« The mobile phone is often called the computer of Africa »
As lead program manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, Stephane Boyera aims to use technology to empower marginalized populations in developing countries – as well as providing essential services such as education. He spoke to EduInfo during UNESCO’s first Mobile Learning Week in December 2011.
How does the WWW Foundation use the Web as a tool for development?
Although the amount of information on the Web is enormous, there is nothing there for a farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa. Our main goal is to find ways to extend the Web’s frontiers so that it provides information that is relevant to people of all ages, whether in rural Mali or rural Mozambique. We encourage local people to reflect on what their communities need, and then provide this information on the Web and build useful services around it. We are involved throughout this process.
Have you used mobile technologies for education?
Yes, mobile technologies and education represents a large part of our work. The mobile is often referred to as the computer of Africa but when we started working there, there were no initiatives to build capacities on mobile technologies. For mobile services to grow, people need to know how they can develop them. The World Wide Web Foundation has set up Mobile Innovation Labs in a number of countries to train people on how to provide services on mobiles.
What is the focus of your training courses?
We stress the technical aspects of mobile technologies and also on entrepreneurship. The way you do business on a mobile is different to the way you do it on the Web or in the street. In almost all countries in Africa there is a good understanding of ICTs, and IT companies develop software and websites. But mobile services are less developed. Moreover, many IT students are excited by the potential in this field, but there are virtually no classes on the use of mobiles at universities.
Our labs train people on both technical and business elements. The basic courses increase people’s employability, while we offer more detailed courses for those who are interested in starting their own business. We also help start-ups find funding and mobile operators to use their services. This initiative is really moving forward. In Kenya, for example, where we have a partnership with I-HAB, and funding from the World Bank, some universities now have courses on the use of mobiles. So we are seeing progress.
Roughly 90% of the world’s population now has access to mobile networks, and yet over 70% does not use the Web. How would you explain this divide?
These are exciting times as over 5 billion people have a device that allows them to access the Web. The challenge is to go beyond the use of mobiles as person-to-person devices, so they become web-access platforms. Two major conditions have to be met, though. The first is access - people need interface they can use and understand whether they speak Urdu, Mandarin or any other language, or indeed whether they are literate or not. The second is the suitability of content – people require content and services that are relevant and useful in their day-to-day life.
So the divide is not technological?
No. A simple phone, particularly through the use of voice technology, allows even illiterate users to interact with the Web. However, as technology constantly evolves, it is important that mobile services adapt to different contexts. Mobiles are not necessarily the best way to open the Web to a wider audience, or to implement education or development programmes. Throughout the capitals of Africa there are many internet cafes, and over 100 million Facebook users. So if you want to reach out to teenagers in an African capital you might have more success working through Facebook. You must always adapt to the best interface available to your target population.