present information that is relevant and in a format that is relevant (that is orally), it is even more important for African libraries to add value to Africa’s own heritage which includes indigenous languages, cultural traditions (folk tales, poetry,songs, dances, etc.) and its indigenous knowledge. Libraries must collect, preserve and organize indigenous knowledge and then make it accessible and available to all.


Indigenous knowledge

As indicated, Africa has a strong oral culture. However, this strong oral culture is on the decline given the systematic process, by the colonial governments to relegate that culture into a status of inferiority and of no value. This allegation is corroborated by authors who states that colonialists systematically dismissed African cultures and indigenous knowledge. Exacerbating the demise of the oral culture is the low preservation rate of the rich cultural heritage of Africa.This low preservation rate must be viewed against the backdrop of an aging population and the potential loss with the death of these elders. Raseroka draws an analogy from the death of these elders indicating that, “in Africa, each time an old person dies, it’s a library that burns down.”

The dominance of Africa’s oral culture is rapidly waning with very little effort to collect,preserve and organize this rich culture. Mchombu says that the one institution most qualified to collect, preserve and organise this rich culture is the library. However, African libraries have found it very difficult to stoop and draw nourishment from their own people and enrich their environment. The traditional public library has failed to effectively reach the potential majority audience with relevant oral information and knowledge. Instead, the libraries have remained aloof and isolated and have been content to serve the minority rather than develop innovative services and form alliances which would have permitted services for both the minority elite and the majority with low levels of education.

The lack of conviction to collect, preserve and organize the rich oral culture contributes to the information famine and compounds the positioning of Africa as a marginal player in the global knowledge flows. This is clearly evident in the disproportionate representation of Africa’s knowledge output at the international arena which is attributed to the ‘evaporation’ of Africa’s historical oral culture.

African national libraries can assume a more diverse developmental role including the collection, preservation and organization of indigenous knowledge, the contribution to the development and appreciation of indigenous languages, the encouragement of the growth of indigenous writing and, the production and distribution of locally produced books especially those with indigenous themes and written in indigenous languages. Assuming that the national libraries accept this responsibility and is successful in this venture, there will be a growth of relevant information and knowledge to educate and entertain local communities and help those communities to resolve their local issues. Such a process will go a long way to addressing the issue of the information famine. Further, the accessibility of indigenous knowledge to the international audience will also contribute to the diminishing of the isolation of the continent.


Scholarship and publishing

Scholarship and publications are crucial factors in the reduction of information famine and the isolation of a continent that has so much to offer in terms of its rich culture and its abundance of resources including the human capital and its natural resources.

As mentioned earlier, the engine room of knowledge production of a country is its academic institutions. The partnership of academic institutions with industry, civil society and governmental organs places it in an advantageous position to generate knowledge to rid the scourges negating the growth and development of the continent. Academic institutions have the capacity to attract collaboration with North American and European researchers which would help break the shackles stifling Africa’s growth and development. African knowledge, supported by affluent American and European researcher infrastructure, is the preferred scenario for the growth of relevant information and knowledge to resolve Africa’s growth and development woes.

However, information and knowledge generated must be published in forums that are accessible to Africans. Studies have shown that research conducted in Africa and published outside the continent were generally not available to African researchers. Authors  point out that ”you do your research study and publish your result in the best journal like Lancet, Nature, and then that is all from your end? And of course those journals are not readily accessible within Africa and therefore the research findings might not be available to those who seek them and they have little impact where it is needed”. The access problem is not limited to journals published outside Africa. Even journals published in Africa have limited circulation in Africa. African universities have difficulty gaining access to scholarly research from neighbouring countries.

Social research output has greater prejudices to overcome as demonstrated by Katebire  when he says that any social research findings on a problem considered too local, too African, or too uninteresting to readers in the West, are not given any priority. Unfortunately, the nature of social research is such that it is dominated by the investigation of local issues.

In the face of the above mentioned challenges, one alternative has been to publish African scholarship locally. However, such an alternative has its own realities. Gray is of the view that the current state of research publication in African countries smacks of a persistent marginalization of African knowledge and scholarship. Gray maintains that African research knowledge is either locked inside international publications that are too expensive for African university libraries and scholars, or is published in local journals that are relegated to the second-rank by a global system that does not value them. Further, African research output is marred by the struggle to effectively disseminate its publications beyond a handful of subscribers.Initiatives such as that of INASP’s African Journals Online project (AJOL) can help to increase the dissemination and accessibility of research output,  . AJOL displays the tables of contents of African journals and provides an article delivery service which is free to African scholars.

In acknowledging Africa’s challenges with regard to limited bandwidth and restrictions on electricity, libraries must vigorously pursue the issue of making African research output available electronically. This innovative publishing forum will allow for a wider dissemination and drastically increase the visibility of African scholarship. Visibility can also be promoted through advanced indexing and abstracting. Libraries must advise and assist in the creation of tools for the indexing and abstracting of African published journals. Further, libraries must strongly advocate for the inclusion of publications in international indexing and abstracting databases.



In as much as technology has the capacity to enhance dissemination, it also has the converse effect of exacerbating the inequality and further marginalizing scientists on the periphery. The internet, or for that matter any technology, as we know does not come without its attendant problems. History has repeatedly shown that technology inevitably enhances existing inequalities especially when limited bandwidth is converged with restrictions on electricity, poor ICT infrastructure and support thereof. The conditioning of not having allows researchers to explore alternative means to acquire material – “nearly having it” is much more frustrating than not having access at all and limits proactive mechanisms to gain access to material.

