How can we involve citizens from remote areas in a digital project?

How can we involve citizens from remote areas in a digital project?

July 29, 2017

Did you know that the majority of citizens who work for the well-being of their community do not realise the importance of their action in terms of development?

Just a few weeks ago, I would have said no. But that was before I went to Possotomé as part of the Citizen Connections project organised by CFI Coopération Médias. Possotomé is located 80 kilometres from Cotonou in Benin.

Staying in a rural area cut off from the internet and cut off from… everything. I have to admit that I did not receive the news with joy since, as everyone around me knows, I'm addicted to Twitter. Moreover, working on a digital project without internet access is hardly ideal.
This is because I'm developing a "Digital project", a video project consisting in presenting, in two‑to‑five‑minute videos, filmed with mobile phones, African citizens working for the well-being of their community through citizen and/or community initiatives. When our trainer Jean-Marc Thiébaut told us that we were going to meet our potential users, the "unconnected" people of the villages around Possotomé, my answer was categorical.

I had agreed to cut myself off from the world in order to play the game, but there was no need to push it. These people were not "potential users" of my product. They did not have the internet and my project essentially relies on social media, the chosen distribution channel. All this would just be a waste of time for me.
But… Jean-Marc did not give up. A programme is a programme and you have to follow it. It was therefore with some reluctance that we travelled to the village of Dekanmé (one of the villages in the district of Possotomé), even though crossing Lake Ahémé in a canoe was a highlight for us.
In the end, the meeting with these "potential users" taught us a great deal.

Jean-Marc Thiébaut, formateur du programme Connexions Citoyennes.Jean-Marc Thiébaut, Citizen Connections programme trainer.

The first lesson was understanding the rejection of citizen action. Yes, it is rejected by most people in Africa. Why? It was in Dekanmé that I finally found the answer. We spoke with a group of around ten men between the ages of 35 and 60.

When Zeyna Ndiaye from Senegal, Osé Coliko from Benin and I asked them if citizen action was common in their environment and if they participated in the development of their community, they all answered in the negative. No. When asked why, they all told us that they didn't get involved in politics. Moreover, not having considerable financial means, it was impossible for them to work for the well-being of their community.
Citizen action is equated with politics, an area regarded as an umbrella over everything that affects the development and well-being of the people. We conducted the interview in a very clean public square and, given the difficulty in accessing the village, the local authority had certainly not provided anything for the salubrity of the village. Zeyna asked who was responsible for the cleanliness of the public spaces. The participants replied that the women created an association and they sweep the village every Saturday.
There was no question of payment, it was just a matter of having a clean village.

Zeyna Ndiaye, Befoune et Awanabi Idrissou, prêtes pour la traversée du lac Ahémé en pirogue.Zeyna Ndiaye, Befoune and Awanabi Idrissou, ready to cross Lake Ahémé in a canoe.

Once we explained to them that this is a citizen act, they understood that they too, at different levels, work for the well-being of their community: among other community activities, the men gather to weed the shores of the lake whenever the grass gets high; they make sure that everyone respects the cleaning work carried out by the women and that no-one leaves behind a mess. Yet this work had no value in their own eyes, as it was not supported by a political project.
It was nothing other than… cleaning.

During the discussion, we were joined by a group of young people with an average age of around 17. We asked them questions about their use of mobile phones and guess what: beyond Cotonou, beyond Possotomé, on the other side of Lake Ahémé, in Dekanmé, young people use the internet (mostly Facebook and WhatsApp) to find out the results of official examinations.
"Responsible" internet use is not just restricted to large towns and cities!

The next day, it was the turn of the people to come to us in Ahémé, a village in Possotomé. There we met Fabien Hounkpe, a young man from Ahouloumé, a village not far from Possotomé. Ahouloumé was the least developed village in the district. Its inhabitants have longed believed in election promises and were awaiting the change of elected representatives. The other villages were developing because the inhabitants of those villages had understood that change would only come from themselves.

Working meeting in the village of Ahémé with residents of the district of Possotomé.

Unable to wait any longer, Eric Hounkpe, Fabien's brother, decided to take matters into his own hands. He gathered young people from his village to discuss the change in the population of Ahouloumé and, as things were taking shape, he created the Facebook group Ahouloumé, the town of my birth. As part of this group, learning support classes are organised for the youngest schoolchildren, as well as cleaning activities. The members of this group also organise cultural activities in order to sustain the traditions of ancient times. Out of concern for the well‑being of their fellow citizens at every level, these Facebookers also organise the "Ogbo football games" for fun and entertainment.
They saw with their own eyes the change their action made to Ahouloumé. And others saw it too.
They were approached by other young people from their village and surrounding villages who suggested forming an association and working together for change. It's silly to say, but I didn't listen to the rest of the story for at least five minutes, so I can't tell it to you. My mind was racing. My project's raison d'être was there, in front of me. Citizen actions by the people for the people. People who take matters into their own hands, who do not or no longer entirely rely on the authorities. Practical solutions for the well-being of the community.

