How a small, rural nonprofit becomes self-reliant

How a small, rural nonprofit becomes self-reliant

MVI_2260_Moment(5)Mr. Bendu, a primary school head-teacher, came into the new printing service at the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation (CCET) to get some UN Children’s Feeding Program forms printed. He walked out of the new Community Computer Center 20 minutes later with his copies.

It was effortless. It would have taken less time if I hadn’t stopped to interview him. Four months ago, it could have been a 2-day trip.

IMG_2795CCET’s new printing service in Rotifunk is scoring a home run for their customers and for themselves.

CCET’s mission is to help community members become self-reliant. But they can’t keep assisting residents unless they themselves become self-reliant.

Left, CCET staff Oliver Bernard, Sulaiman Timbo, Rosaline Kaimbay

The first few years in the life of a small nonprofit are tricky. You’re getting projects off the ground, and need a little cash to fall back on when the unexpected happens. Donors are just learning who you are. Grant applications are often a year-long process before you see any funding – IF you’re approved.

Grant givers ask for your sustainability plan, which can feel like wishful thinking. How can you ensure the future success of your programs when you’ve just started to deliver something using donor money?

vlcsnap-error688It takes a paradigm shift.  You can help people while you earn income offering needed services that fit your nonprofit mission.

Left, CCET Managing Director Rosaline Kaimbay at CCET’s new Center

Our Sierra Leone community partner, the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation, laid early groundwork for self-sufficiency with new, much needed community services that earn income to fund their nonprofit programs.

IMG_4244Only four months earlier, to get anything printed Mr. Bendu faced an all-day or an overnight trip to the capital, crammed into a minivan bus or on the back of a motorcycle taxi on treacherous roads. His transportation costs alone would have been 10 to 20 times the cost of the printing. The time wasted is just accepted, a common inefficiency holding back developing countries like Sierra Leone.

Today, there’s a win-win in Rotifunk. Mr. Bendu and other Bumpeh Chiefdom customers no longer waste their time and money. Instead CCET provides local printing and other services people need. And CCET is making money to fund their nonprofit programs like computer training and adult literacy.

The Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, the Procter & Gamble Alumni Network and Sherbro Foundation funded CCET to start their new services.

img-20160820-wa0000-1These three grant makers were happy to invest in projects giving this rural community services they never had before, knowing income goes to support nonprofit programs.

CCET’s printing service can make simple photocopies or print 500 school report cards or church memorial service programs.

IMG_4916 (3)Sulaiman Timbo, left, and below left, is printing service and IT manager

Sulaiman can prepare custom layouts and type up forms and documents for customers, and then immediately print them.

A color printer is on its way that will expand the business, offering full-color election posters and event flyers, and color photos. More business opportunities.

No one else in their district of 300,000 people provides a printing service like this.

IMG_2018Cell phones are now a way of life, and this means daily charging in a rural town with no electricity.

CCET charges phones in a secure drop-off service seven days a week. People may now bring a battery pack to charge as well.

NGO training session Mar 2017The CCET Center rents meeting and workshop space for NGO and government programs during the day, when no classes are in session. It’s the only place in town and for miles around with a facility to hold professional meetings for 20 to 100 people.

The building’s solar power lets participants use their computers. And they can print meeting materials right there. It’s also a good venue for wedding receptions and other special parties.

IMG_2016.JPGNext on the list to introduce is a small canteen for cold drinks, snacks and catered meals. The room next to the main hall, left, is ready.

Across the street is the only small hospital within a two-hour drive. Staff and visitors want meals and refreshments in a comfortable sit-down space — as well as market day visitors, teachers and NGO workers.  A refrigerator is coming soon to kick off this service.

IMG_2248There’s also a growing need for internet service. People may not own their own computer, but they want to be connected to the world around them by email and Facebook.

The local professional community of teachers, religious leaders, chiefdom authorities, nurses and health care technicians, and NGO reps needs to communicate with organizations around the country and beyond.

CCET plans to start a small pilot internet service and grow from there, based on demand.

So, when a small, rural nonprofit wonders how to become self-reliant, leaders should ask who are their customers, and what do they need?

First Computer Training Class Starts – Finally Joining the 21st Century

First Computer Training Class Starts – Finally Joining the 21st Century

October 24 was one of my happiest days since founding Sherbro Foundation. It was just days more than five years ago that I formed my first goal, with one of the Rotifunk high school principals, to start a computer training program for students. We had no building, no computers and no electricity, only the determination realize this dream.

Our goal was simple: to give high school students and adults (especially dropouts) computer skills that will make them more competitive in the growing job market.

That grew into teaching adults how to use computers in their jobs, and to start or further develop small businesses. People with computer skills in the community also will help attract new business to the area.

img-20161031-wa0000On October 24, students took their seats for the first evening computer training class in the new Computer Center building. With two months left in the year, it’s a self-paced evening class for adults. An afternoon class for high school students will follow in the next term.

