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The Cisco Networking Academy Program Reaches out to the World's Most Disadvantaged Communities

June 8, 2007

By Jason Deign, News@Cisco

If you were looking for the last place on earth where technology skills would be handy, you might well consider the Kibera slum in Kenya. One of the most impoverished and undeveloped areas in Africa, it is home to nearly a million people with no water, power or sanitation, let alone IT.

However, you would be wrong. Local chiefs are hoping IT can give Kibera's inhabitants a route out of the slum and a way of addressing serious issues such as drug use and crime.

Hital Muraj, area academy manager for East Africa within the Cisco® Networking Academy® Program, has created an IT skills teaching center with the full backing of community leaders.

Her efforts have included drumming up support for the donation of 25 PCs to create a computer lab in a school.

The facility is a self-supporting center providing tuition based on the Networking Academy Fundamentals of IT Essentials (ITE) course, free or almost free to students to allow for the desperately low incomes that most of Kibera's inhabitants have to survive on.

"The school headmaster and teachers are willing to give up their staffroom to house the ITE academy," says Muraj. "Now they are a having to eat and work under the trees until a new room is built.

"Education is a real issue in the slums and the youth population is high. There is a high rate of crime, drugs and illicit trade because of the high poverty level."

Living only three miles away from the center of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and one of the most influential cities in Africa, Kibera's leaders can sense that a project such as Muraj's can give people marketable work skills that can help them escape slum life.

But outreach projects related to the Cisco Networking Academy program have been welcomed even in needy communities hundreds of miles away from the nearest office block.

Still in Kenya, but several days' travel away from Nairobi and Kibera, is an example that opened for business last October, with help from the Networking Academy program in Europe.

The remote town of Lodwar now has an IT Essentials tuition center thanks to efforts led by Antonio Herrera, international operations manager for the program in Europe and Emerging Markets, and Markus Schwertel, manager for the program in Central and Eastern Europe.

The two traveled to Lodwar, which is the largest town in north western Kenya and has a population of up to 30,000, in 2005 and set up the center in association with the catholic diocese, using a building owned by the church.

"For EUR€6000 we were able to equip the center with 20 computers and everything necessary to teach ITE," says Herrera, who made a personal contribution along with Schwertel. The balance was covered by an appeal to a Networking Academy in Madrid, Spain, that had a charity fund.

Lodwar may be close to some of the most significant sites in the evolution of humankind-parts of nearby Lake Turkana in Africa's Great Rift Valley have been dubbed the 'Cradle of Humankind' because of early hominid fossils found there-but today it is hardly a hotbed of progress.

However, this could begin to change with the availability of IT skills tuition, says Herrera: "The idea is that as the number of computers in the region grows, in hospitals, hotels and so on, there will be skilled people available to maintain them."

While Herrera hopes Lodwar could become the model for IT training for some of the remotest and poorest parts of Africa, other Networking Academy projects are aiming to help disadvantaged communities in some of the world's richest countries.

One of these is the Govan Initiative, which has received funding from Scotland's Strathclyde European Union Partnership, Cisco, the economic development agency Scottish Enterprise and the British bank Lloyds TSB to improve the lot of one of the poorest areas of the UK.

The Govan district of Glasgow, Scotland, used to be home to one of the most renowned shipbuilding centers in the world, but with the slow demise of the industry in the UK much of the local community has sunk into poverty.

"There are 25 years of unemployment in some families," says Jane Lewis, regional manager for the Networking Academy program in the UK and Ireland. "But there is also a requirement for IT skills, with lots of financial sector and TV companies having relocated to the docklands area."

In a bid to alleviate long-term unemployment and meet the growing requirement for IT skills, in 2002 a body called the Govan Initiative launched a Networking Academy, the Hill's Trust Community Learning Academy, with a USD$500,000 investment from Cisco and $3 million in matched funding.

Part of the ongoing funding of the project is used to pay people a basic wage while they are on the Networking Academy course, which gives them the support and incentive they need to complete their IT training.

As a result, says Alison Sinclair, chief executive of the Govan Initiative, "Since 2002, 92 percent of [Govan's] Hill's Trust Academy students have achieved a Level 2/3 qualification, with two in every three going on to gain employment in IT and related sectors."

Jason Deign is a freelance journalist located in Barcelona, Spain.

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