I had to make this action known in one way or another: a community brought together through social media for change. Young people who work together to solve the problems encountered by their community and who themselves become solutions by virtue of their work, work whose only resource is the will to change, work carried out without financial compensation. Quite simply -it's beautiful.

We were deep in discussion when we were joined by three men with an average age of 50: Jules Amoussou‑Kini, Samuel Sossou and Francis Adjahane, who all came from the other side of the lake, from virtually isolated villages. As much as the people who took part in our workshop seemed to understand the point of the internet, these three were very far from giving it any thought.

Les lauréates du programme Connexions Citoyennes Zeyna Ndiaye et Befoune en compagnie de Jules Amoussou-Kini du village de Dékanmé. The winners of the Citizen Connections programme Zeyna Ndiaye and Befoune together with Jules Amoussou-Kini from the village of Dékanmé.

I had with me a prototype for my project. Achille Noussia from Togo, the developer of the CivicBag initiative, had agreed to describe in a short video how and why he was fighting against the use of plastic bags by replacing them with paper bags that he makes himself. We watched the video and talked about it. The participants who, a few hours earlier, had not been part of my target group, nevertheless showed a keen interest.
We all discussed the relevance of Achille's project. Practically all the locals who took part in our workshop are farmers who breed livestock. They raised the fact that plastic bags deplete the earth and kill animals, especially sheep, when they eat them. In their opinion, Achille's project was a useful project, but…
And there, the digital project that I must admit to having dropped many times took on its full meaning. The word "but" changed everything. The "but" was the real reason for my action. This "but" which questions the initiatives presented, which highlights their limitations and which leads to reflection on how to improve the initiative presented to make it more useful.

See also 5 key lessons learned from citizen action in rural areas

But… how are these paper bags made?
Are they durable? What do they cost? Are they affordable?
They have to be affordable if the initiator really wants to make a difference! Is production on a small or industrial scale? How will he meet demand once the bags are used by everyone? How can they, in Benin, get hold of these bags, because they need them! Does he have sufficient manpower? Is he thinking of saving to buy machines or is he counting on financial aid? Is his bag capable of "transporting hot dough"? Paper cannot get wet, so has he thought of other solutions to broaden the scope of his action?

They were not my target. I had not included them in the potential beneficiaries. I had, with a heavy heart, agreed to sacrifice the very people for whom I had started to work in the field of citizen action because of the channel used. The internet. I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless, but thought I was limited in my work by internet access. "I'll find another way to reach them, through other projects." I don't need another project to accomplish the mission that I've set myself. I don't need to make that sacrifice. All I need is to open myself up to the horizons presented to me.
Nothing more, nothing less.

Jules Amoussou-Kini, Samuel Sossou, Francis Adjahane et Norbert Akossi, tous les trois issus de villages isolés de l'autre côté du lac Ahémé. Cette photo a été prise durant le tournage vidéo à propos des initiatives communautaires dans leurs villages.Jules Amoussou-Kini, Samuel Sossou, Francis Adjahane and Norbert Akossi, all from remote villages on the other side of Lake Ahémé. This photo was taken during the video shoot about community initiatives in their villages.

The most interesting thing?
It's when participants turn from targets/beneficiaries into resources for my project. They too hoped that Togolese, Malians, Senegalese, Cameroonians and citizens throughout the world would be inspired by their action to work for the well-being of their community. They too wanted to make a video, like Achille, to talk about their cleaning and weeding activities and share their vision of citizenship. They wanted to make their action for common well-being a model.
Citizens from remote areas such as Dékanmé also deserve to take part in our digital projects. It is a mistake to consider them not to be part of our target group because we think that they do not have means to access our products or that they have nothing to contribute. Just because someone does not have internet access does not mean that they do not exist. We can go to them. We must go to them. Thanks to Jean-Marc, in Possotomé I understood the meaning of the expression "Citizen Connections": it's about connecting citizens, wherever they are, beyond the obstacles that may be presented by the channels chosen.

This article was written by Anne Marie Befoune and published on the blog Elle citoyenne.

Anne-Marie Befoune is from Cameroon and has lived in Senegal, in Dakar, for four years. A freelance translator, she is also a cyberactivist and a member of the Africtivistes network, a group of African cyberactivists working for democracy.
In 2015, she set up Elle citoyenne to promote, educate and inform people about citizens' rights and obligations.
What started out as a blog has now become a participatory platform, on which the people of Africa air their views about their country.