Many of the first adult students are teachers in town. They may have been exposed to computers in college, but without owning one themselves, their practical skills are limited.

img-20161031-wa0008Our Rotifunk partner, the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation, CCET, hired their first full-time employee to lead computer training classes and run the new printing service.

Sulaiman Tumbo, standing left, had been a local teacher and CCET volunteer. His IT skills and demonstrated commitment made him a great choice for the computer program.

Paramount Chief Charles Caulker, standing right, has championed computer training and the Computer Center concept.

He took on constructing the 2,600-square-foot building from the burned out ruins of a war-torn building during the height of the Ebola crisis. The chiefdom was under an isolation order, so he used that time to build the building that now houses computer and Adult Literacy classes and a new printing service.

The transformation shown below is nothing short of remarkable.

computer-class-open-nov-1-2016The Center can handle 20 computer students in a class. A long table lines a wall so students can plug into wall outlets now powered with solar energy.

Students will complete four training units leading to an IT certificate CCET will issue. With little hands-on experience, they start with Windows, learning to navigate the programs and Apps available, and to create and find documents. They’ll then master basics of Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

Chief Caulker ensured the viability of the program with the Center’s new copy and printing service. Its profits will go to funding  nonprofit education programs in the building, including computer training and Adult Literacy.

I’ll never forget the words of one the adult computer students I talked with. “Arlene,” he said, “I feel like we’re joining the 21st Century.”

— Arlene Golembiewski, Executive Director

First Printing Service Will Fund Rural Education

First Printing Service Will Fund Rural Education

Bumpeh Chiefdom’s new Community Computer Center opened for business in September with the area’s first printing service and its new workhorse copying machine, called a Riso duplicator.

riso-applauseThe economical high-volume, low-energy copier was met with cheers at the Rotifunk facility.  With good reason – it’s the only printing service within several hours drive. Printing once meant a trip to the capital Freetown.

The center now offers faster and cheaper printing and copying for a wide area.

We’re cheering from a distance because the printing service will make money to support nonprofit education programs in the multi-use center, more than four years in the making.

img-20160407-wa0000Now, the computing center — built from a war ruin — is being used to instruct students and adults on computer use. It also hosts adult literacy classes for the many whose educations were cut short by the war. The solar-powered building is available to rent, the only modern building for miles suitable for meetings and community events of 20 – 100. Primary school teacher training, above, was the first rental customer.

There’s two other money-making services inside. The canteen serves as a community hub with drinks and snacks for people visiting the nearby market, hospital and church. And a cell phone charging service can charge 30 phones at a time for a small fee.

center-commissioning-4-oct-10The large duplicator was purchased with a $3,750 grant Sherbro Foundation received from the Ann Arbor (MI) Rotary Club and its District Rotary group. We purchased and shipped the duplicator to our Sierra Leone partner, the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation (CCET), which operates the Center.

Freetown Rotary Club members, left, joined Paramount Chief Charles Caulker, right, in October for an official Center commissioning ceremony. The Rotarians said this was the most impressive project they have ever reviewed!

Starting the duplicator took two technicians from opposite ends of the country, with Arlene making international phone calls to relay start-up codes and setup information from our Cincinnati Riso distributor, Bernie Reagan of DSC Office Systems of Blue Ash. (He contributed a deep discount on the equipment.) It’s a newer model and declared “more powerful” than others in the country. Sierra Leone is used to getting outdated technology to save money. This duplicator will serve Bumpeh Chiefdom for many years to come.

img-20160820-wa0000-1Customers soon lined up for the unique service, which spares them an eight hour round-trip to the capital, Freetown. Many are teachers from Bumpeh’s five secondary and 40 primary schools, who need to print reading materials (students have few textbooks), exam papers and report cards.

School sports competitions need programs and fliers; churches and mosques need hundreds of weekly service and wedding/funeral programs. A steady stream of hospital staff and small business owners in town and from surrounding chiefdoms are coming to print their documents.

Paramount Chief Charles Caulker says the chiefdom’s record-keeping will greatly improve and better serve residents, starting with printing a backlog of 1,000 land registrations. Chief Caulker is also chairman of the National Council of Paramount Chiefs. Most chiefs have no email, so he’s using the service to print documents going to all 149 chiefdoms in Sierra Leone.

Four years ago this was all a dream. Now, the printing service is the mainspring of a busy community center, bringing a town into the 21st century.





And then there was light – and fans

And then there was light – and fans

And then there was light. Solar, that is. Rotifunk’s new Community Computer Center is nearly ready to open with power from a nearby solar system. Sherbro Foundation just funded wiring to bring the solar power to the new center.

