Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The CFAO - an Interview with Cameroon Technology Director, Joël Roux

Thanks to the professional social networking platform, LinkedIn, I connected with Joël Roux, General Director of CFAO Technology Cameroon. Later, during a stay in Douala, I had the pleasure of meeting him in person.
Many of us wonder about the information technology and especially web access capacity of Sub-Saharan Africa. A while back, I wrote about IBM in Africa but was still searching for more in-depth information.
Mr. Roux kindly accepted my request for an interview. Of course, he, also, is bound by his organization's confidentiality clauses, but he offered some additional insight.

Joël Roux in his Douala office
First of all, what is CFAO and its history?
Formerly known as SCOA, the company was founded in 1881 in St. Louis, Senegal. It used to be a trading company  between Africa and France. It was renamed CFAO in 1887.
In the meantime the company grew to be a multinational conglomerate represented in 34 African countries, 7 French overseas territories, Vietnam and Cambodia. Over 12,000 staff members work in 145 operational units. Currently 97% of the capital is held by the Toyota Tsusho Corporation.
CFAO includes several branches: automobile equipment, pharmaceutical products distribution, plastic industries, retails (in a joint venture with Carrefour), and
CFAO Technology.
CFAO Technology covers technology integration, consulting, information services and network management. CFAO Technology Cameroon built several data centers in Cameroon.

Joël Roux's background Mr. Roux started working at CFAO in February 2004 as General Director of the Senegal Technology subsidiary. After two years in Senegal, he spent three years in Ivory Coast, and five years in Algeria. He has been working in Cameroon for the past three years.
Prior to his CFAO positions, he worked at Cisco and Unisys.
Cameroon's Internet access The latest estimates of Cameroon's population state 24 million. 21% accesses the internet (around 5 million people).
Comparatively to other Sub-Saharan French-speaking countries, Senegal's internet access is around 50.7% of a population of 14 million people, and about 30% in Ivory Coast, a country that has a similar GDP to Cameroon. Cameroon appears to be lagging behind, however, in the past five years the percentage doubled. Smartphones are becoming more easily affordable; this fact coupled with better 3G and 4G availability have boosted internet access.
Cameroon currently has four cellphone service providers: Camtel, Orange, MTN, and Nexttel. They cover much of the territory. There are multiple special offers, and prices are getting lower; access is improving thanks to fiber optic lines in the larger cities. All points towards great improvement in digital access.
Information technology and telecommunications should see more rapid improvement, thanks to the above factors, as well as the fact that Cameroon currently boasts good local technical colleges, that will bolster the labor pool in these specialized fields.
The situation in North Africa differs for several reasons:
-  The GDP is higher
-  Internet penetration is 44% in Morocco, 46% in Algeria and in Tunisia
-  Mobile digital access developed faster
- Many call centers serving Sub-Saharan Africa are located in distant countries. In Morocco, however, these centers are increasingly located within its territory.
Ever since smartphone usage became more common, internet access grew along the same curve as the sales of smartphones. All over the world, it is easier to access the internet through a mobile device than via a computer.* In Joël Roux's opinion, mobile telephone access has been the most important factor in Morocco's more rapid growth of information technology and telecommunications in comparison to Sub-Saharan Africa, but there is also the important role played by the Moroccan population's higher purchasing power.
In Cameroon, as elsewhere in the world, cloud storage utilization is becoming increasingly commonplace. Since several years, many banks and other large companies use online services for their information technology. In 2016 we started observing the emergence of Microsoft's Office 365.
Photo by Lars P. via Flickr
"No. 10 is important!" **
To store large data files, it has become more affordable to use online storage systems such as Box, Dropbox, or similar, rather than invest in local servers. As soon as an organization has efficient internet access, it becomes more cost-effective for them to use an on-demand storage service. It must be however noted that some "sensitive" information needs to be stored in-country, such as financial data. In Africa, these data residency laws already exist in Algeria and in Tunisia, and are in preparation in Cameroon, among other countries.
Senegal is already creating local data centers and Cameroon will most probably follow.
CFAO's future
CFAO has been in operation for over 160 years, and has evolved alongside technology and adapted to the reality of each country it is working in and using the most efficient technology possible to improve operations.
Markets are increasingly joining the "shared economy." CFAO Technology will continue to improve its digital tools and resources in order to remain a leader in the fields it covers.
As mentioned above, Central Africa is evolving at a rapid clip. The region's countries are all installing fiber optic lines in order to improve broadband access at a cheaper rate. Cameroon created an Internet Exchange Point (IXP) in order to improve the speed of communications and lessen the distances covered. It was inefficient and illogical for a message going from Douala to a user in Yaounde to go through Europe or the United States. Ever since the IXP was set up, financed by the Cameroonian government, all intra-Cameroonian messages remain in Cameroon; and thanks to improved access and the IXP, cloud storage is much more in use.
It is our hope that local digital providers will continue improving service in the entire territory as well as decreasing consumer costs, so that more and more Cameroonians can access the internet. It is proven that increased internet access encourages economic growth. For many years, current thinking was that better content would drive higher usage of the internet. Joël Roux's personal opinion is that improved, and cheaper, internet access will bring the consequence of more young people creating tools better adapted to local needs.

