By Nicole Tumaine

Over the past four months, I have had the privilege of attending three international conferences as a panelist thanks to the generous support of Open AIR where I presented on a topic that I am passionate about, that of innovation by refugees. In this blogpost, I highlight insights from my participation in the 2018 Canadian Association of African Studies (CAAS) Conference, RightsCon, and the Second Africa Innovation Summit (AISII) as well as the important role Open AIR’s NERG program has played in my personal and professional development. Throughout these conferences, an overarching theme, also reflected in Open AIR’s work, was the importance of being actively inclusive of marginalized voices.

It is astonishing to me how often voices of marginalized populations are left out of key conversations. With all this talk about more inclusion and representation, we are still leaving key voices behind.

Coming from an international development background, I try to approach innovation, especially innovation for development, from the lens of inclusion. An often hidden or erased subgroup within the innovation ecosystem is innovation by refugees. As Professor Erika Kraemer-Mbula so brilliantly said, “we need to move beyond talking about innovations FOR the marginalized and showcase and uplift innovations BY the marginalized”. We need to create spaces for these voices to be heard. That includes supporting their participation in conferences.

As mentioned in my previous blogpost, refugees are innovative and entrepreneurial by nature and their role should be recognized, supported, and celebrated. Throughout these conferences, I have come to realize how extremely important it is to centre marginalized voices including those of women, refugees, and the youth. We need to listen to these voices; especially when we are trying to find solutions to problems that affect these marginalized communities. You cannot claim to want to create/find solutions without consulting the beneficiaries of these solutions. These consultations should include finding out whether the beneficiaries want these solutions in the first place, whether they can take lead in implementing these solutions, or whether they have alternate ideas. It was a privilege to participate as a panellist at these conferences because I learnt from people doing inspiring work while hopefully fostering a more inclusive environment. While I cannot speak for refugees, it is my hope that their voices are more centred; especially in policies that affect them. I also recognize the need for conferences to be more representative and inclusive as at some of the events; women, people of color, youths, refugees, and other were minorities on the panels.

Addressing African Refugees Locally and Beyond Boarders at the 2018 CAAS Conference

I had the pleasure of being one of three panelists along with two gentlemen talking about African refugees at the 2018 CAAS conference which took place May 4-6, 2018 in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. The theme for this year’s conference was Transformations in African Environments. This theme is especially appropriate in the context of refugeehood because we are still facing a global refugee crisis with decreasing willingness to help from communities that are in positions to help refugees. Our panel offered as diverse a range of topics as our panelists. While my colleagues tackled the history of refugees in Sub-Saharan Africa, I focused on our research with Open AIR on the role of refugees in the informal sector in Uganda. The diversity of the panelists’ backgrounds resulted in different levels of knowledge on refugee issues. This provided for a great learning opportunity.

My presentation focused on highlighting the work that refugee-led organizations-such as YARID and OneYouth OneHeart (OYOH)-have been doing in their own communities, specifically in Uganda, to find community-based solutions to community faced problems using a human- centric approach. The idea of refugees as self-reliant is not new despite the overarching narrative of refugees as a drain on their societies. Rather, they prove themselves as contributors to their economies as they are forced to become self-reliant due to insufficient and sometimes inappropriate humanitarian aid that does not adequately address the needs of refugees. In trying to bridge these gaps, refugees often come up with creative economic solutions that benefit both refugees and host populations alike. Attending the CAAS conference allowed me to reach a different audience with our research who were able to give valuable insights; especially regarding policies that are meant to serve refugees, but refugees play no role in their creation and implementation. The conference and its attendees reaffirmed my commitment to bringing up questions of inclusion of marginalized populations, especially in situations that directly and indirectly affect them.

I would like to thank Meredith Terretta, the Gordon F. Henderson Chair in Human Rights, for organizing the panels and for her financial support which made my attendance possible.

Highlighting Open AIR’s Work at RightsCon

I then attended the RightsCon Conference in Toronto, Canada on May 16-18, 2018 where Open AIR hosted a panel. Organized by Access Now, RightsCon is the world’s leading conference on human rights bringing together key stakeholders in business, policy, government, and human rights to “tackle pressing issues at the intersection of human rights and digital technology”.

