In 2007, SocketWorks Global [1] of Nigeria began setting up a technological hub at the University of Liberia to bridge Liberia’s digital divide in the project called the Liberia Digital Bridge with the sponsorship of the International Finance Corporation. After inauguration, the project did not get off the ground, dashing the hopes of thousands of students and staff who anxiously awaited the outcome of the project. This project died without making any significant impact.

 

In an effort to bridge the digital divide in Liberia, various organizations and individuals have stepped up to the challenge by setting up technology centers in Liberia to meet this end. These typically take the form of community libraries, resource centers, and training centers. Since these efforts do not have the strong investment backing that the Digital Bridge project once had, these tech centers are run on a much smaller scale.

 

The most popular approach has been to setup training centers that charge a fee for the courses it offers. One example is the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA)[2]training center in Monrovia. This training institution offers introductory courses in the Microsoft Office suite as well as graphics design. Using mainly proprietary software (i.e. Microsoft products), which inure costly fees for licensing. As a result, despite being registered as a non-profit organization, the YMCA charges fees for courses to sustain the training institution. The downside of this approach is that only those who can afford the fees are eligible to attend. The training center is also not an open space for tech professionals to meet and host events; the YMCA charges for the use of its facilities to host events.

 

A second approach has been to setup resource centers with a hybrid of a library and a computer lab for public use. Two centers with this arrangement are the Information Resource Center (IRC)[3] at the US Embassy and the Liberia Intellectual Society of Scholars & Academia (LISSAA)[4] setup by a Liberian citizen living in the US. While the IRC does not charge users for the facilities, computer use is usually limited to an average of thirty minutes a day per person. These centers provide Internet access, a small library and a few computers running Microsoft products. The high cost of running tech centers in a country like Liberia has taken a toll on LISSAA in particular making them charge for Internet use, while the IRC runs safely with US government sponsorship. Since these centers do not have a specific technological focus, users are allowed to do anything like following sports news to using social networking sites without restriction. Occasionally, basic computer training is offered to select users of these centers. In regards to accessibility, the IRC is located on the grounds of the US embassy where visitors are usually screened by security guards before entry. The location is frightening enough for would-be users. This leaves the IRC out of reach for many Liberians who may not be able to muster the courage to go to the US embassy. LISSAA, on the other hand, is located on Benson Street which makes it more accessible for Liberians.

 

Based on our observation of these technology centers, we decided to follow the style of*iHub_ Nairobi. With this arrangement, we setup an innovation hub called *iLab_ Liberia to focus on the tech community, as well as anyone interested in learning more about technology. Usage of our space for training and events hosting is free of charge, and our computers run free and opensource software like Linux and FireFox. At the moment, we are the only people using this approach in Liberia. At *iLab_ Liberia, our focus is to promote information sharing and the use of opensource tools. Instead of offering training in regular proprietary software, users are introduced to web and software development as well as to opensource alternatives to proprietary software. This is significant considering that most users who cannot afford to buy genuine copies of proprietary software often make pirated or cracked copies of them which often leaves them vulnerable to viruses. Equipped with a dozen computers on a dedicated VSAT Internet connection, the tech hub is suited for hosting tech events as well as for providing contextually relevant training to users. This is usually done by understanding what potential users want to learn about and then directing trainings to these needs. This is a paradigm shift from the traditional definition of a tech center which is nothing more than a computer school or Internet cafe.

 

Since inception, we have hosted PenPlusBytes‘ Africa Elections Project workshop to train journalists in technology reporting. We have also hosted Monrovia Google Technology Users Group (GTUG) meet-up sessions and web development trainings. The West African Network for Peacebuilding, Liberia Early-Warning Working Group, and our elections partners have all been hosted for various workshops and trainings at the *iLab_. Right now, we are training thirteen students from five high schools in Monrovia, Paynesville, and Brewerville in web development to take each other head-on in the *iLab_ Web Challenge.

 

We are positive that we can make a far greater impact in the lives of Liberians with this approach to technology centers.

 

Kpetermeni Siakor

IT Director
*iLab_ Liberia

 

Sources:

[1] SocketWorks Global Digital Bridge –http://www.swglobal.com/e-solutions/digital_bridge.php

International Finance Corporation Sponsorship –http://www.ifc.org/ifcext/spiwebsite1.nsf/0/36CA941DCF217B3C852576BA000E29BD

http://www.ifc.org/ifcext/che.nsf/AttachmentsByTitle/Factsheet_Socketworks_OvercomingtheDigitalDivide/$FILE/Fact+Sheet-SocketWorks-Overcoming+Digital+Divide.pdf

[2] Young Men Christian Association –http://www.ymca.org.lr/

[3] Liberia Intellectual Society of Scholars and Academia –http://www.lissaa.com/

[4] Information Resource Center –http://monrovia.usembassy.gov/irc.html

[5] *iLab_ Liberia –http://www.ilabliberia.com/

 

 

 

 


By | 2012-02-02T19:03:39+00:00 July 16th, 2011|Editorial|