Feb 2016 2 - CopyThe pieces are falling into place for Rotifunk’s first computer center, a project over four years in the making.  When we first identified a proposal to teach computer literacy in 2011, we had no computers, no building and no power. Nor did we know where we’d get any of these. No one in town had a computer, and only three teachers had any PC skills.

And we never imagined Ebola would throw us a big curve for over a year.

But the need was compelling – to introduce computer literacy as a way of giving job skills to students and adults in rural Bumpeh Chiefdom. So, you just get started.

With an unexpected and generous donation of fifty laptop computers late in 2013, we actually did start the project.

Computer class at CCET officeOur local partner, the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation, CCET, started teaching adults in the living room of a borrowed house. There was only room for ten students at a time, but it was a start. Then Ebola hit in mid-2014 and all public gatherings were banned. Classes stopped.

Paramount Chief Caulker made good use of the Ebola period when all travel in and out of the chiefdom halted to build the new computer center building. He donated land that had the shell of an old building burned by rebels during the war. It was in the center of town with a good concrete slab. The transformation was no less than amazing. Built with mud bricks and local lumber and labor, then stuccoed and painted inside and out – and voila, a new 40×60 foot computer center.

Computer Lab 6      Computer Center 9-15-14



But there still was no power. Operating with a generator would be costly, noisy, unreliable and spewing pollution. Estimates for a limited solar system for this building were $30,000+.

As luck would have it, a nearby community solar system had been installed and had excess capacity. It was feasible to wire power over. Last month wire was laid in conduit between the two buildings and buried in the ground.

Feb 2016 6

Feb 2016 5 - Copy Feb 2016 3


I did a dance last week when I got word it’s connected and we finally have power!

LFeb 2016 4est you think we’re now all set, well, not quite. I’ve learned a lot about solar systems and their capacity. The parent system we’re drawing from, shown here, is considered large at 5000 Watts. We’ll be able to use 3000 – 4000 Watts on most days. But this will just cover basic operation of the computer center running 25 laptops at a time, a twenty 11 W LED lights, six small ceiling fans and a desktop printer.

Running larger printers for the printing service we plan to start will still require a generator for the excess power needed.

I learned my lesson on power use when I tried to use a standard women’s hairdryer in a house with a generator. I asked first if it was OK, and then proceeded to shut down the generator. No wonder. Our hair dryers are 1875 W – for one hair dryer! As Westerners, we take for granted having all the power we want.

The computer center’s solar power is based on having sunny days. In the rainy season, we may use power faster than the solar batteries can recharge. A back-up generator is still a necessity.

But today, I’ll put those things aside.  I’m celebrating. The building is built. And the lights are on.




Why I Give to Sherbro Foundation

GT_SunglassesMy #Unselfie for Giving Tuesday
Why do I give to Sherbro Foundation Sierra Leone?

I want the girls and women of Sierra Leone to have the same opportunities for education I had.  With education, they’ll lead their community and country to prosperity.

I had help along the way. They deserve no less than I had. With that help, they’ll do as much as the women in the US have done. I’m sure of that.

Students have their first computer lesson.

Students have their first computer lesson.

Top on my helping hand list to Sierra Leone is computer literacy and IT skills.  With those skills, the girls and women of Sierra Leone will lead their country into a 21st Century economy, build a middle class and a bridge to stability.

That’s how Sherbro Foundation started. It was my desire to give girls in the rural community of Bumpeh Chiefdom a first class secondary school education – and cap it off with computer literacy.

We’re ready to get back to both of these – as soon as we can get through this Ebola thing. Teachers are anxious to get back to teaching. We’re starting to rebuild our girls scholarship fund after diverting money for community Ebola response.

The community computer center has been built with 50 computers waiting for students. It will have its grand opening when the schools reopen. (For now, Ebola dictates no public gatherings.) Next step is raising the balance of funds needed for a solar energy system. With solar, we can run into the evening, doubling the classes and offer adult literacy night school.

So, stay tuned for 2015. It looks to be a promising year.

Join us to kick-start the new year. Do some good.  You’ll feel very good.

Arlene Golembiewski
Founder & Executive Director, Sherbro Foundation Sierra Leone

Rotifunk’s Computer Center: building their future

Rotifunk’s Computer Center: building their future

Rotifunk’s Community Computer Center structure is now completely up.  Latest pictures are below.  See more of the full construction story here and read about plans for the computing center here.

September 16: The building’s exterior is finished with window frames in place. Ready to paint.

computer ctr sept 16 4     computer ctr sept 16








computer ctr sept 16 3Work on the interior now proceeds.  We did a quick lighting and computer use plan 2 weeks ago to devise the electrical wiring plan. An electrician got to work on wiring so the interior finishing with wall plastering can proceed.  The drop ceiling is now in.






