Lessons From Associations in Africa

By: Mark Athitakis

Concerned about improving membership, nondues revenue, and partnerships? Association professionals in Africa know the feeling. Here are some of the lessons they've learned from running organizations in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. (Titled "The State of the Continent" in the print edition.)

In April, ASAE welcomed a dozen association professionals from across Africa to Washington, DC, where they spent a week exchanging information and experiences with their American colleagues. A handful of the study mission's participants sat in on a roundtable discussion with Associations Now, and it quickly became clear that plenty of sentiments are shared among association leaders on both continents. Concerned about how the economy is affecting your members? Sweating nondues revenue options? Worried about retaining and increasing membership and about how best to connect with members online? Everybody who joined in this conversation knows the feeling.

Some challenges, though, are unique to the associations that took part in the study mission. The International Council of African Museums (AFRICOM), for instance, draws its membership from across the continent, which means there can be a very wide variance in the resources each member has. That brings an additional urgency to build partnerships for training, something AFRICOM Executive Director Rudo Sithole, Ph.D., did when she helped broker an agreement with the Norwegian government to provide educational support in five African countries. "Through that project, we are doing a number of things to help members to build capacity, to network, and to develop exhibitions," she says.

In the case of the Ghana Association of Women Entrepreneurs, education is focused on women who are often poor and unfamiliar with the mechanics of operating a business. "You have to help them throughout with managing their finances, improving the quality of their products, making their business plans," says GAWE President Lucia Quachey. "These are women with very small informal businesses who are trying to become managers, accountants, administrators, marketing managers, everything in one without any training on how to run an enterprise." Moreover, GAWE must support its approximately 2,000 members without expecting dues revenue, as less than a quarter of its members pay dues.

What follows is a sampling of the wide-ranging conversation among the roundtable's five participants.

Associations Now: What are some of the chief concerns at your association?

Lucia Quachey, president, Ghana Association of Women Entrepreneurs: Some of our members operate in divergent sectors, from micro and small enterprises using traditional technology to medium-sized enterprises using modern technology. We put these women together, help them with training, and get them to move from an informal subsistence operation to formal enterprises with the potential to become GAWE members. Eventually, we want them to be able to pay membership dues.

There's too much unfair competition in the market. Products from China and from the Far East are being imported into the country without paying the appropriate taxes, making it impossible for our members to compete locally due to high interest rates. High local taxes mean their finished products are higher in cost than imported Chinese products that are not usually of good quality. Sales are slow, so members can't pay dues even though they benefit from the services GAWE provides. We have [had] many income-generating projects in the pipeline for over 10 years, which cannot be executed due to lack of funding. We are still searching for support to be able to carry out these projects so that we can reduce the pressure on members and focus more on nondues revenue. It is a serious issue for us, how to retain membership and increase membership.

John Isemede, director general, Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines & Agriculture: NACCIMA is a bridge between the private and the public sector. We advocate for a good business environment to be created by government. The input of the association is always considered by government in the formulation of policies and preparation of yearly budget amongst others.

A major concern in the organized private sector in Nigeria is the quality of goods and services either produced locally or imported into the country. We want Africans and the international community to patronize made-in-Nigeria products, so the private sector is encouraged to produce quality products that are competitive in the international markets. Pricing is another issue. We expose members to methods for working out quotes using case studies to determine prices.

Lesley Cornish, board of directors, African Materials Research Society: What we're trying to do is get funds for students to do their research, get a platform so that their research can be published, or push them in the right way for it to get published. We try to get equipment. It's not just students; it's faculty members as well. We're trying to do it within Africa—with help from outside but within Africa. What's happened in the past is that students would go to the United States on some very nice scholarships, and they wouldn't want to [come] back home.

How has the economy affected your association, especially in terms of membership?