Again, in acknowledging the challenges, one has to demonstrate a preparedness to harvest the capacity technology offers: sooner rather than later the continent is going ’round the corner’. An example of rounding the corner is the SEACOM cabling project which brings affordable bandwidth via volume discounts. Further, the project brings large bandwidth growth to countries in east Africa,which previously relied entirely on expensive, slower, satellite connections. South Africa,Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Kenya are inter-connected via a protected ring structure on the continent.

The revolution in Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) and the emergence of the Open Systems movement (Open Source and Open Access) have presented opportunities for African institutions to change the publishing landscape to one that suits their needs and affords them a competitive edge in the scholarly world. Katebire states that the various activities and functions associated with publishing can be revolutionalized by the power of the Internet. It must also be borne in mind that open access and institutional repositories are fast becoming the preferred way of disseminating research output.  Given the tremendous proliferation of journals and many of them, especially those published by commercial firms, are out of reach for libraries even in the West, not to mention the poorer countries, African libraries must utilise technology to harvest the myriad of resources that are available. African libraries and researchers must use the same technologies to make their research available to the developed nations as Africa has much to share with the developed world.

Open access is perceived to be a significant contributor to an information society. Open access facilitates the free flow of information which is fundamental to bridging the knowledge gaps between privileged and under-privileged communities. Social inclusion and economic empowerment are also achieved in a society where citizens have universal access to information and knowledge,ranging from public information to specialized or customized information related to ones’profession, vocation or culture. Open access to information and knowledge is a key contribution in provisioning universal access to information and knowledge.

Africa needs to climb onto the open access bandwagon. If it continues to wait to have solutions to all of its challenges, the ‘information access gap’ between the developed countries and the developing countries will widen which will further marginalize the already marginalized African scientists and scholars.

Other positive influences of technology in bridging the gap between the developed and developing worlds, are the number of journals are receiving manuscripts by e-mail, getting them reviewed bye-mail, and so on. Some journals are available only in electronic form. Editors of such international journals now have the opportunity to use referees from developing countries. By the same token African journals can take on a more international flavour by using the technology to solicit reviewers and experts from developed countries and use the same reviewers and experts to publicise research emanating from Africa.

Technology brings with it the capacity to break the isolation and the information famine. It also has the capacity to foster collaboration combining local expertise and content with sound developed world infrastructures. It also provides African researchers with opportunities to share their expertise and unique experiences to address international issues.

Without diminishing the significance of technology to break the isolation and information famine, the current realities dictate a proactive library service that allow for the sharing of information at the most rudimentary levels. As indicated by Raseroka, the characteristics of the population, the majority of whom have low literacy levels, has forced the public library into a position of being peripheral to meeting the community information needs. African public libraries are being forced into a cul-de-sac. There is a need to re-think public libraries in Africa,starting with a thorough understanding of the composition and needs of their clientele.


Re-thinking community libraries in Africa

Public libraries in Africa have failed to deliver what was expected of them. For example,information poverty, as the lack of most basic survival information, still haunts many of the communities as public libraries have not fulfilled their mandate. The dominance of Africa’s oral culture and the inability of a traditional public library to effectively reach the intended audience with relevant information reaffirm[s] the necessity to facilitate the oral sharing of knowledge. This will enhance an information exchange within the community. The public library’s mission should include a commitment to provide support, nurture interest, and facilitate the sharing of wisdom and experience as an oral exchange” – this local mandate was not fulfilled.However, there are new initiatives in the mode of community libraries that have been instituted to play a more realistic and meaningful role in providing information to the community. Raseroka adds that these community libraries focus on empowering local communities.

These community libraries “capitalise on the aspirations of rural communities for self development, and access to education as a method of upliftment of their communities from ignorance of basic life skills”. Education is a means of economic improvement and a possible escape hatch from the shackles binding African rural communities. Bukenya adds that “community libraries were conceived to provide survival information to the community: the kind of information necessary for full and equal participation in society”. These community libraries have been conceived, born and nurtured by the community and reflect the nature and interests of the community in its library services.

There is no debate to the fact that community libraries have delivered on their mandate as there are many examples, as evidence thereof, that are cited in the literature. An example of an alternative library service is the Rural Libraries and Resources Development Programme (RLRDP) of Zimbabwe which was started in 1990.

The libraries which belong to the Programme are based predominantly in primary schools but they are open for use by all members of the community, not only the school children. The Programme uses drama, song and dance to disseminate information, substituting reading, lending and literacy support services. The ownership of the library by the community is reported as one of the strongest factors that guarantee the sustainability of rural libraries in Zimbabwe. The establishment of the RLRDP can be seen as an initiative that has revolutionized the rural library movement in Zimbabwe.

Another of the many success stories is the Camel Library Service in Kenya. This is a mobile community service that uses the ‘camel transport system’. The Kenyan National Library Service adopted the strategy of community participation and involvement to encourage local ownership. This programme reaches out to nomadic communities in its isolated north-eastern region and has proven to be extremely successful.



Libraries in Africa have a substantial role to play in growing the information and knowledge pool and to ensure easy access. LaFond indicates that, together with education, library development in Africa holds hopes for strengthening African scholarship and enhancing democratization and citizen empowerment. For libraries to make such a significant contribution to African scholarship,democratization and empowerment, they must broaden their traditional roles and assume such roles as publishers of information, especially indigenous knowledge which has historically played such a significant role in lifelong learning and cultural development. The public library must become the hub of their communities, providing free, accessible spaces, resources and services for everyone.Libraries have untold opportunities to open channels for the free flow of knowledge and information for the growth and development of the continent.


I thank you for your attention!



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