The future
GDG DevFest Yaoundé 2014.
Photo: Hinault Romaric via Flickr

Joël Roux's comments above demonstrate his optimism relative to the future of the African continent, its young population. The capacity to accelerate development will increase with the tool of online access, that breaks international barriers, and can create unexpected innovation.
The development of information technology must go through improvements in smartphones, which are often more powerful than small computers. Mobile devices are more accessible to the general population, are always connected, and although their storage capabilities are limited, cloud storage offers a remedy.

We now live in an information era that knows no borders, no color, and no religion, offering us the prospect of forming a universal family.

* The situation is similar in low-income neighborhoods in the United States, which is one of the reasons behind the Digital Van program at NY City Housing Authority, as it is difficult to write a resume on a smartphone, to take one example. The vans offer laptop and printer/scanner use and wireless internet access to residents of lower-income New York City communities.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Five English-language novels by African women

These past months, I read five novels, all written in the last ten years by African women from different English-speaking countries/regions.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf Doubleday, 2013)
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (New York Penguin Press, 2013)
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (Penguin Random House, 2016)
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Penguin Random House, 2016)
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)

They were all interesting and engrossing, and cover a large swath of issues, especially the relationship between Africa and the United States of America (more directly in three of the novels).

 Americanah and Ghana Must Go both feature protagonists who live and/or have lived in the United States and in their African home country, in the United States for a long enough time to have enjoyed American success stories. Americanah describes especially well the tensions in the relationships: between Africans from the recent diaspora and African-Americans, between blacks and whites, between African returnees to the "homeland" and those who never left.
Behold the Dreamers, on the other hand, stars an immigrant family yearning for the American dream, and the lengths to which an immigrant will go to hold on to this goal.
Homegoing was one of my personal favorites, although not all may concur with me. It weaves together the story of two branches of a family - one remains in Africa, the other, through slavery, ends up in the United States.
The Book of Memory is the least entwined with the world outside Africa, in this case Zimbabwe. However there are many references to the Western world (which can be confusing, especially towards the beginning of the book); but one of the main leitmotivs is the experience of being an albino in a land where the majority has dark skin.

I thank Dr. Faith Adiele, Professor of African Literature at the California Center for the Arts, for introducing me to several of the books, and on clarifying the academic viewpoint on these novels.

Professor Faith Adiele introducing the author
 Yaa Gyasi at the CCA

The author of Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, autographing
her book at the CCA.
New York Times article: May 8, 2017: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young African Immigrant

Update! Oprah Winfrey selected Behold the Dreamers for her book club.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Professor Mark Dike DeLancey, DePaul University

Professor Mark DeLancey

Mark Dike DeLancey is an Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Director of the Islamic World Studies Program at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois (USA).
He wrote an article within the Cameroon chapter of a soon-to-be-published book about African Architecture (DOM Editions), which is how I heard of him (I had written and compiled information for the chapter). As I got to know him via Facebook, I became curious about his background, as he appeared to have extensive ties to Africa in general and Cameroon in particular, beyond his academic specialty.
Dr. DeLancey was born in South Carolina, USA. His family moved to Cameroon when he was two years old, in 1975. Both mother and father were Professors of African Studies; as Dr. DeLancey recounts it: “They became interested in Africa as a result of being stationed in Buguma for 2 years with the Peace Corps.”  

Sir B.M Okororie with Virginia H. DeLancey,
 Mark W. DeLancey and Mr. Okororie's wife. 
His mother’s doctoral fieldwork was on the relationship between women in the workforce and fertility. One and a half years later, the family moved to Nigeria, where his father taught at the University of Nsukka.
Mark DeLancey received an Igbo middle name from the headmaster of the school where his parents taught, in Buguma, Sir B.M Okororie (who named his own child DeLancey Okororie), and became Mark Dike (Dike meaning "strong or courageous person").

