Celebrating the 10 years of peace, debating about the challenges of the development of the nation, seeing the technology enthusiasm and opportunities in iLab users everyday…it’s great to be back in LIB! Here’s a few thoughts just after being in the country – back home in Monrovia – after holidays.
In my native country, Finland, the summertime is slow – people are on holidays, and for over a month not much happens – with the exception of travel and tourism industries. One might expect the same here in LIB, since it’s rainy season, but far from it –we’re action packed!
Just before I left on holidays, we at iLab were happy to reach record attendances in June of this year. Further, in July we had over 200 visits just during our co-working hours – a huge increase. We’re in the midst of crunching the numbers and will have some analysis on those sometime soon.
One of the more novel things for us at iLab is our project on mobile data collection for tracking and monitoring beneficiaries of a child labor prevention project. We are looking at various open-source technology solutions and mobile devices – and defining and assessing technologies for developing a system for our client and their field force – people in some 30 communities in three counties. We’re excited – stay tuned for more info.
Seems a lot is happening with e-learning right now – lots in interest gained. When Kpetermeni Siakor had his guest lecture on e-learning and the so-called MOOCs – the house was absolutely packed, with some 78 enthusiasts crammed in to listen! We’re talking with several organisations regarding how iLab could facilitate the adoption of the masses of material that are out there.
I had a chance to discuss with several youth initiatives and with some staff from the Ministry of Youth and Sports. It is so great listening to the youth in their teens or early twenties asking for iLab support in their initiatives to utilize technology in new interesting ways – for example, how to disseminate text messages among the nearly 200 national volunteers. What was great to hear was that the idea for the project came from a participant in our mobile technologies for transparency and accountability -training!
Now just last weekend Liberia was celebrating 10 years of peace – no small feat – since its gruesome 14-year long civil war. Of course it is absolutely a great path to be on, even with its challenges. It was naturally disappointing to find Liberia (once again) as one of the most corrupt countries in the world – 10 years after the war, this really is one of the key challenges. On a related matter, equally puzzling and alarming Is the current battle between the media and some government-affiliated persons, relating to investigative journalism. It seems there is quite a bit to do on the topic of open government and transparency, one of the themes at iLab this year. While the problems are certainly not solved just by technology, we are looking at increasing transparency by using ICTs intelligently. We look forward to working with both civil society organizations as well as government entities like the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism. Getting government and the citizens to communicate and meaningfully engage will be a long, fascinating journey.
Wow, that’s a lot I’ve mentioned – but it’s not even nearly all! Right now we need to make sure we finish delivering what we’ve promised to our donors: our Girls in ICT –program is going strong – an intermediate Python class is just about to start. We continue to work on open government and transparency. We are thrilled to be a part of the IT business plan competition initiative that has been going on and are very much looking forward to supporting the new businesses as entrepreneurship remains one of our key themes. And we will not be forgetting the use of Ushahidi – essentially the reason iLab was started in the first place – to track incidents of conflict or violence all over Liberia, as a part of the Early Warning Early Response working group – 20 or so organizations led by the Peacebuilding office. We just trained 19 volunteers from the Interreligious council and continue to expand our conflict reporter base.
All these promising initiatives need further support for continuation next year. With an internet access of 2.8% and mobile penetration of 42% in Liberia, iLab and similar entities have got a lot of work to do – lot of trainings, lot of organizing events, lot of talking…and lots of negotiations with donors.
However, all this is buzzing activity gives us immense amounts of optimism. There is nothing like the energy of people who have learned new skills and who are ready set their imagination free. There is a huge amount of this energy right now in LIB – so let’s keep it rolling!
Another exciting forum with lots of feedback from our clients! With over 50 persons in attendance, we had a mid year feedback forum on the 17th day of July. In the past six months we’ve had various training:
- Intermediate Branding and advertisement course
- Quick start Website Creation for Institutions
- Structure Query Training Language (SQL) Training
- Social Media
- Introduction to Ubuntu
- Intro Mastering the Internet
- Intermediate Ubuntu
- Social Media for Transparency and Accountability
- Mobile Technologies for Transparency and Accountability
- Intro to Python Programming
- Intermediate Python Programming
- Physical Computing
- (and some of these special courses for women only)
We work for you for the benefit of Liberia and iLab users, we value all ideas no matter how small or grand, We will value all ideas, not everything will be possible. We change our operations based on feedback just like how our Saturday co-working hours started after we got user feedback. The goal of the mid-year feedback forum is to get feedback from our users: what has been great, what could be improved or done differently.