Compare with these pictures taken  June 24 a week after work initially started on from a burned out building shell.Computer Lab 2

Computer Lab 3






September 1: Rotifunk’s first Ebola cases appear in town.  Five deaths and 35 quarantined in five houses.  But the computer center construction proceeds on schedule.

August 25:  The roof is up on Rotifunk’s community computing center.  Ebola is not slowing down work on this center full of hope for the future.

10634313_720411201361353_1073541016_nThis (now) ugly baby will be beautiful as they plaster the walls and add a coat of paint.

Work has gone on in spite of August being the peak of the rain season. Remember 2011 when here in Cincinnati we got 73″ rain for the year and called it an all time record year. The average rainfall for the month of August alone  in Sierra Leone is 42″.  Throw in July and there’s 73″.

The next stage is raising funds for a solar energy system so the computing center can operate into the evening with classes and community computer access. They’ll offer small business services, too, like typing and copying for those without computers or printers.

unnamed 5

unnamed 2












Good News from Sierra Leone – Computer Center Construction Progress

The entire country of Sierra Leone may be living in the grip of fear of Ebola.  But life does go on beyond the two epicenters of the epidemic. We need good news to share right now.  Here’s some. Construction on the Rotifunk community Computer Center is on track for its November debut.

10592057_711825275553279_1085342184_nThese pictures from August 3 show the roof tresses going up.  The sheets of metal roofing were purchased. If they arrived, the roof may be going on as we speak.

This project will provide a permanent building for computer literacy classes and small business services. We already have fifty five Windows 7 laptop computers in Rotifunk waiting for their new home and central access for the whole town.

The building is going up with private donations and  community contributions of the land, building shell, local materials and local unskilled labor.

You can read more about the project here.  I like to call it from tragedy to triumph.  When the computer center construction started, I was referring to rebuilding from the shell of a building burned by rebels during the war.

Today, we can also say despite the Ebola tragedy, the people of Rotifunk and Sierra Leone will triumph. They are still hard at work building a better future.

For now, enjoy these construction pictures.  I am.

Arlene Golembiewski, Executive Director



Old exterior walls of the building shell were reinforced with an inner wall of new bricks.  Once the walls are plastered and painted inside and out, you won’t know it’s a building rebuilt from a fire.





Deep roof overhangs are essential in a place with tropical rains over 120 inches a year.




10592057_711825275553279_1085342184_nYou can still the charred tops of the original inside pillars – evidence of the fire set by rebels during the war, trying to destroy the town.

Rotifunk today is about 60% rebuilt.  With recent construction like a large community hall, a rebuilt hospital, four secondary schools, a new rural community bank, and now a modern computer center, Rotifunk is putting itself back on the map.  It’s regaining its former position as a rural hub for education, health care and trade in southern Sierra Leone.


A Phoenix Rises From the Ashes to Live Again

A phoenix is rising in Rotifunk to live again.  But not a bird.  A different kind of phoenix.

A phoenix is a mythological bird that arises from the ashes of its own funeral pyre as a newborn bird to live again.

Computer Lab 2Rotifunk had to abandon their town to rebel control for seven years during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Townspeople fled for their lives, and rebels burned the town to the ground.

Today, on the main road in Rotifunk, a building torched by rebels is rising once again from its own ashes. It’s being rebuilt as the new community computer center.

The computer center for Rotifunk that started as our dream three years ago is coming to life. No myth here. It’s being built, bricks and mortar style.  Or rather, being rebuilt.

Charred wood support posts.

Charred wood support posts.

In Sierra Leone, necessity is the mother of many things. Rebuilding structurally sound but damaged buildings to live again is a common thing. Especially buildings like this one that died a premature death at the hands of rebels intent on destroying a town.

This large building is being given over to house Rotifunk’s new community computer lab.  The concrete slab and foundation walls are good. It’s large enough to house two classrooms, offices and storage rooms. And importantly, it’s centrally located on the main road to easily serve residents and visitors alike as a computer café and business service center.

Anything wood, like these roof supports, burned when set on fire by rebels.  But the concrete foundation and original walls remain to work with.

Computer Lab 4Local materials are further bringing down the project cost.  Bricks made in wooden frames from the hard laterite clay mixed with cement dry in the hot tropical sun. Locally cut lumber from tropical hardwoods will support and frame the roof.

Inner walls of new bricks are being laid to reinforce the old walls and to rebuild upwards.

Window openings were left all around.  An important design feature for this town that still has no electricity and needs natural light coming in.

Computer Lab 10

Partitions – mud brick inner walls – will go in next to create classrooms, two offices, a storeroom and toilets.  These days modern style buildings in Rotifunk are built with inside toilets and underground septic systems.

This picture I just got shows the roof support starting to go up.  Roof trusses will go in that are one the biggest cost of the re- build.  We need roof trusses and a corrugated metal roof strong enough to hold solar panels.

