10 May 2002

Top Story

Senegal’s Joko Club was launched in August last year with high-profile celebrity support and corporate backing. Almost one year on, it’s time for a progress report. Lisa Carney, who was involved in helping set up the project, reports on who is using it and why.


When Youssou Ndour announced the Joko initiative in Senegal, one of his main messages to the Senegalese population was that the Internet is not just for elite users. In fact, the Joko slogan in Wolof is Joko, nok o bok ­ literally translating as "link up ­ the Internet is for everyone." There was an immediate response from the communities to sign up for Internet training offered at the pilot Joko Clubs. Since two-thirds of the Senegalese population is illiterate, the requests from communities for Joko to offer Internet initiation and access for these "analphabetes" was evident from the outset. In Senegal, the term "analphabete" can encompass a range of literacy levels ­ some can read or write a tribal language, many are trained in Koranic schools and can read some amount of Arabic, and others have numeric capabilities. While the Joko network offers Internet access at minimal cost to local community members as well as a platform for local content development, training became a central Joko activity based on community requirements.


The Joko training courses have been developed and certified by El Hadji Diop, Joko’s Education and Pedagogy Director. Prior to Joko, El Hadji Diop was in charge of the computer training at Lycée St-Michel, where he developed and trained students on a wide range of computer related subjects. A broad syllabus of courses are available to meet the wide range of demands ­ from the most basic introductory training to more advanced office skills and on up to web content development and computer maintenance. (A syllabus is available online at


Most of the adults participating in Joko literacy training are "commercants", or tradespeople, seeking computer training that can help them manage their businesses. Merchants and small business owners are usually illiterate, and very often women. Women’s collectives are active in producing a wide range of agricultural products ­ such as dried fish, mangos, peanuts, and other crops varying on a geographic basis. Other women’s collectives create and sell traditional crafts. These collectives are typically a central economic force in their communities ­ their income is often the means by which their families are fed. Male and female, illiterate tradespeople must hire certified accountants to oversee and verify their businesses. To write any letters or summary reports concerning their activities, they must ask for and usually pay for assistance. Most of the adults who have participated in the initial Joko training courses are responsible for managing, accounting or reporting for collective or individual business activities.


The Joko training team developed a training approach specifically adapted to the needs of the adult illiterate population, to permit them not only to acquire insight into what the new information technologies can offer, but also give them the ability to select the most useful and immediate skills for their own development. Their usual incentives are to save money and more easily keep track their merchandise. For example, a vendor who buys products in Mauritania and sells them in southern Senegal can use a spreadsheet to automatically calculate stock availability, purchase and sales prices, and overall profits for each product line. But in learning to do these tasks, adult participants are finding themselves unexpectedly on the path to literacy.


The training courses designed for analphabetes are presented in French and translated into Wolof, the local language used by the majority of Africans in Senegal. Since the Wolof are the most numerous tribe in Senegal, people belonging to one of the other tribes in the region generally also use Wolof as lingua franca. French is used primarily to communicate with foreigners.


A very simple introductory course is presented first in Wolof, explaining what the computer is and how it functions. Function keys are then introduced, to associate a symbol with an active effect on the computer’s operation. Training participants learn, in a hands-on fashion (generally two or three to a computer), that pressing a certain key results in a certain effect on the computer.


Once these basics have been understood, the second level of training begins: learning the French alphabet. A large keyboard is painted on the wall of the JokoClub as a teaching tool, and a CD-ROM is used to teach the French alphabet, so that the sound and look of a letter can be learned simultaneously. This enables the participants to master the alphabet quickly. Another locally developed software program helps trainees learn keyboard skills. A sentence appears on their screen, and they copy it underneath. Voice-over explanations of the meaning of the sentences are provided in Wolof (and are being added in other local languages) to improve comprehension. Active assistance from the teachers helps each particular group or individual to learn the basic skills required to manage their own goals.


The third level of the course covers arithmetic and calculation using spreadsheets.


The training allows participants to:


- Navigate and operate computers


- Begin to read and write French


- Learn to use spreadsheets to calculate and track business proceeds


- Use the Internet to send and receive e-mail communications and for research of information.


The Joko courses in training illiterates are still in their infancy ­ it’s been just one year since the first pilot course began. Last summer, Joko partnered with the Institute Supérieur d’Entrepreneurship et de Gestion (ISEG), a private educational institute based in Dakar, to provide Joko’s "introduction to computers" course while the Joko facilities were being developed. This "training pilot" was offered free of charge, based on a grant from the Acacia Foundation and computer systems donated by HP. Over 500 youth from the Medina neighborhood of Dakar were taught at ISEG in May, to pave the way for the lauching of the Medina JokoClub. The courses were taught in 18 different classes, with 18-24 students in each class. A group of 336 students met Monday-Thursday, and 246 children, ages 7-13, met Friday-Sunday. The breakdown of these initial courses was as follows:


- One class of illiterates, taught in Wolof


- One class of beginners, with limited mastery in French, taught in French/Wolof


- 15 classes of intermediate-level students who were comfortable with French but beginners at computing


- One class advanced students, with good command of French and working knowledge of computer use




The response was overwhelming, and over 1,500 people were on the waiting list by the time this first session ended. At the two pilot JokoClubs, prices for the initiation courses were set at 3000 FCFA initiation fee plus 3000 FCFA for a month of training. The Medina JokoClub reports teaching more than 1,000 new students, including 80 illiterates. Ngoundiane taught more than 1,200 students, 70 analphabetes amongst them. Ngoundiane reports that so many other rural communities have sent delegations to spend a week getting initial computer training that they are considering opening a "bed and breakfast" to accommodate them. These villagers say they feel at ease in a familiar, rural setting‹so unlike the urban environment in Dakar.


At the new training center in Thiaroye, an initial 212 students began courses in February 2002. Of these, there are 50 analphabètes who have just received their diplomas. In Kolda, a small town in the southern region of Senegal, 110 students have been in training since February, of which 30 are illiterate. For the younger training participants, more advanced courses are in high demand after the initial training. The number one request is for computer maintenance courses, with webmaster classes right behind. More advanced courses are more expensive, and vary in cost. The Joko training centers are analysing the optimum pricing to be both self-sustaining and broadly accessible.


As Joko expands its training facilities, new classes have an even higher proportion of illiterates. Overall, about 15% of new Joko training participants are illiterate. The Joko training staff is keeping watch on their progress to see how many of them remain involved with computers, and to report results in a more formal manner. But even now, it is clear that these disenfranchised men and women, young and old, are finding they can better manage their personal and business affairs using basic computer applications. Many of these same people would have previously said that literacy and educational achievement were beyond their reach, but while learning to use the computers they are gaining basic literacy and math skills without even realizing it. By the time they recognize what they are learning they are well on their way developing new skills, and have been reinforced about their own capabilities for learning and changing their lives.


There is a legitimate debate about whether computers should be Œpushed’ on the world’s poorest people. Technology is not food or water, and cannot in itself address the basic health concerns that threaten so many lives. Yet Joko’s experience has been one of Œpull.’ Somehow even the most remote populations are finding out about the Internet, through their expatriate family members and through other media.


Justine Whitbread, Oxfam’s Regional Director in West Africa, related a telling experience last year. Oxfam had helped a very remote village dig a clean well for drinking water. At the ceremony to celebrate its completion, they asked the village chief what the next priority for the village would be. "Internet," he responded enthusiastically, showing that even in the most remote districts, there is a pronounced social interest in getting Internet training and access. When pressed, he explained that he believes the Internet is necessary for the future prosperity of his people.