Isemede:The downturn in the economy worldwide has greatly affected some of our members, to the point that it is difficult for them to continue in business due to losses incurred. But we also have new members that want to take advantage of the broad network created by the association. Their expectations as new members range from expanding their businesses nationally to internationally. Members expect NACCIMA to mediate and advocate for their businesses in a crisis situation, so the association carries out regular dialogue meetings to enlighten members on acceptable business ethics, procedures, and standards to be maintained, while making them realize the benefit of being a member of the association. Members are not just joining with the hope that the association will do everything for them; it is a participatory relationship between the association and its members.

Nicanor O. Sabula, administrator and programs officer, Association of Professional Societies in East Africa: We are very flexible with our members. Our regulations are such that membership must be paid by the 31st of January. But we were able to leave that open, and membership renewals were being done up until the middle of the year. We are lucky because we don't entirely rely on membership. We have diversified our income sources, and we've been able to subsidize membership activities for those who are unable to participate otherwise. We were able to go out to corporations and bring them on board to subsidize activities for membership.

Rudo Sithole, Ph.D., executive director, International Council of African Museums: Our membership is throughout Africa, which varies a lot from one country to the other. We have a lot of members from countries with better GDPs; we have a lot of members from Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. But in some of the countries where people would want to join, they are not able to pay the $20 individual fee. So it means that we have to find other ways to raise funding for the organization.

In terms of museums in the east African region, Kenya is way, way ahead compared to, for example, Burundi, where you only have maybe two museums in the whole country. So we want to use the stronger country to network with the weaker countries, so that they can exchange skills, information, do things together, and build a strong network of museums within that region. Through [the partnership program with the Norwegian government] we are doing a number of things to help members in the east African countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda to build capacity, to network, and to develop exhibitions.

Where do you look when it comes to nondues revenue?

Cornish: We have a biannual conference, and we were given some donations to set it up from the United States. What we're trying to do now is get input from our government and governments throughout Africa. So far, we haven't been successful, but in South Africa we've had an invitation to put a bid in. We are trying that because our people are academics and students [with limited income].

Isemede: NACCIMA does not take money from government. We survive on subscriptions from members and donations. We also approach members and nonmembers to sponsor programs organized by the association. We do partner with government agencies to organize enlightenment programs for our members in areas where government as lawmakers have expertise.

Sabula: I think for us, we learned that governments can be a very good partner in terms of offering support for our activities. The reality is that many associations, at least in Kenya, have agreed and decided to walk hand in hand with government in order to be able to explore the opportunities of working with government.

We realize that we are unable to host international conferences on our own because of our limited resources. Many associations are now partnering with government, because governments are able to support the bidding processes for purposes of hosting a huge international conference. They created great opportunities not only for marketing and showcasing what they do but also for generating income for associations, because if you host one international conference for 800 or 1,000 participants, you make money out of it. There's a reality about revenue, apart from also getting the opportunity to market and get your association known. So when we realized that, we agreed to partner and work with government.

Also, we have knowledge, we create knowledge, and we have expertise. And we realize that government and other agencies require this knowledge. So we contribute to policy issues, we contribute to papers, and we generate knowledge and then sell this knowledge to government agencies and anybody else that's interested in it. We've started a consultancy wing within the association, and we want to purely run it as a business so that we generate knowledge and sell it at market price. For us, this should be able to significantly substitute for membership income.

By the way, our membership revenues are something like one or two percent of our annual budget. We've gone out and invited companies to come and advertise on our website. We find associations with websites and invite insurance companies or industry-related companies to come and support us online in one way or the other. Diversification is survival.

Associations around the world are doing more with the web, social media, and mobile phones to connect with members. How has that worked in your organizations?

Quachey: The most significant thing that's happened in terms of improving communication is the mobile phone. More than 60 percent of people in the villages in Ghana have a mobile phone, and 90 percent of people in the cities in Ghana have more than one mobile phone. You can communicate easily with everybody countrywide. That has completely thrown away government telecommunication structures. [Landlines] are now white elephants; they don't work. The cable is cut and stolen, but nobody cares about that anymore. Everybody is now concentrated on mobile phones. So we send text messages to our members now, send text messages for meetings or to tell them about available opportunities they need to take advantage of. For those who cannot come to meetings, we request they text back their opinion on issues at stake, so you get consensus on issues.