You may ask how can a town build a computer center if it has no electricity. Well, we’ve already been operating a temporary computer center in a small house for nearly a year.  We were fortunate to get 50 up-to-date PC’s last year with a corporate donation from Schneider Electric.  Our local Rotifunk partner, the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation wasted no time starting computer literacy classes. But classes end by 6:00 or 6:30 pm when it becomes too dark to see.

The PC’s are re-charged remotely. Too bad I don’t have a picture  of kids carrying 20 computers at a time (in PC bags) on their heads across town to a place that charges cell phones. It’s a standard these days to have small cell phone charging businesses run by generators.

But this is no way to run a real computer center.  Our next stage for this project is fundraising for a solar energy system.  We want to maximize use of the center and operate for twelve hours a day, seven days a week. We need reliable solar power.

People in Rotifunk are eager to learn to use a computer.  Most people can’t afford their own PC now. They can come here to take classes or rent a PC by the hour for a token fee.  Those who just want to have something typed or printed, can come here like a local Kinko’s or Staples for business services.  And the center will earn some money to make itself self supporting.

Rebels may have tried to destroy Rotifunk. But Rotifunk is no longer destroyed.  It’s a vibrant small town that’s rebuilding itself.  It’s once again taking its position as the rural hub for education, health care and trade it’s been for over a hundred years.

Rotifunk is rebuilding itself to be better than its former self.  Computers are linking its residents with the rest of world.

Sherbro Foundation is proud we arranged the original computer donation and are now fundraising for the building’s solar system.  The building itself is being paid by private donations and community contributions, including the building shell, local materials and local unskilled labor.

It definitely is “taking a village” to make this computer center become a reality for the rural town of Rotifunk.  It’s an international village of donors and supporters.

Why not join us? If you’d like help, you can read more about our donations and donate yourself here.


Joining the Rest of the World – Rotifunk’s First Computer Students

Joining the rest of the world – this is how two of Rotifunk’s first computer literacy students described the way they feel about starting computer lessons.  They know the world is computerized, and they have, to date been left out of the opportunities and the knowledge afforded by computers.

Computer class at CCET office.

Computer class at CCET office.

Computer literacy and regular access to using a computer are among the most coveted resources in today’s Sierra Leone.  People know this is their link to gain valuable job skills, better manage their work, and communicate with the rest of the world.

The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation received 50 laptop computers in August from American donors Schneider Electric and TIP Capital. They lost no time in building tables and benches with local lumber and creating a practical manual for students who have never used a computer.  Lesson One started in Sept – October with how to turn it on and find the Word software.

The first students are community teachers and other adults with a need to use a computer.  They will form the core group to serve as trainers for high school students and others in the community. Only three or four of the 30+ secondary school teachers in area had any computer proficiency.  Some had been exposed in college to manuals with screen shots of computer monitors as introduction, but never had access to using one themselves.

Here’s a profile of some of Rotifunk’s first computer students.

Samuel Caulker at his computer lesson.

Samuel Caulker at his computer lesson.

Deputy Paramount Chief – Samuel Caulker stands in as the ranking chiefdom authority for his brother, the Paramount Chief when both the Chief and his Chiefdom Speaker are out of town.  Samuel says the world has gone computerized, but until now, Rotifunk was not part of this.  This is his first opportunity for computer lessons and he wanted to take advantage of it.

He was embarrassed when going to training workshops outside the chiefdom, and he had to say he did not know how to use a computer.

Soon he can see computers in the Chiefdom Administrative Office.  Records can be kept and accessed when needed on computers, like amount of taxes collected for the year and who paid in each Section.  They can maintain land transfer records and avoid land disputes; they can keep names of all 208 villages in the chiefdom and the responsible headmen. Importantly, they can maintain minutes of Chiefdom Council meetings and other key chiefdom events.

Samuel is not finding using a PC as difficult as he may have thought.  They have excellent tutors from CCET committed to teaching them.  It would go faster if they had more time to practice. They come at 5:00pm at the end of their work day.  Lack of electricity and cost of running a generator limit the time of the class to 6:30pm when it’s too dark to see.  Today they had to stop when the battery on the computer ran down.

Samuel wants to thank Schneider Electric and TIP Capital for the opportunity to learn to use a computer and will make good use of his class. He also appreciates the low cost of CCET classes.  They are paying Le30,000 (~$7.50 USD) for classes that would cost Le150,000 in Freetown.

Secondary School Teacher – Emanuel Mbasy teaches at Walter Schutz Secondary School.  Emanuel sees technology quickly changing and wants to be part of it.  With computer literacy for himself, he can then also teach his children.  He can create his own documents and quickly find them, like class lessons, exams and other documents.  Files get missing at school, and he could better maintain them.

Practical computer instruction manual designed by CCET.

