Interview with Hon. Neema Lugangira
Hon. Neema Lugangira (MP, Tanzania) speaks with Varoon Bashyakarla to discuss the relationship between online discourse and gender equity in leadership, how the agricultural and nutrition sector are intertwined with technology, and how a girls coding camp in Tanzania convinced a UN office to be more inclusive. The conversation also covers the new African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance (APNIG) of which Neema is the founding chair.
About the Speaker: Hon. Neema Lugangira (MP) is a current member of Parliament in Tanzania, representing NGOs. Neema is also the founder of two NGOS – Agri Thamani, which is dedicated to ending malnutrition in Tanzania, and Omuka Hub, which is focused on digital inclusion in periphery regions of Tanzania. Her passion and commitment to sustainable economic development also led her to be the founding chair of the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance (APNIG) and the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank and IMF - Tanzania Chapter. Learn more about Neema on LinkedIn or connect via Twitter
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Please note that this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Neema, thank you so much for joining. Tell us a little bit about Tanzania and your role in parliament there.
Thank you very much. I'm from Tanzania and Tanzania is in East Africa, one of the most peaceful countries. We have the best, best, best national parks. You can see all kinds of animals here. The highest peak in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, best beaches, and the Zanzibar islands and the best part of it all is we have a female president, Her Excellency President Samia Suluhu Hassan who is doing incredible work. And to top it off, as a parliamentarian, we have a female speaker as well, Honorable Dr. Tulia Ackson. So these are very exciting times in Tanzania.
In terms of my constituency, I'm a special seat member of parliament through the ruling party CCM. My seat is a national seat whereby I represent non-government organizations, NGOs, in parliament. This is a system that CCM has in terms of distributing its special seats to have representatives for regions but also national groups. So we have representatives for people with disabilities, representatives for higher education, for labor/workforce and NGOs.
Very interesting how it's structured and that you occupy special seats in parliament representing NGOs.
I would love to talk about your background, which I understand is in evidence-based policy and advocacy. Prior to serving in parliament you founded two NGOs, one committed to ending malnutrition in Tanzania and another to accelerate digital inclusion in the outskirts of the country. Why were these issues of particular importance to you?
That's a very good question. I come from a region in Tanzania called Kagera, which borders Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. It’s almost two days by road from Dar es Salaam, the commercial city. A few years back, a plane ticket used to cost the same as going to Jo’burg, because of the distance. So prior to starting this NGO I was working in an NGO that was focused on agriculture investment. It was quite shocking for me to find out that the regions that are food baskets, meaning that they produce the most food, are the regions in the southern highlands of Tanzania, but have the highest level malnutrition. So I thought to myself, what? How can that be possible? It triggered me to look at my own region of Kagera, because it's somewhat considered as a learned community. So I said, okay, let me look at my own region. I was absolutely shocked when I found out that Kagera had the highest number of stunted children under age five.
And as a person who's driven by policy coming across this, I was like, wait a minute, something has to be done here. I came to realize that there was a gap: nutrition was being driven from a reactive point of view. Meaning that someone is already stunted so we're trying to fix it. But I tried to step back and say, can we be proactive and prevent this? If we want to be proactive and prevent this, it means we need to do a lot of mass nutrition education that will lead to social behavioral change. So I set up the NGO it’s called Agri Thamani Foundation.
The second NGO is called Omuka Hub. At Agri Thamani, we had gotten a very small amount of funding to do data mapping to look at one of the districts in Kagera. and try to look at which schools were offering school meals. We wanted to use OpenStreetMap. We wanted to see how we could use open data for advocacy and the funding was really small. And we said for sustainability we're gonna work with local government officials and things like that. So on our first day of onboarding, people had their phones and we were trying to get them to download the OSM (OpenStreetMap) apps. Then we get a huge shock. Digital literacy level was below par. People with smartphones did not know how to use them.
You can imagine something which for you and me would be so simple. You should be able to go and download an app. Once you've downloaded an app you should be able to set up your account, you should be able to go out and use it. Then we're like okay, who's gone when they're in the field looking for the data who's paying for the data bundle? So these kind of dynamics on the ground triggered me to look at Tanzania. There is always a lot of talk of digital development, but where is that?
