Turning African Youth on to Technology

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


An African NGO believes the Internet is the single biggest key to rapid development in Africa – and it is working to connect youth, women and rural populations to the web, and in turn, switch them on to the vast resources stored across the world’s Internet sites.

After initial successes with a youth project and with farmers, Voices of Africa (VOA) (http://www.voicesofafrica.info) is now seeking to scale up its work to fan out across Africa – and takes its services to the world’s largest refugee camp, the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. 

The youth and technology empowerment NGO has developed a business model to deliver low-cost Internet access and e-resources to Africa’s slums and rural farmers.

VOA argues that “the digital divide, defined by a lack of access to information for a specific population, symbolizes the largest difference between developed and developing countries: the opportunity to obtain and utilize information.”

“The digital divide runs much deeper than hardware and software,” it says. “While equipment is necessary it is not sufficient. The real heart of the digital divide is that those without access to information resources often suffer needlessly while the solutions to their problems are floating in the air.”

But why is the Internet so important?

“The internet puts the choice of content at the fingertips of the user,” explains executive director Crystal Kigoni. “Traditional media is one way communications. Internet is bi-directional.

“Our NGO is completely grassroots. We train the people who train the people. It is an each one, teach one philosophy and is highly effective. We also design our projects to be self-sustainable after one year of successful implementation.”

The philosophy behind Voices of Africa – “Sustainable Development through Information Empowerment” – is to give people the information and resources to take better control of their lives.

Access to the Internet in Africa is patchy and, for the poor, an expensive resource. The penetration of mobile phones in Africa has been spectacular in the past five years. But there are limits to the resources people can afford to access with their phones. Issues abound about data costs, mobile phone networks, and mobile phone capability.

VOA targets youth and women in sub-Saharan Africa through online educational resources offered on their e-learning website (http://elearning.voicesofafrica.info/). The resources have been certified by Nazarene University (http://www.anu.ac.ke), a private university in Nairobi, Kenya.

The e-learning resources include high quality training videos, presentations and screencasts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screencast) – like a movie, it is a digital recording of changes on a computer screen and is used to teach software – to share on the web. The resources are also shared through compact discs (CDs) and iPods (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPod).

Project coordinator Nick Kungu coordinates the staff working on the pilot Kenyan projects: a Rural Internet Kiosk; a Youth Empowerment Center; and KiberaNet, which launched in August 2011. VOA uses a part-time and volunteer staff of more than 20 Kenyans and four international ‘virtual’ volunteers.

The group is also working with farmers in Kutus, central Kenya, to help them get a better price for their products and introduce sustainable agriculture practices. This is done through online courses so the farmers do not need to travel. It is hoped by doing this they can improve the supply of food for the country.

The Youth Empowerment Center in Webuye constituency of the Western province of Kenya involves a partnership with the government of Kenya to teach computer basics, research and data collection, social media, ICT (information communication technology) for development, social business and community health.

In rural areas, the need for information cannot be overestimated. In the remote countryside, there are few schools with adequate resources and almost no community libraries. The lifesaving knowledge the people require has to date been completely beyond their grasp. As one rural woman in the Western province of Kenya exclaimed to VOA after encountering the resources on the Internet, “It is like being brought from the darkness into the light.”

Another project in development is SlumNet, which seeks to combine the Internet with low-cost devices like tablet computers and netbooks. Its pilot scheme, KiberaNet, launched this month in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya to test the business model. VOA hopes to then expand it to Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. It is using a business model to bring low-cost Internet access to Africa’s slums that is fully funded by the local communities and the users.

It has identified the key needs of youth in slums that need to be met: a way to access the vast resources available on the Internet; a way to generate income, undertake low-cost learning, and organise for social justice; ways to overcome social, economic and political isolation; a way to access affordable equipment and resources to improve their quality of life in the short-term.

To make it a sustainable business model, the community takes a 60 percent stake in the incorporated entity. Voices of Africa will select six local civil society organisations to take another 10 percent stake in the business. VOA takes 10 percent and the remaining 30 percent will be open to outside investors.

It involves setting up a closed intranet system and Internet access covering the entire Kibera slum, which has an estimated population of 2 million, a majority under the age of 30.

KiberaNet hopes to act as a community hub for socialising, education and generating content. A key part is creating an atmosphere that is welcoming to novices. The business model is about delivering the bandwidth of Internet access and simultaneously generating a sustainable source of income to keep it going. Partners in the business include Promote Africa, Plexus Group and Future Optics Networks.

VOA also has been blogging about its time in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camp (http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e483a16) at their website, www.voicesofafrica.info, and has been developing plans to expand services to the camp, home to over 400,000 refugees from drought and famine in Somalia. The camp was only designed to hold 90,000 people. The chronic food insecurity has caused a massive humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, leaving over 10 million people in need of help.

“There are plenty of resources going in but it is aid business as usual,” claims Kigoni. “You see lots of waste in many areas, and a lack in others that would be extremely beneficial. Hence, why Voices of Africa has come up with the youth technology and empowerment plan that accompanies a general information and communications system, DadaabNet.”

DadaabNet will be a youth-run community Internet service and education service. VOA plans to use a wireless intranet, internal communications systems and low-cost internet access in the refugee camp.

The project is the first of its kind in Dadaab and a first in Kenya, claims VOA, allowing free educational content without needing to access the Internet.

The intranet will host free educational videos that can be accessed by mobile phones and computers. The topics covered in the videos include health, nutrition, sanitation and computer training and how to use technology for sustainable development.

The curriculum is also approved by Nazerene University to certificate level.

The system is supervised and would be able to offer resources to other NGOs seeking to provide services to the camp’s residents. The intention is to open up opportunities for education and employment youth who are currently unemployed.

At present the youth in the camp, many of whom have not completed secondary school, get by ‘hustling’ for work, according to VOA. By being left to their own devices, there is a risk they will fall into negative behaviour like crime and drug use or be preyed upon by terrorist organisations operating in the area like al Shabaab, they maintain.

“In our dreams, everyone everywhere in the world can have the opportunity to develop their minds. It is through this creativity that Africa will rise,” concludes Kigoni.


1) The Impact of Mobile Phones on Profits from Livestock Activities by Roxana Barrantes. Website: http://www.mendeley.com/research/impact-mobile-phones-profits-livestock-activities-evidence-puno-peru-14/

2) 2011 UNHCR Country Operations Profile – Kenya. Website: http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e483a16

3) Southern Innovator magazine: New global magazine Southern Innovator’s first issue is out now and is about Mobile Phones and Information Technology in the global South. Website: http://www.scribd.com/doc/57980406/Southern-Innovator-Issue-1

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