Liberia’s iLab lights up

Computing

Opened in May 2011, iLab Liberia, based in the capital, Monrovia, owes its existence in many ways to Ushahidi, Kenya’s outstanding technology firm that launched the iHub in Nairobi. Amidst their consulting work for Ushahidi, co-founders John Etherton and Kate Cummings noticed a huge need for the development of the IT sector in Liberia.

“We were tasked with deploying customised instances of Ushahidi’s mapping platform for local early warning partners, and we quickly found that most partners didn’t have an adequate internet connection or reliable power supply. Their computers were often full of viruses and they needed more than a few trainings in the platform,” explains Cummings, who now serves as executive director for iLab Liberia.

She and Etherton set about putting together a place that would not only have access to fast and reliable internet but also up-to-date equipment and a co-working space, while having local IT experts on hand to provide free training.

Liberia faces a number of issues when it comes to the field of information technology with two long-term civil wars fought between 1989 and 2003 having taken its toll on the education system.

Less than 2% of the country’s population has access to the internet, while none of its universities offer computer science. According to Cummings, there are just two IT institutes offering expensive courses on old software.

“When someone does get online, the internet speed is extremely slow, making e-learning and simple web browsing difficult. One of the lingering effects of Liberia’s long civil war is the damaged electrical infrastructure; because there is no functioning power grid, businesses and homes rely on expensive generators, and thus the cost of powering an internet café via generator can make using the computers prohibitively expensive,” explains Cummings.

While incubation spaces like Kenya’s iHub are focused on developing products and businesses, their Liberian cousin is, for the time being, focused on developing the initial skills needed to take the tech community forward and eventually reach the entrepreneurial phase.

To this end, iLab does not have a formal membership structure; instead they aim to make skills training and events easily accessible to the general public. These events and trainings have proved very popular with the nascent tech community, with over 450 individuals making use of iLab in the last year.

Cummings explains the procedure in place, “iLab users register for, and are enrolled, in trainings based on their skill level, and co-working hours are open to anyone who needs internet access and IT assistance with a project. For co-working hours, users fill out project trackers that describe the project they are working on, its timeline and goals.”

“This allows iLab staff to customise our support and to ensure that the lab is being used for professional purposes rather than just surfing the net. All trainings have a pre-test that applicants must pass in order to participate, and there is a final exam that determines what type of certificate is issued,” Cummings continues.

Aside from the infrastructure challenges that iLab Liberia faces, there are also issues surrounding the type of learning environment potential users have been exposed to.

Teaching and learning methods in Liberia, and to an extent across the entire continent, is traditionally one of deference to authority and learning by rote. This has limited students by neglecting critical thinking skills and creating a reluctance to speak up when confused or unsure.

“This can make sharing new ideas and tools difficult. We are also challenged by the high costs of essentials such as electricity, internet and good equipment, which constitute the majority of iLab’s budget simply because they are scarce in Liberia,” says Cummings.

Yet despite these challenges, the iLab continues to grow. According to Cummings, there are also IT meet-up groups in Monrovia where enthusiastic entrepreneurs and aspiring programmers come together to discuss ways of connecting Liberia to the wider world of information.

In its short existence, iLab Liberia has already partnered with more than a dozen institutions and non-governmental organisation (NGOs). They also have ongoing partnerships and projects with the Liberian Ministry of Commerce and Georgia Tech University in the USA, respectively.

“We recently trained more than 40 conflict resolution staff for the Norwegian Refugee Council on how to use the iPod Touch to fully document land disputes. We also host and facilitate regular meetings for Liberia’s Early Warning and Early Response Working Group that tracks conflict and peace-building nationwide,” confirms Cummings.

Looking forward, iLab Liberia sees a great deal to be positive about as the Liberian government plans to allow public access to the newly landed ACE fibre-optic cable while encouraging investment in the still-developing IT sector.

From the incubators side, they are planning to offer more advanced trainings for users interested in a variety of fields, including computer programming, journalism and IT for NGOs.

“We are currently looking for funding to continue and grow iLab in 2013, we are interested in offering incubation services for IT entrepreneurs, and expanding the paid services we began offering in June. Our aim is to keep iLab’s trainings and events free to the public while diversifying our courses with advanced offerings that benefit our experienced users,” says Cummings.