“Cybercafé in a container”: Rural Kenya's mobile internet stations

By LC Publisher: APCNews     CALGARY,

The lives of Maasai men and women in rural Kenya’s community will never be the same now that they have access to maarifa – knowledge in the Kiswahili language. Launched in April by APC member Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN), the new Community Knowledge Centre commonly referred to as Maarifa centre lies in the heart of Massai country and is the newest of four containerised community knowledge centres in the region.

Men and women from the local communities can now walk over to the station from their village to surf (or learn to surf) the internet and ALIN’s website to learn about better agricultural practices, marketing, environmental management, as well as content generation and dissemination including the cultural knowledge of the Maasai. The centre will also facilitate delivery of e-Government services, e-Education and support skills-building among the youth from the area.

Noah Lusaka, programme manager at ALIN is responsible for the implementation of this centre and the eleven other knowledge centres, where the goal is to create local content rather than saturate rural Kenyans with foreign content, to which the communities are not as receptive. This local information can help them learn about livestock diseases, improve their pasture and develop other types of agriculture, and other communities as far as Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have also been able to trade skills and information. APCNews talks to Lusaka to find out more about “Cybercafes in a container”.

APCNews: How did you come up with the idea to have this “Cybercafe in a container” service?

NL: The idea of a telecentre set up in a moveable container was conceived in 2007 when ALIN developed a new strategy to make more information and knowledge available to communities, especially ones in marginalised regions. We selected ten sites in the region and, in partnership with other organisations, initiated the maarifa centres. The partners generally offer space where the maarifa centre is based, but in some cases, the available space was quite limited so we fundraised to have containers fabricated with ICT equipment for use. The containers are in fact fixed so they will only be moved when the need arises. However, what happens at four of the centres (Kyuso, Nguruman, Marigat in Kenya, and Lukwanga in Uganda) is that the community information volunteers are equipped with laptops, so they occasionally move out to communities where they demonstrate internet access using mobile ADSL modems. This move is to encourage local communities to learn how to access information. Our community volunteers (who are currently stationed at ten of our centres) go to schools and markets to demonstrate and create awareness of information access from the internet.

APCNews: How did the communities initially react to it? And what about now? Comunity knowledge centre (maarfia) in Isinya

NL: From the beginning communities have been quite enthusiastic about learning more IT skills, and even moreso about how to access information on their own. They felt this was a cheaper and easier way to access new and practical information that is relevant to them. The number of visitors to the centres has increased and then number of those registering to be trained on IT skills has doubled since 2007.

APCNews: Do you have any words of wisdom in case other want to follow in your footsteps?

NL: Communities where the centres are based have to be mobilised to participate in the project and use of the facilities. It’s important for communities to fully participate so they own the process. A good example is the Ngarua Maarifa centre at Laikipia west district in Kenya. The communities have generated income and bought two extra computers for the centre since the demand for training activities is quite high. We also involve communities in the management of the centres by forming an advisory committee composed of stakeholders in the region. The role of the committee is to ensure the centre’s objectives are met. ALIN has set general objectives such as increasing the information and knowledge capacity of communities, sharing knowledge through workshops and discussions, documenting local content and basic computer skills. Communities from each centre undertake a visionary exercise to reflect on the centre in their own context and set specific objectives that are relevant to them. The exercise is also meant to help communities appreciate the centre as their own and start investment plans. We also involve a local person whom we train technically to support the smooth-running of the centre. The Community Knowledge Facilitator (CKF) is chosen from the community hence supports the Community Information Volunteer CIV) in the daily operations of the centre. The CKF idea is geared towards ensuring sustainable human resources at the centre. We also work closely with partners. The roles of the partners include hosting the Maarifa centre, technical backstopping (supporting the centre with equipment repairs, acquiring reading materials and other support to the centre).) and general supervision of the centre. The partners also support the CIVs and CKFs in executing their duties professionally. Partners also assist in monitoring and evaluation of the centre, and assist in organising events at the centre like information open days.

Impressions from near and far at launch

Villages from neighbouring communities trekked to the Isinya Community Knowledge Centre for its launch, but the opening of the centre also received national and international attention.

Ms. Theresa Zitting, Deputy Head of Mission, the Embassy of Finland: “If appropriately used, we (the Finnish Government) believe that access to information will improve agricultural productivity and strengthen market linkages, thus improve the well being of the community.”

Dr. Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communications“:I challenge you Isinya community members to make good use of the Centre to document your unique stories, local knowledge and culture and share it with the rest of the world and in the process earn income from it.”

Dr. Susan Kaaria, Program Officer, Ford Foundation: “I have previously visited other ALIN centres and learnt of the many individual success stories of people whose lives have been transformed by the ALIN centres.”

Read more about ALIN’s knowledge centres in the downloadable .pdf document provided at the end of this story and in the East African Standard, from which files were also pulled for this story: Rural town becomes internet Savvy

Noah Lusaka is the Programme manager at ALIN, where he was in charge of implementing the project by mobilising communities, building their capacities to manage the centre and fostering partnerships with like-minded organisations. He is also involved in capacity building for volunteers (CIVs) who are comitted to the Maarifa centres for a period of one year to gain experience and skills as they also support capacity building for local communities.

For more information about ALIN, please visit their website www.alin.or.ke or their APC member profile.




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