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.