Taking as many children as possible into the digital age
Digitisation + children in Africa = a self-determined future. Sounds quite simple, actually. Good experts, a lot of technical knowhow, knowledge of human nature and, last but not least, the necessary financing are needed to make it really work. The Hermann Gmeiner Foundation has played a major role in ensuring that all this can come together through its grants to SOS Children’s Villages. The foundation was founded by SOS Children’s Villages in 2001, to contribute to financing facilities and projects in SOS Children’s Villages all over the world. Digitisation projects in Africa are made possible not only through traditional donations and partnership projects but also through income from the foundation and additional donations. Two experts – Thomas Rubatscher, International Director of Information and Communication Technology, from Innsbruck, and Ahmed Mihaimeed, Global ICT Advisor, from the Sudan, give insights into their work and describe its impact.
Mr. Rubatscher, Mr. Mihaimeed: SOS Children’s Villages are becoming Digital Villages. How does this work in Africa?
Thomas Rubatscher: The "Digital Village" project is part of the SOS Strategy 2030 and aims to provide guidance and support for secure Internet usage and basic IT literacy in our villages, especially in Africa and Asia, where the need is highest.
Ahmed Mihaimeed: We observed that the need for the project is different across regions. Asia and Africa are in need of both access to the Internet and skills, while in other areas, like the eastern European region, the need is for safe usage of the technology rather than access to the Internet.
Rubatscher: In Africa, our children need access to the Internet and a certain level of IT literacy in order not to fall behind in education and job readiness. We need to train them and their caregivers how to take advantage of the Internet and how to use the Internet in a safe way. For this, we created a number of pilot projects, which provide technical support as well as training, and gathered all learning in an easy-to-understand manual that we are continuously developing further. Last but not least, with connected villages our staff can also work more efficiently, caregivers can exchange information and communication with donors works much better.
What does this mean for the lives of African children and their families?
Mihaimeed: Let me use the quote with figures on African youth’s access to the Internet from the UNICEF report “The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a Digital World”: “African youth are the least connected: Around 60 per cent are not online, compared with just 4 per cent in Europe.”
Rubatscher: UNICEF also stated in this report that digital is becoming normal in developing countries, especially for younger people. Knowing how to use a computer, how to do research on the Internet, how to connect with other people and so on is getting more important each year. Often access to computers, Internet and so on also gives children more self-confidence. They don’t feel marginalised and excluded any more.
Mihaimeed: My perspective here is, if we want to measure the success of the work that most development organisations are doing, it is by the self-reliance level of their beneficiaries. While we often focus on the financial part of self-reliance, I see that self-reliance is reflected in the community by having parents who are able to care for their children, children who receive a good education, young people who are able to find jobs, a community which is aware of child protection and safeguarding. The beauty of the Digital Village project is that, with IT literacy skills and access to the Internet, we are able to build on all these different areas.
To give just one example, a mother in an SOS Children’s Village in South Africa told me what it means for her to have technology: “It means my children are safe! My children used to go walking down a long road to the next Internet café to do their homework; now they can do it from here.” It is no secret that security is a challenge in many countries in Africa. Technology can help in this regard.
Rubatscher: Or another example from Nairobi, where our local education officer and a teacher at our school there showed me how a teacher has a chance to do lively and modern teaching with the help of some tablet computers in a class of 30 or more lively African children. Often even a notebook and a projector are sufficient for the teacher to convey exciting teaching contents. In 2016, however, an external study in Kenya proved that in our tablet computer classes in Nairobi – which are part of our OSL project – the marks of the students were measurably better than in other classes. However, this also requires teachers who are proficient in the use of digital teaching aids.
This does not mean that we want to compete against books or replace them with digital tools. On the contrary, books are often scarce, outdated or expensive in developing countries. Digital media are then a kind of workaround, they often only cost the Internet access, which can also be used for other purposes. Open Education and licence-free teaching content can be distributed digitally the cheapest and fastest, and there are no printing and transport costs. What we are doing with Text2Change in Asia, for example, for mothers from our family strengthening programmes or for young people looking for work, we could not do with analogue media.
One of your many important projects is "Connecting Africa", which brings free Internet broadband access to more than 100,000 people in 30 SOS Children’s Villages in 15 African countries in cooperation with British Telecom (BT). This Internet access offers better education and training. What will happen to the youth once they are equipped with skills for employability and higher learning?
Rubatscher: These youths will simply have better chances in the job market or when opening their own little business. Their chance for higher education will increase and the probability that they can attend a college or a university will be higher. Most of these youth come from very remote areas and from underprivileged families. With education at the same level as regular youth they will not leave their country, they just have the same chance. Importantly, our projects are not about training elites. It is only about being able to take as many children as possible, who were not so lucky in life, into the digital age. And that includes the girls.
Mihaimeed: There is a large portion of African youth who opt to establish their own business through entrepreneurship and self-employment. Besides creating self-sustainability, entrepreneurships are being seen as another window of job creation once the small business start to grow! This we also support with our YouthLinks project: SOS Children’s Villages engage in partnerships with companies and corporates to support the youth via internships, training and employment opportunities, and for this SOS Children’s Villages has created a mobile application that links the youth with mentors who are employees of companies around the country. They mentor and coach the youth through the different phases of finding employment, like how to write a CV, how to prepare for an interview, what are the communication skills needed, what are the employment opportunities and so on.
Introducing the Internet and new technology to rural and remote areas in Africa is certainly one of the more difficult tasks in your work. Are there moments when you almost despair of the challenges?
