Giving Africa's Neediest Communities IT Skills… and Hope
August 23, 2010
By Brendan Cooper
The clip posted on video networking site YouTube shows a group of youngsters chanting "Victory, victory, victory," in an impromptu celebratory sing-along. So far, so normal; but this is no average bunch of college kids toasting a team win.
Instead, these are shanty town dwellers from Nairobi, Kenya: youths for whom there have traditionally been as few reasons for celebration as there are opportunities to get onto websites like YouTube.
What has changed for them is the arrival the Cisco Networking Academy, which trains local inhabitants and gives them a chance to break out of their challenging circumstances.
"Cisco has come to remove us from computer illiteracy to computer literacy," recite the YouTube singers. "It has come to enlighten our minds, to give us hope, and our future."
A global success
The Academy, launched in 1997, has been a great global success, with more than 400,000 students participating in over 150 countries. But in many parts of Africa it has become more than just a means to obtain skills and a job.
For those living in Kenyan shanty towns, for instance, it represents an almost one-in-a-million chance to reach for a better life. And as the Academy spreads wider through these underserved communities, more and more people are getting that chance.
"There is a tremendous opportunity to use the power of the network across the world."
The first Academy started in Kibera in 2007. Kibera is the largest of Nairobi's shanty towns, and the second largest urban settlement community in Africa, with an estimated population of 1.2 million inhabitants.
Despite the challenges of working in such an environment, in its first week the Networking Academy took in 80 registrantsand with support from Cisco and the goodwill of the community, it continues to thrive.
The Kibera Academy now has 25 PCs and more than 120 students, all studying under locally employed trainers. Its graduates have gone on to open their own businesses and find employment as a result of their training.
Perhaps more significantly, though, the Kibera model is now being replicated elsewhere.
Academies have opened in the neighboring shanty towns of Mwiki and Kariobangi and the Networking Academy is also working in association with the charity Deaf Aid to provide IT skills to people with hearing impediments.
The Mwiki Academy is run by a non-government, non-profit body called The Seed Institute. It trains mostly women, including some who clean houses in the morning then study in the afternoon, but many of whom have to do whatever they can to get by.
The other academy is attached to the Kariobangi South Welfare and Slums Housing Association (KASWESHA), near Korogocho, one of the largest shanty town neighborhoods of Nairobi.
Both Academies only hold a handful of PCs each but by August 2009 were already producing IT Essentials graduates.
Their first graduation ceremonies saw 11 graduates emerging from KASWESHA and seven from Seed, witnessed by 400 members of the community, local administrative staff and non-governmental organizations.
Working with Deaf Aid
Senior local government representatives have labeled the initiative "amazing" and pledged to promote it to central authorities, which Hital Muraj, East Africa Academy manager for the Cisco Networking Academy, hopes will help take the Academies to a new level.
Meanwhile, the Networking Academy's association with Deaf Aid has led to IT skills training being given to 25 shanty town dwelling students in morning and afternoon classes at a special wireless lab equipped with refurbished computers provided by the Norwegian government.
The Deaf Aid initiative, the first IT skills course for hearing-impaired people in Africa, is particularly challenging as there is no common sign language for the deaf in Kenya, and no signs for many of the IT terms used in the Networking Academy curriculum.
As a result, the instructors, interpreters and students have been creating their own language as they go along.
Deaf Aid has also signed an agreement with the Ministry of Education in Tanzania, leading to hopes that the Networking Academy will be able to provide IT skills training to hearing-impaired students there, too.
Meanwhile, graduates from the course are already proving an asset to local businesses, with 12 of the first 15 now in employment.
Andrew Nyongesa Wasike, 26, who works as an IT technician, has gone so far as to become something of a company star after testing 80 computers in a single day, prompting his employer to ask for more employees of the same caliber.
It is a similar story at the other Academies. Many students have already formed job-seeking groups, meeting each week to share advice and insight into how they can create their own opportunities.
And 24-year-old Stephen Orioki, from Kibera, is even providing employment for his fellow graduates with his own network of computer skills training centers. He started the business in his bedroom on borrowed money with one PC and now has 30 computers in three centers.
"I am extremely proud of these students," says Hital. "They are showing incredible initiative and tenacity. They recognize they have been given a chance and they are doing everything to make it work for them.
"If we can prove to governments that we can provide the right skills and education to help local communities, then we can carry the flag even higher. There is a tremendous opportunity to use the power of the network across the world, and across the academic community.
"There is so much we can learn from each other."
Brendan Cooper is a freelance writer located in Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom