‘Young people cannot take up the role of intermediary free of charge, nor should they be expected to,’ Sylvestre Ouédraogo, president of the Yam Pukri Association in Burkina Faso.
Young people living in rural parts of ACP countries have the same ambitions as those living in the major cities around the world. They all watch the same television programmes and have similar aspirations: a house, a car, a good job, a smartphone. Many rural youth are drawn to the major urban centres to achieve their goals. For them, village life is too limited. Pressure on the land means it is difficult to have a farm at a young age. They have to wait many years before suitable land becomes available. And even if they do have farming work, they have to find a second job to earn money in the off-season.
But young people are very tough, and often manage to solve their own problems faster than adults can. They are also the drivers of innovation. In the past few years, I have seen numerous examples of young people developing technological solutions for their villages. For instance, they have transformed simple LED torches into domestic lighting systems. They remove the LEDs and fix them to a stand which gives more light, enough to light a house.
I have also met young people who have adapted battery-charging systems, using solar batteries and solar panels, or the spare energy from generators at video clubs, to recharge mobile phones. Some people are even beginning to use portable computers to create a store of music, political speeches and jokes, which they transfer to cell phones, MP3 players or memory cards on radios.
It is obvious then, that there are many young rural people who have a real gift for technology. With just a little extra support and encouragement, they could develop useful technological solutions for their communities. If their achievements can be demonstrated, for example by showing videos and photos in other villages, it will be easier for them to realise that their projects are viable.
The question of incentives then arises, because young people cannot take up the role of intermediaries free of charge, nor should they be expected to. They are not going to get involved in technology if the information and services they provide is of no direct benefit to them. Those who produce and disseminate the information must be properly rewarded.
There are instances where young entrepreneurs lack the necessary detailed knowledge to perfect their products. For example, they might not be able to work out energy consumption and the capacity of the devices they use. They are learning on the job, and just a little training would teach them how to use electronic meters to calculate voltages and electrical power, which would reduce the damage to the appliances they use.
Distance learning opportunities can help them to further their study too, but only if the training is devised to fit individual needs. For example, modular training courses, proceeding unit by unit, are not suitable because young people in the countryside can have many different pressures competing for their time. For some subjects, question-answer sessions via SMS messaging might be more suitable.
Our approach, therefore, must be one of humility combined with curiosity, to enable us to better understand the real problems of young rural people and help them to find the right solutions. By demonstrating certain kinds of appropriate technology, one can excite their curiosity, and this can lead to adjustments in the technology to meet their specific needs. Organising competitions and discovery activities, and visiting rural areas, will also enable us to understand the rural environment and make it easier for us to help young people.
The approach taken is crucial to the success of any new initiative. And we must remember that the needs in rural areas vary considerably, and so do the solutions. I am currently working with a large farmers’ organisation in Burkina Faso to build a database of its members. The need arose when the organisation’s membership grew to include many thousands of farmers, but clearly, an organisation with 50 members does not have the same needs, or the same agenda, as this major body.
I have found too, that simply transposing technology into rural areas creates more problems than solutions. It is much easier to support the people who have the ideas, and help those who are already on the right road to forge ahead. One-size-fits-all technical projects have rarely been successful in rural communities. For example, it is better to provide support to private telecentres and help them find ways of getting cheaper internet connections and an uninterrupted power supply, than to install standard community telecentre solutions.
There are also small-scale businesses that repair computers and mobile phones. Those workers can be mobilised and trained to become more effective in what they do, instead of training new young recruits who may perhaps lack the passion for technology. The work needs to be done on a case-by-case basis, providing at every stage the exact minimum in an adapted form, in order to achieve progress. My suggested method, therefore, would be to help young people to help themselves, acting in such a way that, by becoming vehicles for change themselves, they will lead others in the right direction.