I’m sure most people reading this already know that the taxis in Cameroon work differently than in the U.S. (they go along the road picking up multiple people with no connection to each other that are going to different destinations as long as they are along the same street and direction). But the taxis are even more crazy than you might have read. The normal occupancy for a 5-seat sedan taxis is 6 people. The extra person sits next to the person in the front seat as they edge behind the gear shift.
We now have a firm location set for Operation Connect – Buea, Cameroon.
Cameroon is an ideal place for Operation Connect. The economy is strong enough that schools and communities could realistically be expected to support and maintain a computer lab. However, their ICT progress is so sparse that each region may be significantly impacted and improved through cooperative interventions.
Cameroon is the 10th largest economy in Africa and has been growing steadily since 1995 with the support of several government reform and IMF (international monetary fund) that are still growing in strength. Cameroon also enjoys strong levels of stability and has been in a state of peaceful growth for over a decade. These strengths have been part of the support behind Cameroon becoming one of the top 10 countries in net additions of internet users in Africa between 2000 and 2008. Despite this, lack of access and training in computer techology have been cited as contributing factors to the underdevelopment of both the Cameroonian ecnonomy and educational sector. The government is also clearly interested in addressing the technology gap that separates Cameroon from so many valuable opportunities.
In an effort to tap into the benefits higher computer literacy provide, the Cameroonian government, lead by President Paul Biya, has required computer science be taught in secondary schools. However, on average only 4.1% of households even own a computer (far fewer than even many of the UN’s “Least Developed Countries.” In Africa, Cameroon is 23rd in terms of percentage of households with a computer. Figure 3 (attached at end of document) shows the large disparity in internet use in Cameroon compared not only to the world, but also other developing countries. Buea, a city totaling about 150,000 people, is the capital of the southwest province of Cameroon and was once the colonial capital of the former German-controlled “Kamerun” from 1901 to 1919. The city is home to the only Anglophone university within Cameroon (University of Buea) and a significant number of ethnic groups. However, even here only about 5% of the secondary schools have computers installed in their schools. It is an ideal community to assist because all progress made here will affect not only the immediate Buea region but many villages that surround this city. The lack of publicly available computers (only 5% in secondary schools) consequently harms not only this community but multiple others. The general need and receptiveness on the citizens’ parts to advance forward in the ICT age strengthens not only the likilihood but the necessity for a successful project.
Africa suffers from a shortage in exposure to and experience with computers. This shortage makes the ability to develop computer literacy exceptionally challenging. The explosive arrival of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) has made computer literacy (defined here as the ability to use everyday computers to perform common tasks such as searching the internet, writing a document, and understanding how to use a program) a commonly expected skill and a key component of many jobs today — especially higher level jobs. As can be seen from Figure 1 above, the percentage of internet user penetration in Africa is lower than any other region (excluding Antarctica). Though startling, this shortage must be observed in reference to the greater overall picture which shows that this shortage of internet is exacerbated by the lower level of telephone sevice and general electricity service. In fact, Africa is behind the developing world (using the UN’s 2006 definition of developing countries). Even more striking is that Africa has lower levels of computer internet usage relative to the number of households that do have electricity and telephone access — pointing to the need for more ICT resources. The inability of most African communities to acquire computer literacy greatly damages their ability to compete for jobs and improve their economy in an increasingly globalized society.
In most cases, the significant cost of computers makes them unaffordable considering the average income levels in Africa. This price barrier is the leading inhibitor to the penetration of computer and internet usage in African households and causes a large shortage in the number of computers in Africa. Many countries also lack the necessary infrastructure to support the bandwith and electrical demands of ICT. This has led to public internet/computer sources (community access centers, internet cafés, schools) becoming the most prevalent (and usually affordable) method of access to computer technology. According to a recent household survey conducted by Research ICT Africa, the main location of internet use in many African countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, and Cameroon is the cyber/internet café.
