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  • Writer's pictureCarter Darper

Liberia’s Technological Oasis: One Intern’s Experience at iLab Liberia

Shira Khaminsky interned at iLab to teach an intro to branding and advertising course for small business owners. She studies at the University of Massachusetts and works as a Senior Editor of the school newspaper.

Before I arrived in Liberia, I got a few warnings. “Don’t ever use a memory stick twice,” a friend told me who’s been to the country a couple of times, explaining about viruses that fester in many Liberian computers. “If you need to get anything done on the internet,” he said, “bring a book to read while you wait for the pages to load.” Expecting a technological desert, I was genuinely concerned about the withdrawal symptoms. How many hours would I survive without checking my email? Would I still be an effective, functioning member of society without access to Google 24/7? I doubted it.

Enter iLab, Liberia’s technological oasis, where I was fortunate enough to get an internship. Just five minutes in the building and my worries melted away. iLab’s computers operate on Ubuntu, meaning viruses are not a concern. And the satellite on the roof gives pretty much the same internet speed as back home. The iLab staff gave me a warm welcome. In addition to the technical stuff, like how to use Ubuntu, the staff volunteered to show me around some parts of Monrovia outside of iLab’s big yellow building. I could not have asked for better friends and tour guides for my time in Liberia.

Branding for Liberian businesses

I was to give a one-week course in branding and marketing for small businesses, with an emphasis on design. The goal was to get a group of people who want to grow their businesses, and give them some skills to help present themselves better, like designing business cards, ads, and brochures. My own experience comes from my work as the editor-in-chief of a student newspaper. Working for a newspaper, you get to see both sides of the game: we regularly place and design ads from local businesses on our website and in print, advising them on how to best reach the market we can provide. But we also advertise our own services: soliciting local businesses to buy ads.Julius Saye Kehnel, from Liberia’s Ministry of Commerce, got together a group of small business owners to attend my class. We did some pre-testing which included basic questions (“What is a computer?”) and creating Word documents using different font sizes and colors. 16 people came to the pre-test and the class had 15 spots. Although some people had issues with saving their documents on the desktops, and some of their test answers showed deep confusion about computers, I felt that it would be a shame to keep anyone out. We took 15 people, including a few who didn’t exactly pass the pre-test. I’m still not sure if this was the right decision.

Starting the course, reality sets in

I planned the five-day course: two days of conceptual work, two days of practical work on Scribus, an open source design program, and a test on the final day. Looking back, this was an ambitious plan. The first day of class it became clear to me that we wouldn’t be able to cover as much as I had hoped: many people struggled with logging into the computer because the password included both lower case and capital letters. I adjusted my plan to include more practical time using the program, and less time talking about marketing. At the end of each 2-hour session, the students gave me feedback by filling out worksheets. On the first day, the most common comment on the worksheets was “Too fast.” Considering the fact that we didn’t even finish what I had in mind for the day, I was concerned. I decided to dedicate three days to Scribus instead of two.

'Unlearning what you’ve learned

Have you ever thought about the double-click? I mean, have you ever really thought about it? Both the physical action of it and the concept behind it? Can you remember the first time you did it? I can’t. At iLab, I watched Liberians in their 30s and 40s double-click for the first time in their lives. Computer illiteracy suddenly became a tangible thing.There were a lot of lovely moments, too. On the second day I challenged the class: create the Liberian flag on Scribus and write “LIB” in big capital letters above it. After twenty minutes, one of the students created a flag that looked like it was flapping in the wind. Another student added some verses from the Liberian national anthem under her flag. We spent only part of one day talking about marketing – specifically logos. We played a game in which people had to describe, without looking, various logos that they see on a daily basis. We discussed what makes a logo not only memorable, but also practical. Still, I could feel everyone inching towards their laptops – they wanted more practice time on Scribus. In the end, most students were able to create finished business cards, which they saved as PDFs and mailed to themselves (an impressive feat).

If I could do it again, I would devote one or two weeks to learning Scribus and an equal amount of time talking about and seeing examples of branding and marketing. One week just wasn’t enough. If I can swing it, I hope to go back to Liberia and to iLab, and spend more time with my students talking about the specific needs of their businesses. In the meantime, I’ve encouraged them to come back to iLab, use Scribus, and email me with any questions or just to show off their work.

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