Home Articles ‘EIS Africa aims to improve use of geospatial and environmental information in...

‘EIS Africa aims to improve use of geospatial and environmental information in Africa’

Sives Govender, EIS Africa, South Africa
Sives Govender
Executive Director, EIS Africa

Established in South Africa during the year 2000, EIS Africa has evolved into a pan African organisation that works to improve the use of geospatial and environmental information in order to enrich policy debate and support decision-making for the well-being of Africa’s people. Sives Govender, Executive Director, reveals the organisation’s objectives, future plans and more…

Please tell us about EIS Africa and its activities.

EIS Africa is a pan African, not-for-profit organisation, which was registered in South Africa during the year 2000. However, the organisation actually emanates from the EIS Programme for sub-Saharan Africa (EIS-SSA), which started during the late 80s and early 90s, where experts from around the world and Africa, in particular, were trying to develop, which was then called the National Environmental Action Plan (NEAPs) to gauge the state of the environment and to measure climate change. This early programme also built a cadre of African expertise in collaboration with the international community.

EIS, which means Environmental Information Systems, functioned long before the days of the formal Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) and looked at ways of capturing Information about natural resources and mapping Africa’s natural assets. The organisation evolved from an informal Advisory Group of experts into a World Bank funded initiative, based in the United States. While the World Bank support stabilised the EIS effort, it was difficult to have an African organisation trying to work locally while being based out of the US.

The late South African, Dave MacDevette, who worked at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) offered to host the Secretariat as a non-profit organisation. South Africa, which had very good financial and legal guidelines, proved to be a viable option to the international community. Thus, EIS-Africa, a network for the co-operative of Environment Information in Africa, was registered in the year 2000.

While the initial role of the EIS Programme was environment, this focus grew to the broader geospatial field and included Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Earth Observation, Remote Sensing, and Photogrammetry. EIS-Africa focussed broadly on the use of Geospatial Science and Technology and the coordination thereof to support sustainable development in Africa. Capacity building, networking, influencing policy strategy and project activities contributed to this broad role.

EIS Africa has over time built strong partnerships with UN agencies such as UNEP, UNECA, FAO and others that deal with African environmental issues. More recently, EIS-Africa has strengthened its partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission in order to support the Mapping Africa for Africa initiative (MAfA) and to build fundamental geospatial datasets.

EIS-Africa is a membership based organisation and provides its members with various benefits including free reciprocal membership to the Association of American Geographers (AAG). EIS-Africa members also get discounted registration rates to its leading conference called AfricaGIS. AfricaGIS was first held in 1993, in Tunis and is a biennial event that aims to bring the world’s best geospatial experts to Africa. The conference is open to private sector, academic institutions, development agencies and Governments to show their wares. AfricaGIS moves around the continent and brings real capacity to some of Africa’s poorest countries. AfricaGIS also encourages the development of local skills in event management as the role of the local organising committee is vital to any successful conference and exhibition.

You said that EIS Africa is a membership based organisation. How many members do you have at present? Does EIS Africa also have a country membership model?

It is difficult to tell you the exact number of members as we are constantly adding to our list of members and many new members joined doing the course of registering for AfricaGIS. Membership is open for individuals and organisations. Members can be elected onto the Board of Directors of EIS-Africa and can be responsible for shaping the organisation’s strategy and daily operations.

We also do a monthly newsletter for our members, which currently goes out to around 120 (54 African) countries across the world and has 6000 unique email addresses registered in its database. The newsletter gives an overview of the geospatial activities in Africa.

At our latest Annual General Meeting in Addis Ababa, we discussed the possibility of having national EIS offices, but as of now, we do not have an in-country model. At present, we only offer individual membership and institutional membership options.

You also talked about EIS Africa’s mandate to bring about policy level changes. How do you do that?

We work with various organisations like the Group on Earth Observation (GEO) and GSDI. With the United Nations agencies such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, we have had a group called the Committee on Development for Information, Science and Technology (CODIST). EIS-Africa plays a key role on technical working groups. EIS-Africa chaired the Working Group on Standards for CODIST and supported the MAfA initiative and National Mapping Agencies. Evidence that the work done by EIS-Africa has had an impact at the national level is the case of South Africa where the country has now implemented its national SDI and has defined its core datasets and custodians. This effort emanates from the work that EIS-Africa and its network of partners did with the United Nations Economic Commission.

EIS-Africa’s early work focussed on NEAPs and developing an African Environment Information Network (AEIN), which has today evolved into National State of the Environment Reports and inputs into UNEPs African Environmental Outlook Report (AEO).

Are there any major projects that you would like to tell us about?

We have a number of projects going on across different African countries. We did a study on core geospatial and custodianship. We have had a collaborative agreement with the Association of American Geographers (funded through the Office of US Department of State Geographer) to support the distribution of high resolution commercial imagery and technical training to local planners. Most recently, EIS-Africa hosted training in Uganda and Rwanda. We also supported training to colleagues from South Sudan’s Bureau of Statistics. In all these training exercises we have utilised local universities (Makerere and NUR CGIS etc.), local students and local planners to ensure that capacity building is a sustainable process and it adds real impact and value to the most needed areas in our Continent.

The vision of EIS Africa is to create an African Society where information for sustainable development is readily available and easily accessible. How do you plan to achieve this vision?

The process of trying to achieve that vision is a long one. Traditionally, our national mapping information resides in colonial nations or is kept behind the traditional mapping agencies that generally do not share information. Unfortunately, many national mapping agencies are under-resourced and have adopted cost recovery models and data is therefore not freely available. So, it is a long process where we have convinced a lot of national mapping agencies that this practise is not sustainable based on international experience. Over the past few years, through the work of organisations like the UNECA and ourselves, there has been a mindset change and data is now becoming far more accessible, usable and current. Technical skills have improved and with access of free and open data sources and technologies, Africa is becoming better. Authorative data, especially statistical data is still a problem at second administrative level so we still have a long way to go.

What are your capacity building initiatives?

We have a number of capacity building activities. The AfricaGIS conference, which brings together people from around the world to Africa, is an example of one such capacity building event. There are seven days of technical training, demonstrations and workshops together with the exhibition of close to 50 organisations that the 600 participants can take full advantage of. Apart from that, we also have capacity building projects going on in countries in like South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda etc.

We will also be hosting the MyCoE TechCamp, with our partners the AAG in June/July 2014 to bring American and South African high school kids together to work with geospatial technologies.

How successful has EIS Africa been in its efforts? What are your future plans?

If we measure success in terms of financial sustainability, then we have not been very successful. We are a non-profit organisation and are always dependent on donor funding or projects to sustain ourselves. For example, to organise the AfricaGIS conference requires a lot of money. However, if you talk of EIS Africa as an organisation with a global brand that is recognised across the world, then we have been really successful. The future for EIS-Africa currently is not too positive as we have not secured funding for future activities. Many people, even at this conference, recognise the value of EIS Africa but it is difficult to sell a network promoting the use of Geospatial Science and Technology and getting people to put money into an organisation with Altruistic goals.

If EIS-Africa closes then the likelihood of hosting another AfricaGIS conference also ends and the impact to geospatial community will be great. I believe that EIS-Africa is an immensely valuable organisation that has a proven track record, delivers real impact and is transparent in terms of its operations and financial reporting and I believe based on the success of the AfricaGIS (Global Geospatial Conference) conference in partnership with the GSDI Association, we have to invest in EIS-Africa so as to ensure its sustainability.