So I started participating in different activities and I came to see that there's a huge gap. A lot of focus is in urban areas and not peripheral, rural areas. I see the huge potential of people there, like in Kagera for example, it was the third largest populated region, as per the previous census. That's a huge market. We are bordering three countries, that's an access to market right there if we can use digital tools. So that's how Omuka Hub came into place. And we're focusing on accelerating digital inclusion in peripheral regions. To make sure that we're not left behind.
What I find so interesting about both of these NGOs is that it seems like through your work, especially given the fact that Omuka Hub came from Agri Thamani, that you view these as interconnected causes. The need for digital literacy and inclusion would assist with the effort to end malnutrition.
You got it exactly right. That's what we're trying to do. Of course it's still the beginning, but our focus right now is to ensure that we create an impact from the little funding we get. Just on Sunday, we finished a week-long girls’ coding camp here in Tanzania and we had a hundred girls.
It's under the Connected African Girls program. I was fortunate I met UNECA the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and I started trying to pitch and say please can you come to Tanzania. Can we do something just as a pilot? And thankfully we were able to get that opportunity where the girls learned different kinds of robotic animation and all of those things. And it was incredible! We had a hundred girls and we made sure that we were inclusive so fifty percent were girls with visual impairments and we had girls who were deaf.
The girls had an innovation fair of the things that they had innovated and came up with after the training. Our Honorable Minister responsible for ICT was so gobsmacked and shocked to see what the girls were able to deliver in just a week, but also to see what the girls with visual impairment were able to do in just a week. So it was so humbling and exciting to see that because of us, UNECA is now going to change some of its strategies to make sure from now on that coding camps must be inclusive.
What interested you in bridging not just this digital divide, but specifically the digital gender gap? How does this challenge present itself in Tanzania?
There's already a gender gap in development. I can probably zoom into the issue of making sure the online environment is enabling for women to take part in it. I'll give you two examples. The first one is, as a man, you can have an online business selling lingerie and you’ll probably get claps and cheers. But if I, as a woman, am selling lingerie and post it online, I'm probably gonna be faced with sexist-related abuse and comments. Which will then make me take a step back. That stepping back is the digital divide.
On the other point, the majority of women conduct their businesses in the informal sector, but digital skills and literacy are usually more focused on the formal sector. So those are the kind of things that we need to consider.
But now, the third one, which is more relevant to myself, is that to bridge the digital gender gap, you need more female leaders online. But right now the online environment for women leaders and women in politics is horrific. What happens is, people don't know how to critique on the issue, so when they don't have an agenda, they shift from the agenda to the gender.
You could be a male member of parliament, and you've posted that you're in a certain meeting and maybe you made a certain contribution. And if you get nasty comments, they will be about what you said. Whereas I as a female Parliamentarian, I will make similar posts to yours, but the comments and critiques against me will be sexualised. They will be totally not related to the issue, not related to the agenda. But it is now transformed into the gender. And this is a weapon that a few are using to kind of shut up women leaders.
I am of the opinion that you should not use your freedom of speech or your freedom of expression to make me not able to use my freedom of speech and my freedom of expression. This is a problem across the board with women in politics. In Tanzania we have 143 female members of parliament, and those that are active online will post but not engage because of the abuse. I'm particularly grateful to the African Union because in early August they made a resolution to declare digital violence on women as an issue.
Even if we invest and put efforts into digital literacy and digital skills, all of those things don’t improve if we don't improve the online environment. We're still going to hit that block, because people are going to be skilled but they're gonna be scared to come online. And if they cannot come online, then what?
You're very active on social media which is clearly – or perhaps I'm assuming here – a little bit useful for you, but also a very fraught place for women in the public eye.
There are times when you get mob trolled, mob attacked just because a certain group cannot deal and handle the issue you've raised and they don't want to critique using the issue. So to try and dilute the severity of the issue you've raised, they bring in these sexualised comments like, ah you just got there by removing your skirt. You know for a female leader, that's not a small thing. It has a huge ripple effect. And that's why you find women who say, you know what, I don't want to put myself through it. And rightly so. But the few of us have to stick at it and try to stand up so that we can make sure that we can create an environment where women leaders can feel safe to be online.
