The Zitt Geeks - Young Nigerians turn to computing to improve their job prospects
By Karen Higgs for APCNews
BAYANLOCO, Nigeria, 02 September 2004
The Fantsuam Foundation provides refurbished computers to "What is civil society?", initial working definition adopted by the Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics">civil society organisationsand partners, runs computer training centres and offers the only Source: TechSoup Glossary and GenderIT.org">internet connection for hundreds of miles around in rural Nigeria. All this in Kafanchan State where electricity is often unavailable and innovators power their computers using car batteries. The Foundation’s work is supported by a home-grown corps of Source: APC">ICT youth volunteers, the Zitt Geeks. The Geeks are already free software devotees and they are the first participants in Fantsuam’s business incubator which provides training, mentoring and funding to enable enterprising youths to become self-employed.
A typical Zitt Geek is a twenty-two year-old, just out of college, and still searching for a career or next step in life. ‘Zitt’ is a word common to almost ten of the tribes in the Kafanchan and means 'us', 'we' or ours'.
Norman Didum fits the Geek profile. “I came to Fantsuam Foundation in May 2003 to enrol for a beginner’s class in computers, at the end of which I applied to be a volunteer with the organisation,” he told APCNews. “It was during this period of my voluntary work that the Zitt Geeks Youth Corps was formed in December last year. I was one of the founders.”
Within three months, the Zitt Geek network included over 20 youths with different ICTs skills to offer to the local communities. Some six of Zitt Geeks have become full-time staff running the computer centres at Fantsuam. The number of volunteers fluctuates between ten and fifteen.
APCNews asked Fantsuam’s director John Dada how the Zitt Geeks idea emerged. “It was actually a convergence of three factors,” said John. “The students who were attending the Fantsuam Computer School and Fantsuam-run Cisco Academy asked to be more involved in Fantsuam activities. There was a growing need for a pool of volunteers to increase the staffing of the computer maintenance laboratory -which provides support to the purchasers of the refurbished computers Fantsuam sells- which clearly afforded an opportunity to train future technicians. And lastly as Fantsuam Foundation's services become highly rated and in high demand from the citizens of surrounding rural communities the Zitt Geeks have filled the need for more qualified staff to provide those services.”
The bulk of the Geeks are men, although the head of the Geeks is a young woman. Half of the technicians at the computer maintenance laboratory are also women. Fantsuam has always targeted women in their projects, and the technical initiatives are no different. “We have incentives in place to foster gender parity in the enrolment of all our programs,” says John Dada. Those incentives include internships which are reserved for women only and facilities for nursing mothers who can come to school with their babies.
A geeky business
The Geeks are the first participants in Fantsuam’s business incubation service which provides training, mentoring and funding people who want to become self-employed.
It is early days as yet regarding the service but Fantsuam is encouraged by the commitment of the teams shown so far.
Julius Madaki was one of the first students trained by Fantsuam who then took up an appointment as a Fantsuam instructor. Later he applied for a loan to start a computer school in his own village. Together with Norman and another Geek called Matthew, Julius has been awarded the franchise of the Fantsuam Computer School -once it was clear that the school had broken even- through the incubator. The school offers beginner- and intermediate level training to the local community and even clients from the cities not-so-nearby where training in computing is neither so good nor so affordable. Other Geeks provide support as volunteers.
“The school is providing full-time employment for three geeks, it pays its own share of the use of facilities -rent and utilities-, it is empowering for the Geeks who are running it, and Fantsuam is now processing applications from two individual Geeks who wish to set up on their own,” said John. “We expect this business to be fully on its feet within 12 months thus freeing up resources for Fantsuam to break more new ground in our creation of ICT employment opportunities for rural youths.”
A reversal in urban drift
In fact, Fantsuam has seen a reversal of urban drift as young people actually return to the rural areas as job prospects there improve. Parents who live in the city seem to be the driving force behind sending the youths to the Fantsuam schools, “though by the time the young people settle in to their courses and meet other youths they realise why they should have come to Fantsuam long ago,” adds John.
Free software is the way to go for rural communities
The Geeks recently established the Kafanchan Linux Users Group (LUG), KafLug. LUGs exist all over the world where computer technicians favour free and open source software (Free Software Foundation ">FOSS) over proprietary –or closed system- software.
As the Geeks resuscitate old computers, they have become adamant that for their resource-poor communities, the operating system of choice has to be FOSS. Though they recognise it took them a while to appreciate that there was an alternative to Windows software and operating systems.
“It took me five months to convince myself about the benefits of GNU/Linux,” says Norman. “Before then, all I wanted to work with was Microsoft. Most of my friends use pirated Microsoft products because they cannot afford the high costs of the legal versions. A resource person who recently visited Fantsuam Foundation gave me my first free copy of Knoppix*, and that was the final thing I needed to get hooked on FOSS. Within a few days I had started installing Knoppix on many of our computers. Now I am convinced that the only way our community can move forward in ICT is using FOSS. Before now we had problems with viruses. Linux handles such problems better. For a rural organisation, virus attacks and the lack of appropriate software can easily ground our operations, so Linux is our choice. I have taken on the challenge of migrating our entire system to Linux before the end of October, and the other Geeks have also decided that this is really the way to go.”
* Knoppix is a software application on a CD-rom that provides the user with a FOSS environment on her computer without actually installing anything on the hard drive. It’s good for people who want to try out FOSS without first changing their computer’s entire operating system.