When persistence pays off

ICT training for rural communities can be key to prosperity in Kenya

Crystal Watley Kigoni

ICT Update reported on the Voices of Africa project in rural Kenya as part of the web 2.0 issue in October 2007. Despite some difficult times, the project continues to help women farmers in the area.

The Voices of Africa for Sustainable Development (VOA4SD) project is working to combat rural poverty by bringing technology to remote areas of Kenya. The project began in early 2007 with the Mbambe Rural Resource Management Programme, in the village of Lwanda in Bungoma district, near the border with Uganda. We set up a computer centre equipped with four Inveneo solar-powered computers, two 80 watt solar panels and a small modem.

Unfortunately, amid the violence that followed the national election in early 2008, one solar panel and the modem were lost, bringing the project to a standstill for several months. The violence in Western province forced the evacuation of project staff and volunteers from the area. But this was not the end of the Mbambe programme.

We reopened the computer centre – minus the solar panel and modem – in June 2008, and restarted the computer training courses for villagers. So far, we have trained more than 120 women to use technology to improve their lives, and many of them have already put the centre’s resources to productive use. Some are now using spreadsheets to compile their farm inventories, for example, or to draw up lists of vulnerable children in the area who need support. Others have set up their own small school where the teachers make use of the information available online.

The original group of women who we trained in ICTs were empowered to establish a nursery school, called the Mbambe Academy, where the students receive weekly computer lessons. And the Mbambe computer centre has reached out to local schools, providing training to 26 teachers on how to manage their student records, and given ICT training to a further 36 village schoolteachers.

Now that we had a successful project underway in a rural village, we wanted to test the how effective the project’s approach would be in a poor urban area. So, in August 2008, the VOA4SD offices, including the volunteers, moved to Likoni, a town on the outskirts of the port city of Mombasa. There, we intended to conduct research and then to work with community-based organizations (CBOs) in the area.

Urban trial

Likoni is a ferry ride from Mombasa, and is the site of an extensive slum area that has risen from the ground in the last 15 years. The Likoni area has been regularly affected by tribal violence since 1997. As the local economy slowly collapsed, more and more youth looking for opportunities have arrived with hope in their hearts, but often end up living in small shacks or one-room apartments.

The VOA4SD project team first began to network with CBOs and youth groups, and decided to build a Youth Information Empowerment Centre. For almost a year the team continued to look for funding. The project applied for more than 20 grants, but all were unsuccessful. Then, just one day after the landing of the fibre-optic undersea cable at Mombasa, three armed gangsters broke into the VOA4SD office and stole everything in sight. All equipment, files, photos ... everything was gone.

The project then faced some hard decisions. Should it leave the country? Move to Tanzania? Or keep on fighting? After a meeting with the US ambassador, the organization decided to seek new investors and to build a social enterprise company that would raise funds for VOA4SD’s projects. But the US government had still not processed the relevant paperwork, and US funding was not a real option, we decided to approach the private sector.

Once the fibre-optic cable is established in Kenya, many companies will be looking to sell bandwidth to new customers in the rural areas. In order to reach the maximum number of people, VOA4SD has teamed up a number of private enterprises that are already applying new inventions and innovative approaches to reach Kenyan youth. The project has adopted a social enterprise approach to business.

VOA4SD has undergone a radical transformation in recent months. The team came up with a concept for a prototype vehicle – a mobile classroom, cyber cafe, and digital media centre, all in one – to bring ICTs to remote areas, called the Mobile Information Centers Empowering Youth (Micey). A number of private sector partners will participate in building this new invention.

On the road

Each Micey will be equipped with a GPS unit so that they can take images with their coordinates and upload them to the web using Google Maps. Miceys are mobile local content generation factories. They will provide all the tools for content development, including a digital camera, a video camera, and high-speed Internet access. Community-based organizations will also be able to generate content for local dissemination, making it accessible to those whose literacy is limited. The content will focus on development issues such as HIV/AIDS, health, income generation and sustainable agriculture.

A large proportion of the content generated will be posted to the VOA4SD website, which is currently undergoing beta testing. The website began as a simple idea to create a forum where young people could write articles about development, but as the organization has grown, the concept for the website has changed. The modified website is currently in development. It is being designed using open source software; a content management system, called Drupal, and CiviCRM to keep a track of customer data.

We plan to set up a user database, introduce new bloggers, and create blogs focusing on issues such as HIV/AIDS, health, income generation, sustainable agriculture and peacebuilding. The project will unveil the new website and the Micey prototype at the 2009 Forum of the Global Alliance for ICTs and Development (GAID), ICTs and Innovation for Education, in Mexico in September, as the winners of the World Summit Youth Award in the category ‘Education for All’.

The Micey mobile classrooms will be used to teach villagers about various community development issues and computer skills, beginning with the web. Rather than teaching static applications we will focus on how to use online web 2.0 tools. The seven basic packages will be replaced by Google Applications online. For teachers and CBOs we plan to teach how to search for content, build curricula and teach online. This will boost both the education levels within communities and will build a market for the internet.

All over the country we hope to provide the door that will provide access to knowledge. In rural areas, courses will focus on skills development and practical application of technology. Like the projects at Mbambe and in Likoni, we will focus on collecting information within communities and from the internet, and then on teaching to meet the needs of the people.

The Micey will be a big attraction with its computers, solar panels and internet access, we will be able to learn more about what people want, and assist them in finding the information they need. But more important is the content that the youth will be able to generate themselves. With web 2.0 tools and the internet we have a golden opportunity to bring knowledge to those who have been long deprived of access to information and, by doing so, increase the prosperity of the country. Just as in the United States, where 20% of national GDP comes from the knowledge economy, Kenya could follow suit. And it will have to if it is to meet the objectives of Vision 2030, the country’s national economic blueprint.

The future of the Kenyan youth is in ICTs for sustainable development. In order to have the greatest impact, the technology must be diffused throughout the country. Most people with computer knowledge have had to migrate to the city to be able to improve their skills and find employment. It is critical that we are able to diffuse these technologies into the rural areas and the slums if ICTs are to make a difference. What we need is the commitment to the endeavour, and the will to see it through.

There may be tough times ahead for Kenya, but if we are able to empower the people, the violence that has cost so much in the past may be a thing of history.

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Crystal Watley Kigoni is a graduate student of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, New Orleans, USA, and project director of Voices of Africa.

Read the ICT Update article in issue 39, October 2007
View article

06 August 2009

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