As it is in leadership, the representation of women is lower, so we need to attract more women to come into leadership. So imagine a young girl aspiring to be a leader and they see Neema is a member of parliament, but look at how she's being thrashed and there's nothing she can do. Do you think that girl would want to get into politics? Do you think that girl would want to be a leader?
I want to talk a little bit about this challenge of the Internet being used as a political tool of sorts. It was reported quite widely that in the weeks ahead of the most recent federal elections in Tanzania in October 2020, the Tanzanian communications regulatory authority cracked down on media across the country. For example, TV and radio stations were suspended, social media including Twitter, Whatsapp, Facebook, and Instagram were blocked. Bulk SMS and voice messages were blocked. Text messages [allegedly] containing Tundu or Lissu the first and last names of the opposition presidential candidate were also blocked.
So it seems like the challenge here is not just the hate speech, the trolling, the vitriol online, but also the way in which access to the Internet is being selectively turned on and off at politically convenient times.
What do you make of the risks and the opportunities presented to you as a voter yourself, as a parliamentarian, as a woman? Taking a step back from all of these interconnected dynamics, what do you make of the risks and opportunities presented to you and what are the changes you'd like to see?
First of all, what I would like to say is that often times not everything that is communicated to, let's say, the global world is as it is on the ground. Communication can also be framed and structured depending upon what you envisage the receiving part wants to hear. So what is said is not always the reality. Because some of the things that you mentioned were actually not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that that was the case. I'm not able to comment on those for that particular reason.
But what I can say is that our president, Her Excellency President Samia Suluhu Hassan, has proven, first of all, to walk her talk in the sense of being a highly democratic, driven leader of our country in making sure that you know the civic space is able to do what the civic space does. And giving press the opportunity to do their work etc, etc.
So we're very fortunate in the sense that if it's political will, we have a strong political will in terms of making sure that there is access to information and freedom of expression in that sense. And I'm sure even if you are to do your own research to that effect, you will find that it is indeed the case right now here in Tanzania.
Now when it comes to what do I feel should change... First of all, I can talk about the opportunities. As a politician, you cannot avoid social media. Social media enables me to not only reach the people who voted for me but also to reach more people across the country, just at the flick of a finger. If social media is used right the opportunities are enormous. Look at what what we're doing right now. Would we be able to do this without these platforms? Probably not.
So the opportunity is enormous, but the question is, how are we using social media? And I think you would agree with me that the digital sector is one of the few if not the only sector that has developed over the years without being properly governed by policy and regulation. This is why you find in the last decade or so from the developed world to the developing world, governments are now rushing to say, hang on, we need to govern this sector. Because it is a sector which has developed for so many years without being governed.
Obviously when any government tries to introduce any form of governing, there will be a reaction. And most likely will not be a positive reaction because we are already used to working in a certain way. But if you look at the enormity of digital development, there are so many opportunities and the risks of what can be done in terms of manipulation. The sector has to be governed. Now comes the most important part, because the sector has been developing on its own, it means that it has been developing in a silo, totally not engaging those who are at the forefront of creating that legislative platform - the parliamentarians.
So now as we are rushing to create the policies, legislation, regulations to govern this sector what happens is, I as a Parliamentarian will be creating a law, a policy, a regulation, whilst I have not had the opportunity to be engaged by the sector. Because on the other hand, the tech sector feels that, “You know what, this is tech, it's so complicated, these politicians are not going to get it.” So they push on the side. But they don't realize that it is these politicians who are going to create the policies that will govern you. So we must find a way to bridge this gap and bring these two groups together so that we can result into what I said earlier – enabling environment for this sector to thrive.
And this is what triggered me to initiate setting up the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance, to ensure that as African parliamentarians we should have a say in how digital development is taking place on our continent. When we're creating the law, we should be part of it from the beginning.
