PEOPLE SPECIAL: AN INTERVIEW WITH SYLVESTRE OUEDRAOGO, YAM PUKRI

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Sylvestre Ouedraogo is a man of many parts. He’s written a book about how ICT might be used to further development in Africa. He’s an academic who carries out interesting research projects, particularly looking at how ICT might be used by people. And he also set up and runs Yam Pukri, an NGO that has four centres that offer internet access, training and work experience for young people.

His book -L’ordinateur et le Djembé - Entre rêves et réalités (The computer and the Djembé - Between dreams and realities) is not one of those loft tomes fill of well-meaning phrases but a text written from the heart. It does not attempt to provide cut-and-dried answers to the questions it raises but wrestles with them on the page in front of your eyes.

Why did he decide to write the book?

"I believe that ICT will aid development in Africa and the world but I’m not happy with the way it’s used. The book looks at how it might be used with people. When I wrote it I was thinking hard about the best way to use it. You can have the best technology in the world and still do nothing with it."

"Imported technology is not the solution. It’s necessary to appropriate the technology. You need to work out how it meets your needs. These are not going to be the same needs it was designed for in the developed world. We have to ask the question: what’s the problem we’re trying to solve? The way donors put ICT into countries is through projects, often separated from broader activities. But the key problem is one of culture. You cannot encourage ICT if it doesn’t become part of the culture. At present, the majority of people in Africa work manually and have no experience of it."

What reactions have you had to the book?

"For the most part, reactions to the book have been very positive. People have liked the directness of the way it’s expressed. Some say yes, that’s all very well but what’s the solution? A small number have described it as naïve ("peu naïf") or simplistic".

What about your work as an academic?

I work at the University where I do research for peasant producer associations. I’m interested in "science appliqué". I have been ever since I was small when I used to take apart and put back together radios and other electronic appliances.

I do research projects with my students, you might describe them as "micro-projects". One of the latest is looking at telephony in a small village close to Ouagadougou. The six students involved are going out to ask a lot of questions about how the villagers communicate, how they do it and what they’re willing to pay.

In 2002 we carried out a major study of cyber-cafes, telecentres and other forms of access points, asking how many jobs had they created and how sustainable was this type of employment. At that point we found that between 2-5 persons were employed by each café, giving an overall total of about a thousand people in Burkina Faso. That figure is probably much larger now.

And how sustainable do you think this type of employment is?

Well, there’s more cyber-cafes and costs have fallen but quality has also gone down. Most people running them now have little or no experience of running a business. Those with dial-up lines don’t have many customers. So many of them will not be very sustainable because of the low level of receipts. But some part of the employment created will be sustainable.

What about your role in setting up Yam Pukri?

It all started with my time at University where I had the freedom to criticise everything I saw. Out of this experience, I’ve become what you might call a social entrepreneur. I saw that young people were not able to get work without experience. But how could they get experience without first working? They were caught in a trap. So we set up Yam Pukri to give them that experience through offering access to computers, access to a cyber-café and offering a secretarial service ("secretaire publique").

Hugues Arsene Kouraogo of Hugo Tech, of the entrepreneurs who spoke at your workshop (ICT and Entrepreneurship ­ the art of making things happen) trained here. At present we have a young women who is filming marionettes and wants to make animated versions of traditional stories.

The young people are able who come here for work experience are able to say that they have worked for an NGO. It’s absolutely critical that they have ICT skills to get a job and they are able to say what have done and therefore what they can do.

http://burkina-ntic.org

Heartfelt thanks to Sylvain Zongos and Adama Traore of ZCP for all their help during my stay in Burkina Faso.