Margaret Ngwira, former librarian and founding member of the Malawi Library and Information Consortium (MALICO) and MAREN, the NREN for Malawi, has been at the forefront of the establishment of the UbuntuNet Alliance (UA) – the only woman in a team of five pioneers – and is now running a small fruit winery in Malawi. Her most recent achievement is the Presidential Zikomo Award from the Malawian State House for her dedication and work in ICT for a librarian foundation.
Here she tells us about her career achievements and her role in establishing the region’s network infrastructure.
Margaret, after an innovative career in agricultural librarianship which culminated in the installation of the MALICO VSAT network, you became College Librarian at Kamuzu College of Nursing in Lilongwe and then Head of Secretariat as well as Director of the Board of the UbuntuNet Alliance. Here, you played a key role in establishing the Regional Research and Education network for Eastern and Southern Africa, UA.
Tell us about this successful career of yours, and what it meant to you to be at the very heart of building the region’s network infrastructure.
Since the very start of automation in libraries in Malawi in the late 80s, I was immersed in applying it to enhance information services for our academic and research community. We had one of the first agricultural databases on CD-ROMs in Africa, the first fax machine in the University of Malawi, and funds started coming in to build databases in areas like soil fertility in maize-based cropping systems.
After a short stay in Namibia, where I led a talented team working to establish the University’s new Agriculture Library Network, I returned to Malawi. By then, through the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP), we had access to almost the same amount of online scientific literature as the best universities in the northern hemisphere. However, connectivity was fragile and just too costly to allow for the users to fully benefit from the available resources! And so, I joined a project with the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) to build the MALICO VSAT network from the north to the south of Malawi to improve connectivity for academia. This took two demanding years working with policy makers, ministers, electricity providers and institutions but we succeeded! I was not at all a techie but had a passion for linking users in need of information with useful resources in a time-saving and efficient way.
Things started evolving quickly across the continent, and by then the EASSy submarine fibre cable was being laid down the East African coast, opening doors to a new way of doing things much more cost effectively! Thanks to my work on the VSAT network, I was identified as a potential founder of UA, which planned on harnessing the potential benefits of the fibre networks that were being laid to give our African academic and research community fair access to this amazing resource that was being taken for granted in other parts of the world!
At that time, the UA had no funding and no home. My College Principal Dr Diana Jere said, “Put us on the map, Margaret”. So, for the next two years, the University of Malawi College of Nursing College Library was home to the Alliance, and we obtained early funding from the Open Society Institute (now the Open Society Foundations) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
Throughout your roles at the UA, you have seen the network and the organisation expanding and including always more member NRENs and institutions. How do you see the roles of NRENs and RRENs growing in the near future?
I paraphrase the words of the Swedish Professor Bjorn Pehrson when he made an impassioned appeal for the development of African NRENs around 2005: “The African student deserves access to the same connectivity at the same price as his/her peer elsewhere.”
Huge strides have been made but there is still a long way to go. The UA members will continue to work nationally, regionally, and globally building on the strength of the network and the developing services. The terrain has changed with the massive growth of social media and handheld smart devices. Therefore, there must be constant awareness and adjustment where necessary to address changing needs. Also, other user communities such as schools may be considered but not at the expense of the core clientele. The unique collaborative nature of the NREN community is a huge strength, not bound by geopolitical boundaries but built on collaboration and cooperation.
In recent years, the African RRENs and NRENs have been focusing on open science and open access initiatives, such as LIBSENSE, with the aim of transforming the way research is done and circulated. This impacts library communities and their work directly. How do you think that these initiatives contribute to the NRENs’ mission of facilitating the digital transformation of the continent?
Of course, the NRENs exist to support their user community – academics, researchers, students, and others. Libraries are their partners and their consumers, and greedy bandwidth users! Collaboration is at the heart of all library research and product development. Open science and open access have been a hot topic for 20 years now and it is good to see the NREN community collaborate with the Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL) organisation that played a significant role in developing library consortia and helping them access e-resources, develop digital collections, and challenge restrictive copyright laws.
Not only are you a pioneer at the UA but also the only woman of the group who spearheaded its formation. What would be your advice to aspiring women interested in pursuing a career in the field?
I was not always the only woman. Professor Iman Abdelrahman of University of Khartoum was Vice Chairman of the Alliance for several years. She wrote on the UA’s newsletter in 2015: “Home isn’t our country! It is our Continent, Africa”. It was a privilege working with a woman of such wisdom and brilliance. On the same newsletter issue, Dr. Francis Tusubira – former CEO of the UA – reflected on 10 years of the Alliance by pointing out: “I found a team of five with fire in their bellies!”’. So, it was not about men or women but finding the right people with a passion for change and innovation!
I still follow NREN and RREN activities with interest but no longer have much contact with libraries. My husband passed away in 2018 leaving me with the great challenge of running our small fruit winery! Therefore, my advice would be: “Go for it, ladies! You have all that is needed.”