I’m thinking about the work of some academic political scientists, particularly in the US, who have been describing a challenge with respect to governance, but one that manifested itself differently in other regions. In these cases, it was studied that many of the major tech platforms had made their products and services available to political candidates. The logic here was that they can build a relationship with one another, provide services to them to help them get elected. But then what happens is that after their candidate gets elected, these tech companies who helped them land a seat in office, are then advising these now- elected officials about whether or not to regulate the industry. And that's a bit of a conflict of interest in the sense that they helped them get elected and now they're telling them, we think you should hold off on regulating the sector.
What you're saying here is a bit different, which is that it seems like there's a lack of exchange at all to begin with, which is a different type of problem.
The same way that the tech sector is providing capacity building to different stakeholder groups like CSOs, NGOs, capacity building should also be placed to policy makers. So that policy makers can make an informed decision on their own. Because right now with the level of abuse that I'm getting, for example, and the level of abuse that I'm seeing other women are getting, the negative impact that it is having on limiting other women in politics to showcase their work and communicate with a wider audience. My immediate thought would be I need to find the most stringent law to to sort this mess out. That would be the most natural thing, right?
But if I'm well informed about the different best practices, about the different options that we can take, the different ways in which we can curb this online abuse and create that enabling environment for women leaders to be online, then you may very well find me going for this second option, because it's the more sustainable option. And this is why I pushed for setting up the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance (APNIG) which was launched at the African Internet Governance Forum in Malawi. Inaugural members were 30 members of parliament from about 20 African countries.
And I got the challenge and honor to be the public chair. I hope I can deliver to the expectations and the deputy chair is a member of parliament from Gambia, Honorable Alhagie Mbow, and the secretary is a member of parliament from Ghana, Honorable Sam George.
Founding chair of the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance, as you said 35 MPs from over 20 countries across the continent, seems like a tremendous opportunity. On the topic of governance, what are the goals for this group and what do you hope comes comes from it? What are the kinds of capacity building that would be of most value?
We put together a communique and basically in terms of capacity building, we feel that as the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance, the following areas are the areas that we've prioritized: digital and geopolitics digital economy, legislation for an open and un-fragmented internet, Africa Union digital transformation strategy for Africa, and Africa Union Data Policy Framework; issues of data protection, digital rights, digital space legislation, issues of cyber security and cyber crimes, artificial intelligence. Digital taxation and revenue sharing, and of course, as politicians, digital for democracy. So those are the areas that we have put together that we want to prioritize.
But we also want to be able to create policy dialogue and exchange between ourselves as African parliamentarians and our counterparts, like EU members of parliament, UK MPs, Belgium, Germany, France, US senators, etc. Because what we have learned is that the parliaments in the developed countries pass laws and strategies and funding structures that naturally impact Africa. But our counterparts are making those decisions not necessarily being informed by people on the ground. The best people on the ground to inform them is us, fellow parliamentarians. So we want to be able to create that synergy between ourselves so that we can learn from them, but they can also learn from us.
And the other thing is to create policy dialogues between stakeholders. Because digital development is multi-sector and multi-stakeholder. For so long it has been solely driven as tech. But, I gave you an example earlier on, nutrition and agriculture that's not purely tech. That's a different sector. How do you bring in that sector to tech? So, to also create those policy dialogues that will be multi-sector and multi-stakeholder. That is the gap that we want to bridge.
As parliamentarians can we work together rather than in silos? Because a decision that is made by EU members of parliament in the EU parliament would naturally have an impact on how EU member states do their foreign policy and their foreign funding. Which automatically would have an impact on Africa.
Listening to you just now reminded me a lot of the discussion that was moderated with Shoshana Zuboff at the Africa Law Tech Festival in Nairobi, she wrote “Surveillance Capitalism” and during this discussion she said that the African continent has the opportunity to learn from a lot of the mistakes that North America and Europe have made in Internet policy and regulation and that as more of the African continent comes online, there's a chance to learn from these mistakes and to do it better.
We were talking earlier about hate speech and trolling and the vitriol online. Clearly there's room to do things better. What lessons do you want to not see repeated in Tanzania as more people start getting online?
