Feature

Geekcorps takes IT to Africa

In the second of our features on the UN Year of Bridging the Digital Divide, Computer Weekly looks at the practical steps IT professionals are taking to introduce IT expertise to developing countries

IT companies have often been criticised for generating huge revenues and putting little of their profits back into the community. Stuart Brocklehurst, senior

vice-president of digital commerce at Visa International, who has responsibility for Central Europe, the Middle East and Africa, thinks this is largely attributable to the fact that it is still such a fledgling industry.

"It has not had the time to step back and reflect. It is so young and always in a frightful hurry. But I think our number one duty in terms of social responsibility is promoting economic growth and creating jobs. The IT industry should do more," he says.

The issue is particularly relevant this year as it is the United Nation's Year of Bridging the Digital Divide.

An increasing number of charitable IT initiatives have sprung up in the past couple of years. One example is Geekcorps, a US non-profit organisation that takes IT expertise to developing countries to help businesses and train local people in IT skills.

The moniker "Geekcorps" was chosen to reflect the similarity of its aims and ideals with those of the Peace Corps, the US government agency that dispatches people to developing countries to help them strengthen their economies.

Geekcorps was founded by Ethan Zuckerman, a US dotcom veteran who made a small fortune out of his Internet ventures. According to Brocklehurst, who is a big fan of Geekcorps, Zuckerman was driven by a desire to use some of that money to help poorer nations.

"Ethan was looking to put something back in," says Brocklehurst. "He gained a lot from the technology revolution financially and sold at the right time. He wanted to use some of that to benefit countries in the developing world and spread the economic benefits of new technology."

Geekcorps is run by, and employs, high-tech specialists, something that it believes makes it well placed to help other countries get to grips with IT. It started with a programme in Ghana, West Africa, in 2000 and is now busy with its third initiative there. Volunteers undertake a wide variety of tasks, although a lot of it focuses on e-commerce.

"Volunteers go out and work with a local business to help them develop. To qualify there are a couple of requirements. First, that the skills are transferred to local staff; and second, that the company must work with a charitable company to support those skills further," explains Brocklehurst.

One volunteer is working in Ghana for Internet service provider Intercom Data Network. He is currently designing a virtual private network solution and training junior staff in networking skills, so that by the time he leaves they will be able to manage local area network implementation.

Brocklehurst has a particular interest in Geekcorps as he has spent some time working in Ghana and is keen to see the country reap the benefits of IT. "About three and a half years ago, I worked for Barclays in Ghana for a year as the head of the projects unit. I got so much out of my time there that I looked for a charity to work for as a volunteer," he says.

Brocklehurst joined the Charities Aid Foundation and has returned regularly to Ghana ever since. However, his interest in Geekcorps is not purely altruistic. His role as senior vice-president of digital commerce at Visa, means that he has to create the right environment for digital commerce to succeed in this area.

"I am charged with creating the conditions for new digital commerce to flourish in that part of the world, an area that is the largest geographically and the poorest. Over half the people in those regions have never even made a telephone call," he says.

Brocklehurst's current project is close to his heart. "We are looking to do an early implementation of digitally secure commerce. We are thinking of doing that with a bank in Egypt. If Geekcorps can send its next team to work with merchants on the books of the bank in Egypt to help them become e-tailers, then we will have a ready-made set of people," he says.

Geekcorps is keen to establish partnerships with other organisations, both in the third world and the developed world. It recently became an independent division of the International Executive Service Corps, a non-profit managerial and business development organisation.

When Geekcorps is sourcing new volunteers, it requires techies with at least three years' experience in the IT industry.

It started as a US-only initiative, but has since spread to Europe. The skills needed vary greatly from project to project, so the company attracts all kinds of people. Take Jean-Luc Martel, for example, a specialist in Web applications from Montreal, Quebec. Or Francois Auger, a geographic information systems specialist. Both individuals are currently working in Ghana.

As well as the requisite IT skills, applicants are expected to display good social skills and it is preferred if they have some previous experience of working in the developing world or within a community environment, although this is not a strict requirement.

When a person is accepted onto a Geekcorps programme, they embark on a one-week training programme. Up until now, this has been carried out at the organisation's headquarters in Massachusetts, US, but Zuckerman is planning to change this so that volunteers can receive the training in the country in which they will be working.

The schemes typically last for four months, which Brocklehurst thinks makes it the perfect opportunity for ITers to take a career break and pass on some of their skills.

Software giant aids Indonesia
In 2000, Microsoft gave two grants of $78,400 and some software to Indonesia to support the creation of six computer centres and train disadvantaged youths in IT skills. Two of the centres were established by orphanage foundations to provide IT training for orphans, two were established to serve schools for the blind and the other two were for people with disabilities.

To find out more about Geekcorps, or to volunteer, visit www.geekcorps.org/

Good work
Have you been able to use your IT skills to help the less advantaged? E-mail cwxtra@rbi.co.uk.

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This was first published in September 2001

 

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