Practical instruction manual designed by CCET: how to boot a computer.

The CCET teachers are good and he’s not finding it too hard to learn, if you concentrate and practice.  Practice is unfortunately limited to a few hours of classroom time each week, and students like him do not have their own computer to practice on at home.  They do have a good manual CCET prepared for them they can take home and review.

Emanuel wants to give his special thanks to Schneider Electric and TIP Capital for allowing him to join the rest of the world with learning computers.  May God bless them.  More computers for their personal use would be great. 

Muslim Missionary and Imam – Osman Sesay is a young Imam with the Amaddiyah Islamic mission present in Rotifunk. Technology is improving, and the Amaddiyah mission has a computer, but he didn’t know how to use it.  He’s glad for the chance for lessons now.  He wants to be able to keep speeches on the computer, as well as lessons and exams for the Amaddiyah school.  They conduct marriages and need to issue marriage certificates. 

Imam Sesay really wants to learn to use a computer. It’s difficult, but he will learn.  He’s not fortunate to have his own personal computer, and would really like to have one.

Computer lesson.

Computer lesson: teachers give 1:1 help.

Construction Contractor – Abu Bakar Conteh is a contractor building new buildings at the Prosperity Girls High School.  As a contractor, he needs to give bids and estimates and keep them. Offices with files are a luxury in rural Sierra Leone, and his work keeps him on the move anyway.  A computer would help him organize his work and keep it available, as well as make calculations easier.

A computer would also allow him to advertise his business through the internet.

Abu Bakar enjoys computer lessons very much and is finding it easy, despite this being his first class.  He’s learned to write and save some documents, and he’s become familiar with the keyboard.

He would like to thank Schneider Electric and TIP Capital so much.  They find it difficult to get computer lessons in Sierra Leone, especially in a rural place, and these companies have made it so easy and inexpensive for him.

DSTV Satellite Dish Operator – Sembu Fallah maintains DSTV service for the area. We are living in a computerized world where knowledge has advanced, he says, and he would like to know it better.  He wants to be a perfect man and learn enough to teach others as an additional job.

He could also use a computer to join the DSTV signal to a computer for viewing sports games here in Rotifunk as an additional source of income.

Sembu wants to thank Schneider Electric and TIP Capital for what they’ve done for them.  He really appreciates it, and prays they will bring more.  If he had his own computer he would continue to practice at home and not be limited to three 90 minute classes a week at the CCET office.


August 28, 2014 update: I see people continue to read this post, so I wanted to direct you to the latest up on Rotifunk’s computer program.  We are turning a town tragedy into a triumph.  A community computer center is being built as I write this from the ashes of a rebel burned building. You can read about it here:


Computer Lab Project: First Pictures

The Computer Lab project is now reality! The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET) in Rotifunk is the proud owner of a computer lab with 50 modern laptop computers with Windows 7 and Microsoft Office 2010. And the first pictures are in.

We wish to once again thank the U.S. donors, Schneider Electric and TIP Capital for taking the lead in outfitting the computer lab with up-to-date computers.  We hope you enjoy now watching the transformation of this community as both adults and high school students acquire their first computer skills.

The computer “lab” today is still temporary quarters in a house Chief Caulker has loaned them for now.  Building a new classroom building for the computer lab open to the community will be the next step in the project.  Installing a solar energy system to power lighting for evening classes and to charge computers is also part of the plan.

But with tables and chairs made by local carpenters and computers in hand, computer classes have begun.

Teacher and CCET leader, Mr. Sonnah earlier explained the Center’s logo to me and how it symbolizes what they plan to accomplish.  A man and a woman are together holding one torch light.  Light brings about transformation, and men and women are equally balanced in holding one light.  They are surrounded by olive branches depicting them rescuing the chiefdom from its past traumas.  They are transforming the chiefdom to be a better place.  Mr. Kamara, another teacher and CCET leader said in his quietly confident manner, we are developing our brothers and sisters, and we know with our work today, tomorrow will be a brighter day.  We see our future as bright.

High school computer students, L - R: Bumpeh Christian Academy, Walter Schultz Sec. School, Prosperity Girls HS

High school computer students, L – R: Bumpeh Christian Academy, Walter Schultz Secondary School, Prosperity Girls High School

I, too, see their future getting brighter each day.  I think you can see it in the pictures that follow.

High School students practice on front porch of the CCET offices

High School students practice on front porch of the CCET offices

Adult students get computer instruction

Adult students get computer instruction

CCET teacher instructs adult students.

CCET teacher instructs adult students.

Teachers and adult computer students

Teachers and adult students in front of the temporary computer lab quarters.

Women in adult literacy class in an afternoon lesson

Another CCET program: Women in an adult literacy class in an afternoon lesson

Why do people need a computer in rural Sierra Leone?