I think one of the biggest lessons I can say – and this is across the continent, across the African continent – is the issue of digital taxation and revenue sharing. That is a key area of interest because we've seen how EU countries, EU member states, have been struggling with this issue of digital taxation and revenue sharing and we feel that there can be a good learning for us there.
Because as you know Africa is a huge market. So how can we make sure that revenue that is generated from our continent, that we also benefit from that revenue, either through taxation or through revenue sharing. Now for us to know which path to take and how to take it, that's where the capacity building comes in to play. So I think this is definitely one of the biggest lessons, which we need to move very quickly on because laws don't work backwards, they work forwards. So we need to catch up on that, but to catch up on that we need to be sensitive to ensure that we're well informed on what we're trying to do.
We also must work with social media, multinational tech companies, to make sure that in their designs they accommodate issues that can lead to digital violence. For example, when I report an abuse on an online platform, that abuse is in Kiswahili, our national language. I try as much as possible to translate it into English, but maybe the person on the other side sees that, actually this person has not broken any of these laws. But you're looking at what the person said and in the context of Kiswahili and you're like, this person has violated all kind of rules written and unwritten. So there's those issues that we need to discuss. There needs to be that human consideration and having the right interpretation. For example, I can say “you know what, VB, you’re total garbage, you’re total garbage, total rubbish.” And from a Western perspective that may not be such a huge insult. But if I say its in Kiswahili, that's a huge insult. But if you do a direct translation, it means garbage. So we need to be mindful of the different cultures, languages, etc. So I think that's another angle where there's still some work that needs needs to be done.
Finally, I think an area that we can learn is the link between digital artificial intelligence politics and democracy. You know, this is an area that we can also learn from from the West in the Global South to try and see how can we leap frog on what they did well and avoid what they did not do well. Because we're not there yet. That's what we're getting into.
Earlier in your career you were working and running these NGOs that were working on digital inclusion and malnutrition. I'm curious to hear your thoughts about that transition, what lessons you've learned so far about tackling these issues through those respective means. What's it like working on these issues through an NGO versus as an official government representative? Each has its own respective strengths and inherent abilities.
Firstly, I wouldn't say I'm government representative because parliament is a different arm, so to speak. So as a member of parliament, I'm very fortunate that in my career I've had the opportunity whereby I worked as self-employed, starting up and running a business. Then I worked in an international investment company, in the private sector, that was in Tanzania in the oil and gas sector. Then I worked in government and then I worked in an NGO, but that was in a public-private partnership. So it was working hand in hand with the government and then set up NGOs and then now in parliament.
So I have a kind of interesting mix and background and what I can honestly say is that being a member of parliament, you have a world of opportunities of making change. But it's about how you can structure that change such that you can be impactful.
The first thing that I decided I will certainly work on and touch on and advocate across the board for issues that are relevant for the government, because it's our political party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi which is in power right now. But also represent issues that cut across that are priorities for my party CCM. But I also created my own personal priorities as a member of parliament. I have 5 personal priorities. The first one is nutrition. Basically it's food security and nutrition security. Digital development, second personal priority. Community health, third personal priority. Gender equality and politics, fourth personal priority. And the fifth one is NGO sector development. So what these five say, food security and nutrition. It includes climate change digital development community health gender and quality in politics. There's a lot of NGOs working across those four, so NGO sector development becomes key. Digital development and community health is a way to improve community health. You can do a lot of improving and strengthening our community health system by using digital. So you can see all of these five issues are interconnected. As I’m working through them it doesn't feel that I'm working through them. It's just they're all gelled in together.
I'm a few months short of being two years since becoming a member of parliament. But I'm enjoying it and I'm seeing great opportunity. And I'm very grateful to our Honorable speaker Dr. Tulia Ackson. She gives us female parliamentarians equal opportunity, equal status, equal platform to speak in parliament and advocate our issues. And the government of Tanzania led by her excellency President Samia Suluhu Hassan.
Please note that this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The influence industry is led since 2016 by Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team addressing the pervasive data-driven technologies used by political groups within elections and political campaigns.
This interview was edited by Cassiane Cladis.