I presented on the Open AIR panel with some members of our Open AIR team including our QES scholar and NERG member Helen Chuma-Okoro, and our Co-Directors Professors Jeremy de Beer and Tobias Schonwetter. To be on a panel with such experienced researchers was educational, encouraging, and inspiring. We presented the different type of work that we are doing at Open AIR. Chuma-Okoro talked about her ongoing research on “Promoting the Creative Economy in Nigeria and South Africa through Collaborative Intellectual Property Rights with focus on Traditional Arts and Crafts” and the empowerment of girls through ICT in the informal sector in Nigeria. Providing an overview of our work, de Beer and Schonwetter talked about our ongoing research and results including our case studies and other research that seeks to “recognize Africa’s role in the Global Knowledge Economy”. In addition, we discussed Open AIR’s ongoing efforts to actively include gender and women’s empowerment in our research, specifically through our QES-AS program; a program that aims to provide Doctoral, Post-Doctoral, and Early Career Researchers an opportunity to conduct research in gender and IP with one or more of our hubs under the supervision of our principle investigators. You can read more about our presence at RightsCon in Chuma-Okoro and Tumaine’s blogpost [link to follow].

It was clear that the work we are doing at Open AIR is important and of interest to people of varying backgrounds based on the level of interest shown by our audience despite our panel being the last panel of the day. Conference attendees were very impressed by our research network structure, which personally impresses me as well. I, like other attendees, especially appreciate that our network actively works to question and avoid replicating colonial power dynamics and actively works to be inclusive of marginalized populations; especially women. I would also like to commend our panel on having a diverse and gender-balanced panel, which was a rare sight, even at a human rights conference. Events like RightsCon provide a platform to showcase our work and learn from other like-minded individuals working to make the world a more inclusive space.

Open AIR well represented at AIS 2018

Last, but certainly not least, I had the privilege of attending the second African Innovation Summit (AIS 2018) where Open AIR had a big presence; including being a conference partner! The AIS is a high-level summit created by Africa for Africa. It seeks to mobilize key stakeholders including “investors, policy makers, researchers and academics, the business community, the youth, as well as innovators and thinkers into a coalition for collective action to promote and build an enabling environment for innovation in Africa”. For a more detailed account of Open AIR’s overall activities at AIS, please refer to our team report in the Annual Report [link to follow].

I, along with Open AIR researcher Olusaye Jegede, were presenters in the workshop on the first day on “Innovation Lab: Designing Future Economies”. Despite the diverse research backgrounds of the presenters and workshop attendees, the theme of inclusive economies emerged. After very interactive exercises of building an ideal economy, we all agreed that sustainable economies should be inclusive of marginalized populations including women and the youths.

I then had the honor of participating in the Open AIR panel with Professors Chidi Oguamanam, and Jeremy de Beer as well as Mr. Emmanuel Sackey, Chief Examiner at ARIPO moderated by Professor Erika Kraemer-Mbula. Continuing in the theme of inclusion, I talked about our ongoing research on refugee innovation and entrepreneurship with a focus on the work of agency for open culture, especially their #Askotec toolkit: Access to Skills and Knowledge in the form of a multi-functional Open Tech Emergency Case. It uses “freely shareable and collaboration based Open Technologies” in supporting innovators in rural and urban areas including in fragile states such as South Sudan. This kit contains 40 items used to tackle basic education, innovation, and self-training. #ASKotec aims to create access to skills in the field no matter the circumstances.  This tool kit was created by refugees and other marginalized populations participating in the Let’s Go jHUB project workshop hosted by co-working space Hive Colab in Kampala in 2016. The layers of inclusive collaborative within this project is incredible and I would encourage you to read more about it here. Innovative ideas like these reinforce the need to highlight, celebrate, and support innovations by marginalized populations especially refugees as they are often at the forefront of their issues and thereby in a unique position to not only identify problems in their communities but to find community-based solutions.

Open AIR’s Support in Professional Development

My attendance at these conferences has reaffirmed the integral and important work that Open AIR does through its NERG program. Through financial support and mentorship, Open AIR has been integral to my professional development. Not only has my research, presentation, and time management skills improved, my participation in these conferences and as a NERG has increased my network and circle of support. I have developed personal and professional relationships that I can and will continue to rely upon in my future endeavors including my legal education and career aspirations. Since joining Open AIR, I have had the opportunity to conduct research in Uganda, present my research at international conferences, travel to Ghana, and explore a topic that I am passionate about: highlighting refugees’ innovative and entrepreneurial nature. It is such an honor to be a part of such an inclusive and supportive leading research network, which continues to help me grow both personally and professionally. If you are a researcher passionate about Africa’s role in the global knowledge economy and looking to gain hands-on research, time management, interpersonal, presentation, and networking skills; I encourage you to engage with our Open AIR network. It will be worth it.