We got feedback on training:
- More courses should be offered (eg. Networking and A+)
- Provision of more training materials
- Saturdays should be included in the days of training.
- We should invite local guest speakers ( Liberian citizen).
- We should have TED Talk nights only on fridays
- We should allow at least ten minutes of discussion after every TED night
An interactive evening with the Ladies in ICT on the 3rd day of July with over 30 beautiful ladies in attendance… they were introduced to the courses (Python Programming for girls, Social media for change, ICT for small business and lots more) that will be offered in this month of July. We got feedback from the ladies on how we could serve them better and they are eager to learn; Database Management, Web Designing, Computer Hardware, and Networking. I’m glad they yearn to be in the IT sector..:)
Certificates were also awarded to those that completed and performed well in some of the courses (“Mastering the Internet” and “Python Programming for Girls”) offered in the month of June so as to encourage the others.
There are A LOT of interesting things happening in the innovations, entrepreneurship and ICT fields in Africa. I had the privilege of representing iLab Liberia at a meeting of the Afrilabs network of tech & innovation hubs in Africa last weekend, as a pre-event to the Global Innovation Lounge of the re:publica conference, in Berlin, going on this week. There were all in all about a dozen African labs present and meeting for the very first time.
Africa is not one story or one market. However, the choir of our voices can be louder together. As later mentioned by one of our hosts, GIZ’s Christian Gmelin, having Erik Hersman open up the huge re:publica digital media conference with a keynote “Innovating Africa” turns the typical setup to a new direction – it was not the West talking about Africa and spreading there but rather a story of how Africans innovate at all levels of the society. Hersman presented some of the developments in Africa, highlighting that ideas and innovations come from the edge, from outfits and the disruptors – this means that we need to be on the lookout to learn from anyone – and the powerholder corporations, beware! And right now, there is a lot happening in Africa – and there are now more efforts to work collaboratively across the continent
So what’s in it for iLab?
The meeting and the conference were energizers, eye-openers and door-openers.
First, it was absolutely great to feel the energy amongst peers – all the hubs have a community of their own – but now there is also a network of hubs that makes us stronger, as we the users of the labs are getting to…well, thousands, if not perhaps already tens of thousands! And that makes for a powerful feeling of doing things together, around the continent.
Secondly, discussing with peers and hearing and seeing the stories at each of the places was – in addition to being entertaining – very thought-provoking and a learning experience.
Some of the key trends and developments that we discussed included:
- Hubs moving up in the value-creation chain, i.e. moving gradually from being tech and coworking centers to being incubation and accelerator hubs, places that coach and develop companies (of course, not everyone has to be like that. At iLab, we are not quite yet at a phase where 5 or 10 startups could be incubated at iLab – but we are moving towards a pre-incubation phase, having various events and programs in place that encourage entrepreneurs to work together and it won’t be long before we have the first set of companies working out of iLab.
- Hubs thinking about sustainable funding and business models – how hubs generate all or a substantial portion of their income by their own activities in a moderate time. As for iLab, this year’s budget is not fully covered by grants – we are looking to generate as much as 15-25% of our budget through various paid services.
- It’s certainly not just “traditional IT” that these tech and innovation hubs are embracing: hubs that foster social innovations, physical computing and hacking/making and green technology had some of the most creative things happening. ILab is just starting out and experimenting on physical computing (Starting next week!) but already knowing that some of the other hubs have, there are great possibilities to learn
Thirdly, the Afrilabs meeting and the joint Global Innovation Lounge at re:publica was a about initiating new contacts and collaborations – both in terms of collaboration between the various hubs on the continent, but also between hubs and donors, venture capitalists, academics and so on. We started our first collaboration with Hive Colab in Uganda, regarding Girls in ICT and more specifically Girls in Programming.
Pictures? Oh yeah, hub manager from around the world in action
Workshopping at Supermarkt. It used to be an abandoned Supermarket in a run-down area. Now several spaces in the area have been taken over by creative industry professionals and the areas has revived as well. It’s a great place for co-working and doing workshops.
Springtime in Berlin, very pleasurable weather. Whenever doing groupwork, most preferred to talk outside. The sun is good for creative thinking!
Some of the results from the first day: how do we make Afrilabs, the network of African tech and innovation hubs as success story.
The second day: after getting a few more into the city, the hubs briefly presented themselves, some of their unique features and challenges – to launch workshops on the most mentioned topics.
Topics of the second day.
