Blog Action Day – The Promise of Africa

Today is Blog Action Day, and Web Worker Daily is participating by blogging about this year’s theme, poverty.

When I hear that word, I think of Africa, a continent that has historically been, and still is, either criminally exploited (to put it mildly), or shamelessly neglected by the rest of the world.

When it comes to web working, Africa is one of the last frontiers. In most sub-Saharan African countries, people tend to use mobile phones more than the Internet for business-related activities and communications. Factors contributing to this are high illiteracy rates and linguistic diversity. In addition, the high cost of bandwidth and lack of infrastructure are a serious problem. Many African countries also lack workers skilled enough in information and communication technologies (ICT) for web working to be a viable option. These factors are obstacles to adoption of the Internet as a tool for business, but access to computers and the Internet would contribute greatly to overcoming the obstacles that hinder their adoption and use in the first place.

Humanitarian and international development organizations know this, and are making efforts to get the continent connected with the objective of reducing poverty, as illustrated by this strategy of the UN Economic Commission for Africa:

Access to Information > Knowledge and Capacity > Innovation > Productivity > Growth > Employment > Poverty Reduction

What can we web workers do to help implement the UNECA strategy and make a difference in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world?

Harnessing the power of youth

Access and knowledge, the first steps towards poverty alleviation, are the focus of the One Laptop per Child movement, whose mission is “to ensure that all school-aged children in the developing world are able to engage effectively with their own personal laptop, networked to the world, so that they, their families and their communities can openly learn and learn about learning.”One Laptop per Child

Kids are fearless and enterprising and they have boundless energy and potential. Take these Congolese boys, for example. They identified a niche market and started a micro-business selling paper, pens and cookies on a college campus. With laptops and access to the store of human knowledge, they could end up being tomorrow’s web workers and entrepreneurs.

This holiday season, why not contribute to OLPC? You can buy a kid a laptop for $200, or contribute an amount of your choice with a click or two.

Building virtuous circles

Despite the obstacles I’ve stated above, there are skilled web workers to be found in Africa. Many of us already work with teams and vendors all over the world. We are uniquely positioned to collaborate with partners in developing countries and have a direct impact on capacity, productivity, employment, and growth.

The French site ProgOnline is a matchmaking platform where freelancers can create profiles and companies can post project requests or directly contact service providers. Many of the freelancers on ProgOnline are from francophone Africa. Similar sites in English are rentacoder.com, getafreelancer.com, and getacoder.com. (Disclaimer: I have never used these sites. If you have used them, or know of other such sites in English or other languages, please share in the comments!)

Sowing the seeds of innovation

I’ve mentioned before that many of us web workers are working on our own entrepreneurial projects. Are you developing a platform or business model that could be applied or tweaked to help bring developing countries into the loop? Entrepreneurs may find themselves without funding sources soon, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop having ideas or working on their projects. More than fame and fortune (which is looking unlikely these days anyway), I imagine most of us really just want our projects to see the light of day. There is a big world out there that could use our help.

For the entrepreneurially inclined among you, there are dozens of great ideas in the action plan that came out of the 2003/2005 World Summit on the Information Society. It reads like a wishlist for a wired world.

Here are just a couple of items from the plan:

C8.23.c. The preservation of natural and cultural heritage, keeping it accessible as a living part of today’s culture. This includes developing systems for ensuring continued access to archived digital information and multimedia content in digital repositories, and support archives, cultural collections and libraries as the memory of humankind.

C7.21.a. Ensure the systematic dissemination of information using ICTs on agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry and food, in order to provide ready access to comprehensive, up-to-date and detailed knowledge and information, particularly in rural areas.

We all know that entrepreneurialism breeds entrepreneurialism. We’ve seen how new companies and entire new industries spring up around startups! Maybe your project could foster innovation in the developing world.

However, I don’t advise that you swoop in like Superman with your wonderful new gadget. Instead, do your best to coordinate with and engage local talent, business, government and NGOs in the project. You don’t want to put local people out of business and you do want to address real, not perceived needs.

One person can make a difference

Just a few months ago, Jonathan Gosier, an American software developer, writer and social entrepreneur, founded Appfrica International in Kampala, Uganda. He moved there with his girlfriend, who works in international development.

Appfrica’s mission is two-fold: to encourage western businesses and investors to engage African entrepreneurs, and to encourage the adoption of computers, programming and use of the Internet in developing parts of Africa. (More about Appfrica)

Jonathan tells me that local IT students at Makerere University can’t afford their own computers, Internet connections, or servers. To help them become developers, he has provided IT students in his area with LAMP servers on USB keys, which allows them to essentially run a web server off of the keys to work with applications as if they were online. The Internet connection at their university is flaky, so he also pays their public transport fares to his house, where they can use his connection to a locally hosted server. He’s loaded it with open source software that they can use to learn to develop. And his door is always open to them.

Jonathan funds Appfrica entirely from his own work as a web developer, but he will be seeking investors interested in helping the program flourish. In his view, “People should invest in the promise of Africa rather than donating out of pity for Africa.”

If you’d like to invest in some promise, and help Jonathan’s students transition from students to pros, or help him find funding, let him know!

We can’t all be Jonathans. It’s just not possible. But if you have a heart and a creative mind, you can find a way to make a difference.

We look forward to hearing more ideas from those hearts and minds of yours!

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