iLove iLab

iLab Liberia

Liberia has one of the least-developed communication infrastructures in the world. Literacy is at roughly 60%.  The nation is still recovering from one of the most brutal civil wars in recent history. All in all, not perhaps where one would expect to find a burgeoning group of tech innovators and wanna-be geeks. However, walk in the door of iLab Liberia and you'll find just that.

Kate Cummings, iLab's executive director, came to NDI last week to share some of her experiences working in Liberia. iLab is one of the tech hubs that have sprung up across Africa following on the model from granddaddy iHub Nairobi, epicenter of Kenya's digital development. One of the most exciting concepts I've seen in the world of development in recent years, these tech hubs provide a supportive environment for the experienced to teach the novice, for ideas to percolate, for business ideas to bloom, and for new tools to be shared. iHub, however, has an unfair advantage - they have an in-space coffee shop with amazing Kenyan coffee.

Given the overall environment in Liberia, iLab does a lot of training on computer fundamentals, particularly using free and open-source software (FOSS) such as Open Office and Ubuntu Linux to try and grow the pool of young techies. Kate had some charming stories of the excitement of the Liberians coming in for training. The drive for self-improvement brings eager pupils to iLab where they will sit in front of a computer, perhaps for the first time, and look up expectantly. "OK, now what?" they'll ask, not knowing yet how to use a computer or mouse. Often they will be taught by other iLab users who were in the same place not so long before.

Of course, there's many more experienced users as well, and iLab does specialized trainings based on the particular audience. Reporters have learned how to set up a wordpress.com blog while improving their computing skills, and legislative staff arelearning online research skills.

iLab doubled in size since I first saw their space a year ago, with two full rooms equipped with laptops and one of the fastest internet connections in Liberia. There's a lot of demand for the service - and community - that they provide. NDI has worked closely with iLab in the past year, using their facilities and expertise for training legislative staff on Linux, and audio and graphics software.

Space (and internet connection) for iLab's aren't cheap; there will be challenges for maintaining the organization without ongoing external support for the forseeable future. Unlike in more well-developed places like Kenya, charging local entrepreneurs for coworking space, or getting support from a flourishing tech business community is not yet feasable. I hope they'll be able to successfully navigate the next couple of years to become self-sustaining.

Here at the NDItech lair we're really excited about the development of the many tech hubs. One of the great challenges of any technology program is local sustainability; without an ecosystem of geeks and local firms able to support NDI's partners as they go forward with thei work on democracy-related projects, technology initiative are hard to maintain. iLab andother innovation and tech hubs foster these human technology ecosystems that are so incredibly important.