Uganda’s Life in Africa Foundation - expanding the art of the possible
1 September 2000
Not all websites start out trying to hit a market. Some just find themselves filling a need and in doing so define new markets. In this issue we interview Christina Jordan of the Life in Africa Foundation about its work and how she’s used the internet to expand the boundaries of what might be possible. Using some of the lessons learnt, Life in Africa has launched the AfriPromote! initiative to help African web site creators promote the use of their sites.
How did the Life in Africa Foundation (LiA) start?
Spontaneous Combustion! I started writing letters to family and friends in the US and Europe about my life, and the lives of people I met after we moved to Uganda (from Belgium) in late 1998. By January, the letters had acquired a "following" as they were forwarded to people I didn’t know, who requested to be put on the mailing list. I had written about microfinance, and when the occasion came that my husband and I planned to personally extend a small loan to someone I had written about, contributions arrived. I decided to put the well-wishers on hold, and begin to build upon the formula I’d stumbled upon by founding The Life in Africa Foundation.
What is it?
http://LifeInAfrica.com/ is a cultural entertainment site targeted at an international audience, which is dedicated to promoting a more positive kind of message about Africa than is normally portrayed in the international media and to raising funds for microfinance. All of our operations (both online and in our microfinance activities) are entirely volunteer supported. Our web sitecontains over 300 pages of unique cultural content, including human interest stories, poetry, short-stories, recipes, proverbs, art, fashion and images from around the continent. Offline in Uganda, LiA uses funds raised via the internet to finance an innovative program in micro-lending to individuals, in partnership with an established Ugandan microfinance institution.
What are your future plans
Our business model is to eventually generate enough income from the site itself to be able to cover the operational costs of both our internet activities and our microfinance activities. This will entail continued growth and diversity of our outreach and site content, eventually expanding our microfinance activities to other countries, and also becoming a promotional resource center for other culturally content-rich African websites.
What traffic does it attract and from where
We have 3 email publications reaching 1600+ international subscribers that generate regular repeat traffic. We also participate heavily in online communities of various niche markets (women, expatriates, African-oriented), and are listed in all the major search engines (which generate approximately 50% of our site traffic). According to a recent survey, 70% of our visitors are from the US, 15% from Europe, 10% from Africa, and 5% from other parts of the world. We currently average 165 visitors per day, resulting in over 550 daily page views.
What can others learn from your experiences as an NGO using the internet?
It’s important to have a strategy when embarking on any internet venture -- due to the spontaneous origins of The Life in Africa Foundation, we did not have a clearly defined strategy when we started and it has hurt us. It’s also important not to underestimate the work involved in promoting a website on the Internet—"Build it and they will come" is an axiom which does not hold true in cyberspace. This is one reason we’ve decided to launch AfriPromote! <http://LifeInAfrica.com/AfriPromote/>, which is the beginning stages of a resource center to assist other Africa-oriented sites in learning some of the promotional lessons we have learned.
How’s the AfriPromote! initiative shaping up?
The AfriPromote! Free Banner Exchange got off to a slow start in late October. However, the past two weeks have seen many new banners enroll. There are now 18 banners rotating on the Africa-focused exchange, representing 10 websites and 15 varieties of Africa-related content. Though the number of participants is still relatively low, the exposure for all of these sites has been tremendous already - in total, the AfriPromote! banners have been viewed over 23,000 times already. Most are receiving an average 2% - 2.5% clickthrough rate so far. There is a page with all of the participants that can be found at:
How have you found doing business on the internet in Africa?
Doing business effectively on the internet means spending a lot of time online - which can be quite costly in Africa. Though it was a heavy investment, we have acquired wireless equipment which enables us to spend unlimited time online for a flat fee, and have more than one person online (via a LAN network) at a time. This has greatly increased our small organization’s efficient use of both financial and human resources. Within a few short months, the investment in wireless has already paid for itself.
How has fundraising on the internet worked?
Being entirely internet-based puts The Life in Africa Foundation at a distinct disadvantage with regard to fundraising until global consumer confidence in the internet increases, and people become more comfortable with the concept of e-philanthropy. On the other hand, due to our physical location, the internet remains one of the least expensive forms of fundraising there is. Moreover, via the internet we are able to provide a level of transparency to donors which would otherwise be impossible, thereby making "giving" a different kind of experience than most donors have experienced before. Our unique online donor report tracks the specific impact of each contributor’s funds, by linking donors to borrowers, and publishing the stories of how they are using their loans.
What are the main obstacles to the growth of the internet in Uganda and Africa more generally and how they might be overcome?
One of the most difficult parts of setting up LifeInAfrica.com was finding ways to enable e-commerce possibilities. Not only is accepting credit cards securely a very expensive process, but it’s difficult to be approved without some kind of financial set-up in the US. A lot of work needs to be done in Africa in order to make it possible for more businesses to do business and collect payments online.
Another constraint to growth has been the difficulties in finding qualified human resources locally who can effectively contribute to website development and promotion. In Uganda, this is changing, but there tends to be far too little networking and sharing of resources between Ugandan organizations on the internet, since many of us started out quite alone in our endeavors.
News Update is a free e-letter produced by Balancing Act that covers African internet content and infrastructure developments, It goes out to government, the private sector, education and NGOs. To subscribe, send a message saying "I want to subscribe" to firstname.lastname@example.org