Six months later, the family returned to South Carolina, where Professor DeLancey Senior (the father) was a professor at the University of South Carolina in Government and International Studies.
in 1980, the family moved to Yaoundé (Cameroon) where Dr. DeLancey’s father taught at the University of Yaoundé for a year on a Fulbright grant, before returning again to South Carolina.
In 1985, his parents divorced, and the two younger children (in 1978, a younger sister, Elise Deeqa, was born) lived with their mother in Mogadishu, Somalia, and later in Cairo, Egypt.
After graduating from high school, Dr. DeLancey attended Oberlin College in Ohio, USA, a well-regarded liberal arts college. It was quite the change for him to live in a colder climate, in a small town of 9,000 inhabitants, after living in the teaming metropolis of Cairo, with 12-15 million denizens!
He majored in Combined Studio Art/Art History, after spending another year in Cairo, this time at the American University of Cairo (AUC) studying Arabic and Islamic Art, and taking full advantage of being able to visit the buildings and art he was studying, even speaking with the caretakers! Upon his return to Oberlin, the department chair, seeing the work he had accomplished in Cairo, urged him to continue on the art history path.
At that time, very few people were researching Islamic art in Sub-Saharan Africa (those who were: Rene Bravmann and Labelle Prussin); also Professor DeLancey was eager to find a path back to Cameroon, where Islam is practiced in northern Cameroon and part of West Cameroon.
Harvard was one of the rare schools to have a graduate program, with tenured professors, in both Islamic and African Art. He was accepted at Harvard in 1996 for the PhD program, and it was there that he attended his first African art class.
In 1999 he went to scout out Cameroon research locations, traveling from Maroua to Ngaoundere, and decided that Ngaoundere would be his home base, due to climate and ease of contact.  In late 1999 he did archival research in France, Germany, and Switzerland.  He returned to Cameroon in early January 2000 for a year, living in the Peace Corps house for a few months, until renting a flat in the Quartier Bamoun neighborhood.  His research was focused on the palace at Ngaoundere for the first six months, to attain an in-depth sense of one important palace.  It was also a great place to work due to the presence of the University of Ngaoundere, the only university in the Grand North at the time, and the presence of Ngaoundere-Anthropos; the latter was a joint University of Ngaoundere/University of Tromso research institute.  Important players in this project were Lisbet Holtedahl from Tromso, Eldridge Mohammadou at Maiduguri, and Hamadou Adama and Gilbert Taguem Fah from University of Ngaoundere, amongst others.
It was a complex place to work.  He was at least attuned to life in the north and the concerns of a Lamidat. The last six months he spent traveling almost continuously to 14 palaces, going out for several weeks and then returning home for a few days before heading out again.  He had no vehicle, so all travel was by minibus, bush-taxi, moto, or riding on the tops of lorries. 
Upon returning to Harvard in 2001, he married a fellow student, and had a daughter, Artemis. He completed his PhD in 2004.
His book on palace architecture was published this year: Conquest and Construction, Palace Architecture in Northern Cameroon (Brill, 2016).
Teaching Career
In June 2003 he had his first position teaching art history at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. In 2006 he moved to DePaul in Chicago, which boasts a more research-oriented environment, museums with African art, and colleagues at DePaul, Northwestern, University of Chicago and more. 
Dr. DeLancey teaching at DePaul University

Work in progress
In the past few years Professor DeLancey took an alternate research interest in calligraphy and manuscripts in Mauritania.  This interest came of a chance encounter with professor emeritus of history from the University of Illinois, Charles Stewart, who recently published a two-volume text on Mauritanian manuscripts, which he has worked with for several decades now, but largely as historical documents rather than as aesthetic objects.
Professor DeLancey is also working on an article on the palace of King Njoya, Sultan of the Bamoun (West Cameroon), which he hopes to publish in 2017.

Languages learned
As a child in Yaoundé, Cameroon, Professor DeLancey started learning French at the American School. He started learning Arabic at AUC and continues taking classes on a regular basis to perfect his knowledge of the language. To gain better understanding during his research on North Cameroon palace architecture, he started learning some Adamawa Fulfulde. This language is related to Pulaar, the dialect of Fulfulde spoken in western Africa: as in much of Senegal, Guinea… (Adamawa Fulfulde is grammatically simpler and incorporates much Hausa and Kanuri vocabulary.) He also took an intensive German language class at Harvard in 2001.

And... on his personal relationship with Africa... "It's a part of me from the very beginning ... or I'm a part of it. When I fly into Douala and see all that lush greenery below, I get that same joy anticipation of returning as I do going back to SC. The humidity, smells, sounds, food all trigger that deep sense of belonging."

As a woman married to someone born and raised in Douala, of Duala descent, and having lived there myself for many years, I know that it is not the most lovable city in the world. So this feeling will be much appreciated by the people of Douala, I am sure! 

Watch: A video of Professor DeLancey with his students, at the DePaul Art Museum.

Family photos

His brother Blaine carrying him at Ekona, 
SW Province, Cameroon, c. 1975.

Pr. DeLancey's sister Elise Deeqa Mugabo, her husband Liban Ali Mugabo, their eldest daughter Ayaan Mugabo, youngest daughter Aragsan Mugabo, and brother-in-law Aden Muhire. (Not pictured is their now 1 1/2 year old son Mahad Mugabo.) Ms. Mugabo has an international MBA from University of South Carolina and currently works with with the nonprofit organization PSI, that moved the family to Monrovia where they now live.
Dr. DeLancey with his father Mark Wakeman DeLancey, his Cameroonian stepmother
Rebecca Neh Mbuh, and his youngest sister, Margarette.  

From left to right: Dr. DeLancey, Aragsan, Liban, Mahad, Elise, Ayaan,
mother Virginia DeLancey, and mother's pup Snuffles.