The internet is also a very good communication tool. Unfortunately, the challenge we have with the internet is that not everybody can afford a computer or pay to get a server to be online. E-commerce is the fastest way to do business in the world today, and those who have access to it do business better than those who don't have it. But we are being held back because that technology is not easily affordable even though it is accessible. One of the projects we are trying to put in place is to have some 20 to 30 computers in the office for use by members for their online business activities and at the same time train those without email addresses to get online.

Sabula: I was at a conference recently where a speaker said that, in Kenya now, 80 percent of local transactions are done by mobile phone. People can pay their dues, they can pay for their conferences, they can do any transaction through their mobile phone. It's not very expensive: [Mobile providers] will charge you what the bank charges you for doing that. So we are able to do that.

When I started using social media, people looked at me and said, "You are crazy. These are serious professionals. They don't do tweeting or whatever those things are that you are talking about." I said, "Trust me for once. If I'm doing mass mobilization for an event like a networking lunch or a breakfast meeting, and I want to bring people together and it is necessary, I'll do it." For those ones who are more traditional, I will also write the email that says, "Dear sir, we wish to invite you ... " We will do that too.

Cornish: There are certain places in Nigeria that have a very, very limited electricity supply. Even in those places that have electricity, it's still very difficult to get web access. We got criticized a year ago: Instead of having a conference, people said, "No, you must have an e-conference." I said, "Well, it's not gonna work." In South Africa we had a speaker [who presented online] from America at a conference and the audio was great—you could hear. But the images were really bad because the bandwidth wasn't the same.

We talk about broadband, but even in South Africa we haven't got it properly yet. We're struggling because of that. I saw a graph earlier this year that was showing the improvement of broadband around the world. As you're looking at it, the rest of the world was going up, and Africa was going up, but at a less steep slope. So as time goes by, we're getting further behind. It's difficult.

Online Extra: More From the African Roundtable Participants

Lucia Qachey on her work with women in Ghana: A practical hands-on approach is what has been helping them. About four times a year we have a bazaar where products women make are presented. We invite people, the embassies, and the donating agencies to come and patronize products made by women. We also arranged to bring them here to the U.S. and other African countries. But after September 11, the level of rejection of people applying for visas is so high that we don't know how we can do business.

We believe we can do more if we get market access. Market access is the biggest challenge. We have been trying to see if the women here, the women over there, women in different fields can use the technology they have and team up to create a win-win situation. Once we have access to markets, the issue of loans will be solved. We want to have an integrated approach of combining market access, access to credit, and quality improvement—everything working as a package.

Rudo Sithole, Ph.D., on membership value: When people look at your organization when you are asking them to join, they want to [know] what is it they are going to benefit from? Traditionally for us it has been the conferences. We have a triannual conference where everybody comes. There is an opportunity for networking on an individual basis. But now within the organization we are putting more trust in building partnerships on behalf of the members as well as bringing in things like training programs, especially to capacity building in African museums.

Nicanor O. Sabula on partnerships: We are part of a regional economic bloc, the East African community, and the opportunity that this regional bloc is bringing us is so intense. We don't necessarily go looking for [government partners]. They look for us. They look for us because they know we are a network, because we know that for them to be seen to be working with the people of East Africa, they must work with organizations that represent the region. Therefore, they come to us and we have been able to create the linkages and partnerships with them.

They are also looking for organizations that can have a regional reach and, therefore, be able to fund or support regional activities for those associations. But we also realize that for us to be able to generate this knowledge and manage it, we needed to go into training and education … . Using the knowledge that you as professionals have, you create opportunities and expand. I think professional associations are realizing that they cannot just sit. They have the knowledge and the skills, so they can make money out of it.

Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Online Extra Video: Getting Young Association Volunteers in Africa

Nicanor O. Sabula, administrator and programs officer at the Association of Professional Societies in East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, talks about challenges that African associations face with getting young volunteers and some of the things his association is doing to encourage their participation.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.