Digital divide widens in The Gambia


Muhammed Jawara's lessons never last more than half an hour. Teaching ICT at a secondary school in the Gambian village of Sohm, where there is no mains power source, means when the battery of the clapped-out donated laptop he uses to teach with dies, class is over.

To charge this laptop for his next class, Jawara must cycle to a nearby village where an NGO with electricity lets him plug in. He makes this trip up to ten times a day.

Typically, Jawara teaches class sizes of up to 39 pupils between the ages of 11 and 26. Huddling around a laptop, or using paper printouts of screenshots of applications like Microsoft Office, is not however, very conducive for learning.

"It's very frustrating as the time I have to speak to my students is very short. The students enjoy the practical more than the theory, but my classes are 95 percent theory.

"They do complain very bitterly that it's a waste of time only doing theory, which I support."

The school is not without computers. In fact, it has an ICT suite, with 11 ancient desktops. But without an energy source, they are just gathering dust and of no use to the eager students. Powering them with the school's generator is too costly. UK charity Sohm Schools Support recently donated a few laptops, which are an improvement, but they too have short battery lives.

There is no internet connection in Sohm, so pupils are not able to benefit from the so-called 'e-learning revolution'.

Jawara himself went to a school with good computer facilities, equipping him with the necessary ICT skills to study at Gambian higher education colleges and become a teacher.

Despite his pupils being deprived such facilities, Jawara strongly believes that teaching them ICT is not futile. Rather, it is crucial to stop them falling behind the rest of the world.

"Every child should have at least basic knowledge in ICT because we are living in a digital world. These skills enable you to do your work," says Jawara.

Studies show that 'digitisation' – the migration away from an analogue system – has a measurable effect on economic growth and job creation. New technologies have already transformed sectors such as education, healthcare and farming, globally.

For The Gambia, digitisation could be a route to tackling youth unemployment, which according to the Africa Economic Outlook is at 40 percent. The rapid rate of technological innovation has created a ticking time bomb for The Gambia.

By 2020, an entire generation will have grown up in a primarily global digital world where computers, the internet, mobile phones and social networking will be second nature. As people in developed countries gain greater exposure to these technologies, and at younger ages, the digital divide is widening.

This is particularly the case in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has been hailed as the next frontier for business, due to the explosion in digital and mobile technologies it is experiencing.

As investment pours into technologically developing areas, the digital gap becomes even more yawning for some. Gambian youngsters, like those at Sohm School, are at risk of being left behind unless they get their much-needed power source.

But electric energy in The Gambia comes at a high cost. Despite being the smallest country on the African continent, the price Gambians pay for electricity is reported to be among the highest in the world. Just 35 percent of The Gambia's 1.8 million citizens have access to mains electricity, European Union programme manager Sylvain Lequere revealed last year, during a visit to the country.

Since the required energy capacity of The Gambia is very small compared to other African countries, historically there was no development of power plants with high capacities.

As a result, the country has become hooked on diesel-powered generators. Their low cost and simple installation means they are the main source of electricity, but the running costs are extremely high.

"It's a very unhealthy situation," says Peter Weissferdt, a renewable energy engineer who has lived in The Gambia for the past decade and visited since 1973.

"In The Gambia electricity is much too expensive and not available in the required quantity. This affects the economy in a serious way and fewer people can afford it, which is affecting their living conditions," he says.

About 50km west of Sohm, Weissferdt has pioneered a solution to this "energy trap", in the rural village of Batokunku where he lives.

Weissferdt coordinated the installation of the first wind turbine in West Africa in Batokunku, supplying energy to 53 houses, to about 800 inhabitants for free. He also struck a groundbreaking power purchase agreement with the national energy provider NAWEC, to enable the village to sell surplus energy back to the grid.

"Since the system has been installed, life has dramatically improved for residents," says Weissferdt. New businesses have opened, including a local cinema, while TV, the internet and mobile phones have come to the village.

Given the time, donations required and resistance faced to get this project off the ground, Weissferdt says its duplication in The Gambia, such as in Sohm, would be very complicated.

One of the UN's Millennium Development Goals is to achieve universal access to modern energy services by 2030. A hybrid power station, which would combine solar power and oil and gas-fired steam, would be a way of achieving this in The Gambia, suggests Weissferdt.

"Power plants of this nature are still very expensive but this is the only way out of the energy problems in The Gambia, not least for the whole world."

So, while a YouTube video of a toddler attempting to swipe a magazine because it has become so accustomed to interacting with a tablet becomes a viral hit, for the time being, printed-out screen shots and clapped-out laptops will have to suffice for the pupils at Sohm School.