Rubatscher: I would not call it desperation, but often we need a lot of patience and persistence because the challenges when you go to remote regions are manifold: it starts with problems with electricity and connectivity, with extreme weather conditions, lack of technicians and spare parts. Often equipment which is built for Europe does not work in Africa. And of course technology always attracts thieves, you need to protect everything well.
A big help in all this is collaboration between NGOs, like the consortium NetHope, which we have been a member of for many years. We share all sorts of experiences and learn from one another, and also often help one another. We may be competitors in the fundraising market, but our technicians often work together in the field and meet regularly. This helps us to save a tremendous amount of time and money and it helps you not to feel alone with all these challenges.
Mihaimeed: The challenges are always power, connectivity and a safe environment to operate from. The Ebola crisis in West Africa even added a further challenge of ensuring the field staff were not affected by the virus. With Ebola, we needed real-time data on the status of the virus and quarantine zones. At that time, with the support of NetHope we set up a joint operation centre for the NGOs, where we bundled the support that we could give to each other. We utilised the premises of one of our Children’s Villages to set up wide-range transmission antennas that transmitted the SOS Children’s Villages’ Internet connection to the operation centre, other members provided power generators, IT companies provided equipment like computers and software, and so we were able to overcome the challenges!
But think also of the positive effects: In one of our countries in West Africa, the accountants from the various villages used to travel every month for 10 to 15 hours on very challenging roads and climate conditions to come to the national/country office and do their bookkeeping on the finance system. They used to lose two to three days every month on this task, besides the cost of the drive, vehicle maintenance, environmental impact and road risks. Imagine the return on investment of having the satellite internet connection that we have installed through connecting Africa if you calculated it in terms of productivity of co-workers, efficiency of operation, cost of fuel and car maintenance, road risk reduction and environmental friendliness due to less CO2!
What is the most important experience you have learned through your work and which you would like to share with other foundations?
Rubatscher: I would like to share what a school director in Kaolack, a remote city in Senegal, convinced me eight years ago: “Don’t underestimate Africa when it comes to digital.” People in Africa need digital tools and want them just like we do. But often in a different way. Help them to go their own way, find local solutions and give them time proportionally to the challenges they have.
Mihaimeed: The school principle also told us “You’ve got access to the technology, I also want this for my children, so they grow and become as successful – or even more successful – in technology than all of you!”
With the help of the Internet and technology, you help young people in Africa to create their own future. Both of you are successful IT experts – what was your life path like, so that you can point out completely new ways for SOS Children’s Villages in the area of technology?
Mihaimeed: I was inspired by having my first computer when I was at high school – I still have it stored in my parents’ attic. It was a – at that time state of the art – “Compaq” desktop, with 64 megabytes RAM and 1 GB hard disk! I spent days and nights figuring out how it worked and it was then that I decided to study computer science engineering.
Having joined SOS 12 years ago, I walked into my first SOS office in the Middle East determined at the time to stabilise the infrastructure and internet and then go for my next job. It turned out that every year there is a new challenge and development in a highly dynamic and global organisation like ours, especially since we started our major transformation of the ICT function in 2008. Many great colleagues in the field, ideas, projects and initiatives have evolved since then and one of the best is the impact of technology on the children and beneficiaries!
Rubatscher: After studying IT in Vienna, I went to Brazil for one year of postgraduate study at the state university in Campinas, Sao Paulo, which was a very interesting experience. Therefore, I stayed for some more time and developed a database system for medical research. After returning to Austria, I worked for seven years in the area of hospital information systems before I came to SOS. We started more than 10 years ago to build an international team of IT experts who would lead digitalisation in our 110 member associations in the Global South. A meeting with the school director in Kaolack in Senegal in 2010 changed my attitude towards IT in poor countries. He spoke with such passion about how important and helpful it is for his children to have access to computers and the Internet that he convinced me to change my view of IT priorities for NGOs. He and others in Africa helped me to understand that digitisation is more than bookkeeping and fundraising systems, email and the like. Digitisation can also help our beneficiaries and caregivers and so we started to promote this in our organisation and in the last few years also with donors.
Mihaimeed: I also want to point to my time in SOS Children’s Villages International over the past 12 years! As one of the Global South team members that Thomas created, the journey of making the change and delivering ICTs in SOS has kept us, and still keeps us, very busy. We had to handle basics like purchasing computers, setting up security standards, ensuring business continuity measures for the ICT services were put in place, supporting the business with systems and applications, then introducing the technology to the children. Besides the impact we see in our operation where our staff would be better equipped to service our beneficiaries and donors with IT systems, there is such joy when we set up ICT projects with the beneficiaries. The excitement of the children, parents and community members when they are able to use the computer is so valuable. I was in Senegal a few weeks ago when one of the mothers in Dakar Children’s Village switched on the computer and started to type in Microsoft Word. How proud she was, and the look in her eyes for being able to use the technology and not feeling abandoned because of her age was priceless!
Which technological innovation would you like to implement next in Africa?
Rubatscher: We are looking into digital care assistant systems. Mobile-based solutions which our beneficiaries and caregivers can use to find answers to specific needs they have, to connect with peers who have similar challenges and to SOS coaches who support them.
Mihaimeed: We believe that speech recognition and Artificial Intelligence will soon be ready to help us in this and robust smart phones for Africa will be the technical platform. We are already implementing two kinds of precursors: YouthLinks and Text2Change.
Rubatscher: It’s important to say that often it is not us IT experts from the General Secretariat who find new ways, but the people in our programmes, the villages, schools and family strengthening programmes. We need to listen and to facilitate, to support, to consult; this often brings the best solutions, like Open Space Literacy, Text2Change to Empower Women and the ICT corners.