The hubs that were present at the event.
The Global Innovation Lounge is not about flashy corporate style, but rather business and innovations coming from the grassroots. We demonstrated this feel by “hacking and making” our area at the conference – with inexpensive materials and a big heart. Jay Cousins from ICECairo leading the pack.
So…we all got our handmade pillows made.
Erik Hersman delivering the keynote: “Innovating Africa” and claiming that the statmakers got it all wrong – patent statistics are not really the way to define where innovations are happening.
This is what an early phase innovation might look like – a DIY 13-phase security system.
From a VERY early proto to a crowdfunding capable production version – the BRCK from Ushahidi
The crowd was gathering at the Lounge, it was busy most of the time
African hubs and their managers.
Blair Glencorse is in Liberia working on the Accountability Lab, which aims to find answers to problems of accountability. He also started pitch salons, a cross between speed networking and TED Talks.
While walking around Monrovia recently, I asked a Liberian friend if he could imagine his country as a place where resources were managed sustainably, women were treated equally, corruption was fought consistently and social enterprise was seen by young people to provide real opportunity. “Where on earth would we start?” he replied. We started several days later when I invited him to Liberia’s second Pitch Salon- held again in partnership with the brilliant and generous iLab Liberia and with the support of the RSA- where the Pitch Salon recipe of great ideas, brilliant people and unique format once more led to some fantastic discussions.
As always, the pitchers gave an “elevator pitch” for an organization, cause or idea that is engaging, accessible to an informed listener and has the potential to change the world for the better. The pitches this time around were as diverse as they have ever been at a Pitch Salon. Pandora Hodge, a serial entrepreneur in the making, talked about her idea for a student-run art house cinema in Monrovia; Nora Bowier, an environmentalist and community-rights advocate pitched about her pioneering work on natural resource management around the country; Tom Gwagee, the image of a modern African businessman, discussed his idea for a Liberian bike factory using Dutch thinking and techniques; Maryealee Pennoh, a women’s rights activist, gave an impassioned speech about her idea for a summer camp for disadvantaged girls; and Robtel Pailey, an academic with a real understanding of practical problems, discussed “Gbagba” her book used to teach children about the dangers of corruption.
The audience of forty or so from across the private sector, government, civil society, media and donors- and including many of the pitchers from the inaugural Liberian Pitch Salon- listened in, feasted on food from one of Monrovia’s favorite restaurants and provided advice and connections to the pitchers. Business cards were exchanged, funding possibilities were discussed and there was a real sense that the concepts were beginning to move towards realities. There are very few outlets for young Liberians to express their ideas in a collegial atmosphere to people who can really make them happen, and the Pitch Salons are beginning to fill this gap. In keeping with the concept, a film-maker at the event even suggested that the Salons themselves be recorded professionally and shown on Liberian television in the future so that the ideas can reach an even wider audience.
A few days later, I bumped into the same Liberian friend I had invited to the event, and asked him what he thought of the Pitch Salon experience. “I saw up-close the passion and creativity of Liberian youth” he said; “the question is not where we start, but why we haven’t started doing this earlier”.
Nowadays, the widespread uses of Information & Communication Technologies (ICTs) are changing the way people or companies work. It is a feature of the technological advancements of this period in history where there has been immense innovation in the information and communication sector.
Thus, the pace of technological change and what is available for use by businesses has change how they interact and do business with others. In particular, ICTs have a valuable potential for developing Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) through more effective use and better integration of ICTs in business processes while assisting them to make more efficient decisions relevant to their performance. ICTs have the potential to generate a change among SMEs and make them more competitive, innovative and generate growth.
Challenges faced by SMEs owners in Liberia
the current generation that’s old enough to be engaged in entrepreneurial activities are not aware of the benefits of ICTs since they’ve never been exposed to them
There is a problem in Liberia with the lack of basic computer skills and digital literacy. By our own conservative estimate, more than half the population have never taken a course on any aspect of computer use. The current generation that’s old enough to be engaged in entrepreneurial activities are not aware of the benefits of ICTs since they’ve never been exposed to them.
Most entrepreneurs only have a basic knowledge of ICT and don’t consider it as a strategic tool. They prefer investing in their core business rather than in ICT.
Education, training, and workforce development are key factors to improve the ICT uptake and to make effective use of it in general and for SMEs in particular.