What will people do with a computer in a rural area like Rotifunk when they have no electricity and no Internet service beyond spotty mobile phone coverage – if you have a smart phone. If most people have at best limited literacy, what does it matter if they have access to a computer?

My original motivation for getting PC’s to Rotifunk was to get job training skills into school programs there.  I especially wanted young girls to get a jump start on skills needed for good jobs in today’s economy.  That’s still a primary objective.

As I got more involved, I saw professionals and leaders already there in Rotifunk did not have computers. The Prosperity Girls High School principal, teachers, chiefdom administrators – all well educated and capable people were being held back by not having a computer to modernize documents and records, improve their productivity and have access to all the information that the Internet can provide.

But I soon found computer access in a rural area can do much more.  It starts with the smallest computer of all – the smart phone. With a smart phone and its Internet access, people can do a lot to improve their day to day lives.  Everyone.

If more than one person, that often where the cell phone cell is stronger.

If there’s more than one person, that’s often where the mobile phone signal is stronger.

When I made my first trip back to Sierra Leone in 2011 with friends, we observed that things largely looked the same as we had left off in the 70’s. Not encouraging.  Then we started seeing one important thing that had changed.  People were walking around with this thing in their ear and talking to themselves.  Just like at home, but we weren’t home.  Wait a minute.  Those were mobile phones everywhere.

The juxtaposition of mobile phones next to a mud house took a minute to register and get used to.  Especially a woman in a traditional lappa with a baby on her back, maybe cooking outside on three stone talking on a mobile phone.

This is not just yakking.  With limited incomes, it’s a pay as you go system.  You buy units from a local vendor and people use them carefully.  I had to get used to people otherwise effusively friendly, abruptly hanging up on me.  They’re conserving units.

So what do they use mobile phones for?  Many things.  In an area where roads are beyond miserable and public transportation infrequent and expensive on their incomes, you can do a certain amount of your day to day business and personal connections now by your phone. Like calling ahead to make sure a shop has the goods in stock you need for your local business or to resell in the market.  You can check prices while you’re at it and find the best price.  Maybe you can arrange to have your order delivered to you with someone you know and avoid the trip yourself.

Cell phone towers announce you're entering a small town.

Cell phone towers announce you’re entering a rural town or village – here Rotifunk.

Most women work by virtue of being small traders as they call it in the informal economy.  They buy goods in one place at a good price and sell in another. Phone orders and other requests are especially empowering for women.  The Internet and phones are good ways to level the playing field. It doesn’t matter who you are and what you look like. Money talks.  And you don’t have to leave your children or waste time you could instead use to do other chores for your family.

I’ve seen many applications for mobile phones now that mobiles have taken hold in Africa.  They involve getting fast and timely access to information, and avoiding costly and difficult trips on bad rural roads.

Farmers can call Agriculture extension services or other advisors to find out why their crops are doing poorly and get advice on what to do.

Health care is one of the most exciting uses of this “mini-computer.” When a woman goes into labor, a call can go to the nearest  health clinic to be ready for her, and where available, arrange for a vehicle to take her.  In a country with one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world, access to health services when needed is leading to dramatic improvements for mothers and infants.

Likewise, mothers can call clinics to consult with a nurse or community health officer about their family’s illness.  Hours of unnecessary delay can make all the difference when a small child has malaria or acute diarrhea, and parents can be advised on what to do by phone.

Texting health messages to rural clinic health practitioners was noted as one successful measure in averting a replay of last year’s major cholera epidemic in Sierra Leone when hundreds died.  The rainy season is cholera season.  Rains were bad this year, but cholera incidence was not.  Texts went out alerting clinics on symptoms to watch for and what to do.

Banking and paying bills by phone is the next innovation in Africa and coming to Sierra Leone. Traditional banking dings poor people twice.  Bank account minimums and transaction fees are cost prohibitive for people living on $2 a day. Then you have to pay for public transportation to get to a bank, since villages and most small towns have no bank.  Rotifunk only last month had their first small credit union type bank open.

Now, pay by phone services are starting to pop up.  You can pay bills using the same mode as buying call units.  You give a local vendor the information on who you need to pay and how much, pay cash and they transmit the funds to pay your bill. Services are starting that let you use your phone like a debit card. You avoid bank fees – and can stay off those miserable roads wasting your time.  People will need to get used to these services. But the cost-benefit seems clear to encourage use as they become available.

Sierra Leone’s journalists even created “citizen journalists” in the country’s 2012 Presidential election with mobile phones. The government promised free, fair and transparent elections.  So, journalists gave mobile phones to average citizens to report back real time what was going on in their remote polling place.

This video gives an overview of how rural, low income people’s lives are made better with that mini-computer, the mobile phone.  Mobile for Development life stories.