Though several efforts currently exist that attempt to address the complicated technology gap most African nations face, the effectiveness of these programs are hotly debated. Because Cameroon’s economy is relatively strong, communities like Buea are frequently ignored by such organizations. At the forefront of these organizations is One Laptop Per Child, a nonprofit organization that delivers laptops that are custom-designed for children to countries all across Africa. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also funds multiple efforts to provide ICT to low-income African areas. Much as a fishing pole is of little use to a hungry man without any instruction on how to use it, these and other similar solutions merely provide hardware to communities without any means for understanding how to integrate them into their communities. Furthermore, after the initial recipients of the computers have grown and advanced, there is no mechanism by which their knowledge may be passed on to further generations. Several retrospective analyses of the One Laptop Per Child effort have even found that communities are negatively affected by the depositing of computer hardware on uninformed communities. Several critics, led in large part by Cameroon’s very own Marthe Dansokho, have also faulted the organization for failing to use the computers in ways that address issues important to Africans as well as ignoring countries that do not comprise the most financially devastated.
The development of technology since the entry of computers into the consumer market has been explosive. Mail services are struggling to survive as emails have taken precedence over envelopes. Newspaper companies struggle to justify producing printed medium and the music industry is being forced to revolutionize its publishing schemes in order to combat widely-available-pirated-online materials.
With a few clicks one can connect to satellites circling the earth and access a picture of some location. Getting there? 3 clicks more. The answer to any question is just one search engine away. Instructions manuals, dictionaries, maps, calculators–all within reach with only a few minutes of time. In nearly every avenue, computers are beginning to make indelible marks on the way the world operates.
Although it would seem reasonable to call this revolution widespread and explosive, an asterisk must always be inserted — Africa is this asterisk.
Though the benefits of computers and the wonders of the internet are widely lauded across the planet, but most of Africa remains untouched by this revolutionary change. Even though Africa is the 2nd most populous continent in the world, less than three percent of the world’s internet subscribers were located in Africa in 2006. That’s not too surprising considering that there is only one computer per 130 people in Africa. The access to broadband connections is lower than 1%. This can probably be explained by the continental average of around 3 main lines per 100 people. In over 20 countries the national average is fewer than 1 main line. Of the connections that are available, most are severely overpriced and inconvenient. Many individuals can only afford access at libraries or schools for free.
Operation Connect will address this challenging dilemma in the most effective way we are capable. Though a few programs are in place to provide computers to developing nations, many fail to adequately help these countries actually become a part of the revolution. Some programs only offer specialized computers that are not operated like the computers that the working world requires employees to use with competence (i.e., One Laptop One Child). Furthermore, many of these programs merely drop computers into communities and leave the members flummoxed with how to practically integrate them into their schools and communities. Despite these companies’ attempt to teach the masses to fish, they have merely handed out second-rate fishing poles.
The goal of Operation Connect is to completely connect selected communities with the outside world. Blackstone Operations’s approach connects access to free-up-to-date computers with the hands-on power of personal training and integration of computers into every-day life. Blackstone Operations will strive to give underprivileged communities first-rate fishing poles and teach the member of these communities to utilize the full range of opportunities provided by the tools.
Operation Connect is a declaration that everyone can learn given the same tools… that cultures from different hemispheres can connect to and learn from each other without condescension or scorn… that each man and each woman is both deserving and capable of fishing from the same prosperous pool.
I’ve recently become interested with the curious situation Africa has in communicating with the world. Specifically, so much of what we hear and learn about Africans and their needs comes from…non Africans. We’ve grown accustomed to accepting what these other organizations–be them non profits, church groups, government initiatives, UN groups, volunteer organizations– have to say about what Africans need and the best way to help them.
While I have no doubt that many of these groups are at a greater position to understand some of the best solutions to assuaging their various concerns and troubles, I’m bothered that the African “voice” seems to have been lost. The video below is in interesting perspective on what some Africans think about the work of NGOs in their countries. I found it reading a website that collects news stories from Africa about Africa (http://allafrica.com) . Of course, keep in mind that these individuals have been selected for their opinion and that I could head over with a camcorder (not really) and create a similar video with the opposite message. Nonetheless, I feel these voices need to be heard and their perspectives kept in mind when determining how we, as a modern society, can help others.