Despite high costs, iLab creates a new initiative to promote ICT in Liberia

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The ACE submarine fibre cable landed in Liberia on November 4th in between the two rounds for presidential election. On November 8th, Helen Sirleaf Johnson was re-elected President and will serve another five year term, giving the country and its population a another chance to carry on building a more prosperous future and definitely parting with the memories of more than ten years of civil war. So, what lies in for the ICT sector in Liberia? Isabelle Gross spoke to John Etherton about the iLab, an initiative to provide facilities and expertise to allow local IT use to flourish.

Liberia’s ICT sector remains pretty shallow. Beside the four mobile operators and an indebted national incumbent, there are not many more players worth mentioning. Despite this negative backdrop, there is a young population eager to get more acquainted with new technologies. For example, at the “Internet Camp Liberia” organised by Google in August 2010 between 150 and 200 people turned up at the Monrovia City Hall. The lack of ICT facilities and in particular Internet access (very slow and expensive for the average young Liberian) makes it even more a challenging environment for young people that want to go into IT. 

The iLab was launched in May 2011 by Kate Cummings and John Etherton to provide a space for young Liberians to develop their IT skills. According to John, the idea of the iLab took shape when both Kate and John were setting up facilities (a space, computers, internet connectivity and reliable electricity) to cater for Ushahidi Liberia’s partner organisations that would be in charge of monitoring the upcoming elections.

While looking at getting all this together, they realised how bad the IT environment was in terms of slow Internet, old computer equipment, software piracy and viruses. Unless you have a credit card to purchase software online, there is little chance in Liberia that you will be able to put your hand on a genuine copy of Windows for example. Pirated software has also too often the disadvantage of carrying embedded viruses.

With its 16 new computers and a fast Internet connection, iLab offers a space where young Liberians can access the Internet free of charge and further an environment in which they can discover and experiment with open source software (Ubuntu, Firefox, Open Office, mapping software, etc.) while getting professional expertise to guide them along. People who come to the iLab are mostly users of the Ushahidi platform and most of them work for Liberian NGOs.

They come because they want to learn more about IT. John explains further that most of them have exposure to computers and software but there are gaps in their existing skills. They learnt how to use computers and software out of necessity rather than through proper training courses. This also means that their keenness to learn new IT stuff is somehow set back by their timidity, lack of confidence and their lack of self-training skills.

Besides offering training on open source software and social media tools, iLab has also grown into a social space for collaboration across sectors. Nearly a dozen local and international organisations have conducted events there and more than 150 individuals ranging from police officers, local techies and Liberian MPs have participated in lab trainings. iLab has also organised some mapping parties using Google’s map maker. According to John, there has been some progress on the map of Monrovia and there are plans to expand the mapping to the counties.

iLab boosts the fastest Internet access publicly available in Monrovia but this comes at a heavy price for the organisation. Their 1MB satellite link cost them US$60,000 per year.  On top of the connectivity cost, there are also electricity and rental costs to factor in. While iLab is looking at ways to generate income (e.g. paying for priority use of iLab’s facilities for example) to ensure long-term sustainability, it still rely today mainly on donor funding. So, if you are inside or outside Liberia and are interested in supporting the development of ICT in the country, then you can in touch with iLab here:

During my last visit to Liberia, somebody describes me Liberia as the “Africa of Africa”. Sure, Liberia has a lot of catch up to do and the IT sector for example is far less developed than in countries like Ghana or Kenya but initiatives like the iLab also show that it doesn’t want to be left behind.


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