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For Recovering Liberia, Tech Hub a High-Speed Link to a Digital Future

BY Tamasin Ford | Tuesday, January 22 2013

Graduates of a course for women at iLab Liberia (image: iLab Liberia)

Twenty young Liberian female students and business owners sat in front of shiny new computers, competing for air space, talking over the top of each other. “It embarrasses me a lot. I don’t even have an idea about email,” said one. “Men have more opportunity to explore technology and less responsibilities like kids,” stated another.

They were participating in a community radio program about barriers to technology for women in the air-conditioned office space of iLab Liberia. The women have in common the desire to find out more about technology — the Internet, mobile phones, blogging, and social media.

“Technology is very important,” said Lorpu, a university student, standing up so she could be heard. “It gives you new ideas. It makes you to learn and it also … empowers you,” she said.

More than a decade of civil war in Liberia destroyed schools, hospitals, roads and virtually everything in its path, leaving more than 250,000 people dead and the country one of the poorest on the continent. In 2013 Liberia marks a decade of peace. Construction sites dominate the capital and foreign direct investment is coming in. Liberia’s GDP is rising fast and with it the population’s spending power. Laptops, smart phones, tablets and gadgets — albeit many of them cheap imitations from China — are hitting the markets. Less than 1 percent of the population has access to electricity, but people are hungry for technology.

Walking through the hot, humid streets of the capital, Monrovia, as yellow New York-style taxis rumble by and motorbike riders, or pen-pens as they’re locally known, blast their horns looking for passengers, small independent Internet cafes are popping up everywhere. Some, with a collection of plastic tables and chairs alongside noisy generators, charge by the hour. Others provide air-conditioning and food to complement a daily Internet fee that is completely unaffordable for most Liberians. This is where iLab Liberia comes in. It is the country’s fastest public Internet connection with two labs full of computers free for anyone to use.

The idea began in a living room in May 2011 in partnership with Ushahidi, with the goal of asking people what they wanted to learn before setting about designing training courses. Less than a year later it has become its own accredited international nongovernmental organization. By the beginning of 2013 more than 1,000 people had taken advantage of iLab’s free technology and training sessions. The center has produced nearly seven hundred graduates.

Co-founder and Technical Director Kate Cummings said she sees iLab as a “hub of creativity and innovation.” They’ve offered trainings on everything from Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) to Tumblr and Twitter sessions for journalists. They host Google mapping parties, screen TED talks and movies, and last year held the country’s first pitch salon, an opportunity for Liberian entrepreneurs to showcase their ideas to potential investors.

“We've managed to offer a tech hub with few obstacles to entry in a context where there are extremely limited opportunities to access technology,” said Cummings. “I am most excited that our users feel that iLab is theirs — that they have a stake in the organization's offerings, in its future.”

The atmosphere at iLab has something of an oasis quality. Colourful lappas, the material used for making traditional Liberian suits, are transformed into artwork, draped from the ceilings. The mood is relaxed, but people who come to the iLab are evidently hard at work. But most strikingly, despite the expensive Lenovo ThinkPad computers and the country’s first and only lending library of audio and visual equipment, anyone is free to walk in.

Running a technology hub in a country with unreliable and prohibitively expensive energy supplies is not without its challenges. Before the war, the capital relied on a hydropower plant 20 miles north-east of Monrovia for its energy needs. But it was completely destroyed in the fighting, along with the country's entire transmission and distribution equipment. Now a decade has passed since the war ended, but people still rely on huge, noisy, diesel fuelled generators. The cost of 24-hour electricity and a 2mb dedicated Single Channel Per Carrier satellite connection runs to nearly $100,000 a year, a third of iLab’s budget for 2013.

The high cost and limited access to the Internet are barriers for Liberians, particularly for women and girls. The availability of fast and free computers at iLab is a start in helping to “bridge this gender gap” said Cummings. According to a survey undertaken this month by Intel, up to seven in 10 women in sub-Saharan Africa cite cost as the main factor preventing them from accessing the Internet. It also found men are almost twice as likely to have access to the Internet.

“Fear is also a major challenge for women,” said Cummings. “At iLab we really encourage young women and want them to come to us and we’ll create courses for them,” she added.

Local journalists have also discovered iLab Liberia — not only for the free trainings it provides and the availability of hi-tech equipment, but also for the potential it offers to gain professional exposure with international audience. On April 26 the landmark conviction of Liberia’s former President, Charles Taylor, for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone was the biggest news story in the world. Requests for information and reaction from Liberia came flooding in. Two Liberian journalists, Winston Daryoue and Laura Golakeh, took part in a live one-hour television discussion via Skype on the BBC’s World Have Your Say program. Without iLab Liberia’s high-speed Internet connection, their participation would have been impossible.

“ILab provides the reliance and very scarce IT services that the Liberian media landscape lacks,” said Daryoue. “This is where iLab stands out. Its very fast internet speed and dedicated teaching staff make its services to the local and perhaps international media invaluable.”

To supplement funding from Humanity United, Indigo Trust, Google, Africa's Technology & Transparency Initiative (ATTI) and the Natembea Foundation, iLab generates revenue through paid consulting services.

There are other computer labs or knowledge centers in the city, like the Business Start-up Centre Monrovia. But iLab is the only facility that offers free access to the Internet and tailor-made training sessions — provided by Liberians.

As Liberia strives to catch up with the world’s ever changing technology markets, iLab has ambitious plans for 2013. On the agenda are in-depth courses in programming languages such as Python and JavaScript, and training in content management systems like Drupal and Joomla.

Monrovia is far from being a thriving African tech hub like Nairobi or Kigali. But the effort of iLab Liberia and the arrival of the Africa Coast to Europe broadband cable are a reason for cautious optimism.

“If we can support the creation of mobile apps and web development by Liberians for Liberians, that would be a great achievement,” said Cummings.

Tamasin Ford is a British freelance journalist based in Monrovia.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.