Christina Jordan uses the Internet to build a global community of people committed to Africa and to promote innovations in community development.
The New Idea
People who want to be actively involved in development in Africa have limited choices: they may volunteer at an existing project in Africa or write a check to an aid agency. But Christina introduces a new form of interaction: a global online community that watches, learns about, and supports community development projects in Africa. She has created a virtual marketplace for ideas and opportunities related to African development. This community then becomes her support and investment base for testing innovative development ideas.
By sharing the personal histories and current successes and struggles of Africans, Christina provides an online space for people around the world to learn about Africa;especially through positive stories that tend not to be the focus of the mainstream media. Having engaged people in the online community, Christina then provides them with ways to get involved in the community. She highlights what she sees as good investments, such as the first microenterprise fund entirely publicly supported through the Internet. In this way, Christina guides the community's interests to solving problems with new, simple, replicable ideas.
The "development marketplace" in Africa encompasses a great diversity of programs and addresses needs in agriculture, education, health, human rights, and economic development. But to someone living elsewhere in the world, access to this information on individual initiatives is limited, as are opportunities to be directly involved either as a volunteer or a donor. And because the communication infrastructure in Africa doesn't always allow ease of communication, the Internet hasn't been used to its full potential in terms of bringing in support for Africa, mobilizing resources, or correcting many of the misunderstandings of Africa that people looking in from the outside may have. At least in the international press, the portrait of Africa that emerges is one of a bleak, hopeless continent. Yes, it's true that many social and environmental problems plague Africa. But the global community is eager to learn about the positive innovations, the hopeful steps forward, the tremendous personal histories of the continent's people. This kind of media coverage, and the deep understanding of the people it brings, is not so readily available now.
Christina sees that to successfully implement development strategies, she must build a community of people who are inspired and empowered to be partners in her endeavors. She reaches this community through her website and listserv, both of which share stories and information on Africa. The site invites people in by introducing visitors to the lives of interesting individuals who are breaking the cycle of poverty. Christina is growing this cultural resource dimension of her website by signing on writers who have volunteered to write more stories about people in Uganda and in neighboring countries. These stories are featured on the website and distributed in the email newsletter.
Christina feels that it is important to show positive images from a continent often considered mired in poverty, despair, and hopelessness. More than sixteen hundred visitors per week visit her website, www.LifeInAfrica.com. She also publishes an e-mail newsletter that reaches more than two thousand subscribers. The website has been singled out for several website design and content awards. Having drawn visitors to her site and inspired their interest in the people of Africa, Christina focuses their attention on important community initiatives to benefit these people.
Christina's first demonstration of how web-based resources can be leveraged in this way has been in the area of microfinance. In partnership with the Uganda Microfinance Union, Christina set up a loan guarantee program based in significant part on contributions she solicited through her website. She identified groups that have fallen outside the usual parameters of microfinance lending, developed a screening program for applicants, and linked donors to successful applicants. This allows donors to join Christina's organization in tracking each grantee's loan repayment. It is the first African microloan institution to be funded entirely on the Internet through public support. In the last two years, her program has made possible five hundred twenty-eight new loans to over three hundred clients. She also has worked out a system for making housing and education loans to employed laborers without physical collateral. In the next phase of this project, she will look for appropriate partners in neighboring countries to provide the loan guarantee.
She also plans to share her methodology for making housing and education loans with other Ugandan microfinance institutions. In addition, to provide microentrepreneurs with access to a global market, Christina has set up a web-based African Artisan program that brings the power of e-commerce to small-scale African producers at no cost. This program showcases on the LiA website the goods of successful loan applicants and provides buyers the service of online credit card purchases and international shipping. The site advertises the products of artisans sponsored by Life in Africa as well as others from outside the LiA network.
The African Artisan program also shares with buyers, and other visitors to the website, the personal stories of the individual producers. Even as Christina's microfinance initiative spreads across Uganda and into neighboring countries, she is seeking new social ideas that she can highlight in her online community. Two ideas she is working with are growing small business through web presence and providing inexpensive financial intermediary services to allow Africans to send and receive international money transfers through the Internet. While she knows best ideas in microenterprise, she sees that there are creative ideas in other fields, and she wants to adapt those ideas to be accessible to her online community.
Christina grew up in a poor family in California. She worked her way through college and graduate school, where she studied international relations. After graduating, Christina worked as a consultant for UNCTAD and Trans-Tec, a Brussels-based firm with clients in Africa. After two years at Trans-Tec, she left the firm and moved with her husband to Uganda because they had developed a deep commitment to the people of Africa.