The use of ICTs in Small and Medium Sized businesses is not very prevalent in the Liberia. From interactions with the small businesses owners who have participated in our training so far, we’ve gathered that their businesses use some form of ICT. The kind of technology in use is mostly telephones and standalone computers / laptops for basic wordprocessing and Internet purposes. They do not have dedicated ICT staff to carry out the ICT-related responsibilities.
They also listed different barriers that prevent them from learning and adopting or implementing ICT, ranging from socio-economic issues to technology-related issues: lack of money, lack of stable electricity, lack of knowledge, technology intimidation and perceived high cost of ICT. The Most of the barriers could be possibly overcome by learning more about ICT and by SMEs employing knowledgeable ICT staff.
Benefits of the training
Owing to these facts, since last year, as part of our regular free ICTs training at iLab, we have partnered with the Ministry of Commerce & Industries’ SMEs department to host series of contextually relevant ICTs training for over thirty (30) Small Businesses owner’s and employees. These training range from Google Map Maker – which allowed them to add and update their businesses geographical information on Google Maps and Google Earth for millions of users / potential customers to see.
Facebook and Google + – social media tools that allowed them to create pages for their businesses to advertise and market their products and services. GNUCash – a free and easy to use small-business financial-accounting software that will allow them to track bank accounts, income and expenses.
MS Excel - an electronic spreadsheet program that they will use for storing, organising and manipulating their organisational and financial documents.
Recently we had an intern, Shira Khaminsky from the University of Massachusetts who taught the Small businesses owners a course we labelled as intro branding and advertising. Doing her time she taught them to use Scribus, a free & open source design software to create customised business card, logos and brochure for their business. We’ve also just concluded an Intermediate version of the branding and advertising course for the same group of small business owners.
On the whole, ICT tools can provide several benefits across a wide range business operations and transactions. Certainly, ICT applications can contribute to improving information in a firm, can reduce transaction costs and can increase the speed and reliability of transactions for both business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions.
In addition, they are effective tools for improving external communications and quality of services for established and new customers. More specifically, SMEs can obtain a wide range of benefits from the use of ICT.
Among these benefits,it is possible to mention:
1. Enhance the productivity and effectiveness of certain activities or functions.
2. Enable the access to new environments as well as the generation of new markets and business models.
3. Improve the qualification and specialisation of human resources, which increases
To conclude, our doors are always opened to partner with the Ministry of Commerce and other ministries to train small business owners with contextually relevant ICT skills that will encourage the use of ICTs and enhance their productivity and effectiveness to deliver the best possible services to their customers. We hope that these training will serve as a stepping stone for Liberian entrepreneurs / small business owners to integrate technologies that will boost productivity, thus, generating growth in their businesses.
Luther D. Jeke
In October of last year we did a blog post about the demographics of people that use iLab. Since then, we have tallied up our users and now we have the stats on who has used iLab up until December 2012. There are lots of changes that have taken place in the new stats of our users.
Female participants – the minority
The number of female participants is very low as usual. During this period, 19% of the total participants were female and the remaining 81% male. This low figure reflects a common Liberian perception that the ICT sector is best suited for men. At a recent girls-only iLab event, a participant noted that she was discouraged from entering the ICT field by various people because it would too much math and coding. To help create more gender equality, iLab now has a customized ICT-Girls Mastering the Internet course which is exclusively for women and high-school aged girls. We believe this course will serve as a stepping stone to encourage Liberian women to learn about the Internet and its many components as they gain more exposure to the opportunities before them in the field of ICT.
Intermediate and advanced courses get a boost
We also now have a lot of Intermediate and advanced trainings, unlike before. When iLab was first launched, we started with basic courses like Intro FOSS, Intro Mastering the Internet, Intro Website design, etc. But as the months went by, the participants who took these courses kept coming to iLab and wanting more. Because of this demand, we now have intermediate and advanced level courses that were previously only offered at the intro level. For example, 46% of people who took Intro FOSS have come back to iLab to take the Intermediate FOSS. We might have even offered the Intermediate FOSS to a larger of number students , if iLab were able to admit all participants who take the pre-test for the Intermediate. We often turn down a lot of interested participants because our two labs only hold 15 participants for a course. Thus, we are not able to hold as many people in the intermediate FOSS course as want to attend. The Intermediate FOSS course is offered in one of the labs approximately every two months.
TED talk – our most popular event
From the inception of iLab until now, we have always referred to Intro FOSS as iLab’s most popular course, and it sure is. No other course at iLab has drawn more interest and produced a high number of participants like the Intro FOSS course. However, it’s now time to also recognize our most popular public event – TED talk night. From the testimonies we have received, many see it as being more interesting, inspirational and overall very educational.
Today iLab Liberia wrapped up a training for Liberian human rights journalists in social media. The training started on December 8th and finished today. There was one session each day that lasted for two hours. Fifteen journalists from both print and electronic media institutions participated in this training. The social media training covered blogging, particularly Tumblr and Twitter. Some principles of using social media were also discussed, such as including tags in a blog, mentioning your blog or post in a tweet and styles of writing posts as a journalist.
During the training all of the journalists started tumblr and twitters accounts. For example Ms. Tecee Boley started http://teceeboley.tumblr.com/, Mr. Sam Zota started http://samzota.tumblr.com/, and Mr. Oniel Bestman started http://onielbestman.tumblr.com/. At the training we were told by the journalists that many of their stories are not heard due to the lack of space in the dailies to publish them. The Journalists saw the training as a new tool through which their untold stories could be heard, seen and read.
At the heart of all the technological advances in Africa is the hope that African people will use these technologies to their gain. Fiber-optic cables surround Africa’s coasts; mobile operators are investing in wireless technologies like WiMax in preparation for a flood of data that could break existing networks. Mobile devices and computer manufacturers are selling low-cost superphones, tablets, and netbooks, hoping that these devices will integrate well with the African lifestyle whilst platform developers scout the continent in search of developers to build apps for Africans on their systems and networks.
At this point it is quite obvious that the focus of these market players is the people—because it is the people who will spend their money on these technologies. A huge “side-opportunity” is created as a result of this new focus—the demand for developers of these Africa-relevant applications. At the moment, a few African countries have woken up to this new reality and are striving to meet this huge demand.
Liberia is not one of those countries awake to this new reality. For public and private sectors alike, the primary focus is on rebuilding systems and infrastructure destroyed by the two civil wars, as well as dealing with international debt accumulated over the years. Instead of technology being the means by which these reconstruction efforts are undertaken, it has become a project of the future. With our education system still weaker than its pre-war status, technical training has still not matured for even the best institutions.
At the moment, there are no Computer Science (CS) programs in any of our universities. The closest and only program we have is an e-Learning program for BSc. Information Technology from Amity University in Uttar Pradesh, India, offered through the Pan African e-Network with the University of Liberia. This program primarily focuses on infrastructure setup and management, with little programming. This stands opposed to the programming-rich B.Tech program in Computer Science and Engineering offered in India by the same university.
Other institutions that offer courses in programming include the Starz Institute of Technology and Silicon Pro. These courses are mainly introductory courses to languages like Visual Basic and PHP/MySQL. Furthermore, training in web development is more concentrated around tools like Dreamweaver than on the underlying programming/markup/scripting languages. These institutions are relatively new and the programming courses are not as popular with students as courses like networking and hardware. Courses in popular languages like Java, C++, and Python which are relevant to mobile application development are non-existent in these training institutions. Furthermore the high cost of these trainings makes them inaccessible to most would-be programmers.
Liberia’s small developer community is comprised mainly of people who studied outside Liberia, self-taught, and those who learned on the job. As a result, programmers are in short supply which causes programming jobs to go to foreign firms. There are a handful of tech firms in Liberia that are involved in software development that often have to train their recruited staff to program on the job. This is on a very small scale and benefits very few people.
Due to the limited number of programming languages taught in Liberia, developers are often not prepared to build applications on platforms that are language-biased like iOS. Since this is the case mainly for mobile devices, Liberian developers are cut off from harnessing the potentials of mobile applications. To date, it is still difficult to find mobile applications for Android, Apple or Symbian that have been built by Liberians.
This situation leaves us woefully unprepared to tap into the vast opportunities the mobile and Internet revolutions bring to the continent. Without mobile and web developers, Liberia will be left voiceless on these emerging platforms. Mobile and web applications relevant to Liberia need to be built by Liberians but, without effective training in modern languages, this will be impossible to accomplish. It is hard to imagine Liberia playing a pivotal role in the tech industry without a growing developer community. As important as computer networking and hardware are to Liberia’s technological advancement, these skills are inadequate to spur maximum Liberian participation in the global tech arena. They also do not promote innovation as programming skills do.
Until our tertiary institutions start offering relevant CS programs, Liberia will remain a consumer of information technology and may never grow to be a provider. Until Liberian students get early exposure to programming, they will be unable to compete with their regional and global counterparts in the technology race. And until we get a shift in our thinking about science and technology education, we will never get free from foreign technological domination.