CNN notes other innovative solutions mobile phones made available to people in Africa in their article: Seven ways mobile phones have changed lives in Africa. 

Yes, some of this is just using phone service, and you don’t even need a smart phone.  But others connect computerized services by phone.  And once people are comfortable and proficient with using mobile phone functionality, it’s not a huge step up to using a computer.  And a computer can bring educational, productivity and job skill opportunities to a rural area.

I watched an illiterate girl sell me mobile phone units in Rotifunk.  She had no trouble punching all those numbers into her mobile phone that then connected with a computer that activated my phone with call units. She mastered this in no time because it was a job for her.

I look at mobile phones as the training ground for introducing IT technology to a country ready and willing to use it.

The Computers Have Arrived. Who’s first to use them?

Fifty laptop computers arrived in Rotifunk a week ago.  The shipment generously donated by Schneider Electric and TIP Capital were picked up from the shipping company’s warehouse in Freetown, and carried to Rotifunk by car.  Our dream of a computer lab for this rural town is starting to take shape.

This 77 year old student is a fast learner.

This 77 year old student is a fast learner.

A few things I found needed to be worked out.  After anxiously opening the boxes, they found they wouldn’t turn on. Someone realized the battery is discharged after sitting in a ship for a month.  This means carrying them to a house with a generator to recharge in this town with no electricity.  When they started, a message popped up about wanting to do a WIndows 7 update.  But in a town with no Internet access, you can’t receive automatic updates.  There’s way to handle this, too, in Sierra Leone, and someone was coming from the capital with a Windows 7 program disc to do their magic.

School’s been out for summer break and teachers are just returning to Rotifunk from their holidays to start the new school year.  I called Teacher Osman Kamara who volunteers with the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET) – the new owners of the computers – to hear how it was going.  Osman had not yet arrived in Rotifunk himself, but said they will now be gearing up to start computer literacy classes.

In the meantime, some adults have been coming forward expressing their desire to learn to use a computer.  Really, I asked.  Like who?  I was interested to hear which people were among the first to make their interest known.

One is the chief Imam, Osman said.  The chief Imam is the leader of the community mosque.  I thought, well, ministers need to write and keep sermons, so an Imam must do the same.  Yes, Osman said, And he needs to keep written records and make certificates for things like marriage licenses.  So, he wants to learn to do this on a computer.

They’ve acquired a printer and can now print things for teachers and other users – like a marriage certificate for the Imam to present to a newlywed couple. Or exams teachers have prepared. It didn’t take long to learn that printer ink is not cheap.  They will need to charge a small printing fee for these requests. That’s far cheaper than going to the capital to use a computer or printer, when you add in transportation costs and a two day trip. 

I can visualize the CCET office quickly becoming the local Kinko’s or Staples of Rotifunk.  Unfortunately, now run with a generator that’s another expense for fuel.  We’re keeping a solar energy system as a priority on our project list.

Chief Caulker early on expressed interest for the chiefdom clerks to learn how to computerize their records.  They are starting a systematic system for recording births and deaths in the chiefdom.  Computer records will be perfect to not only maintain data, but to start making spreadsheet reports on their statistics.  Likewise, they keep land use records on who has rights to parcels of land and when they acquired these. 

I listened to a land dispute case in the chief’s daily palaver court in a small village last February.  People bring their disputes and complaints before the chief for settlement as in a court.  In this case, the land was on the border between small villages and no one could remember when or if the person claiming land rights had gotten them.  Who’s the oldest man in this area? asked Chief Caulker.  A motorcycle taxi was sent to collect him in hopes of getting an objective and accurate reading on this. The day will soon be here when the chief could make a cell phone call back to Rotifunk for the computer data base on this.  Well, if the village has a cell phone signal, which this one did not.  But that will come, too.

The wheels of my brain start turning.  When you move beyond computer literacy lessons and into actual applications, they need data management procedures.  Do they understand the need to back up data, and how will they do this?   A memory stick or blank CD will work initially, but they’ll soon need something like a remote hard drive. Mr. Kemoh, one of the teachers who studied IT technology will surely understand this. 

I asked an enterprising young Rotifunk man how he would use a computer if he had one. He would start a business to transfer songs to people’s cell phones.  Playing music on your cell phone is hot in Sierra Leone.  And you’d be surprised how many people have cell phones.  People who can download the latest songs on a computer can have a thriving business transferring these to people’s phones for a small fee.

Movies and videos are of course equally popular. They also open a whole new window on the world for people who have been to date isolated.  With a computer and video projector I brought last February, we could show movies in the small village we stayed in of 25 homes. (Had to bring a generator, too, of course.) I brought a number of videos where children were lead characters in hopes of being both entertaining and educating.

What I hadn’t counted on was American English being such a barrier. When the subject matter is culturally different and the language is different than yours, or just hard to understand, you can imagine interest falls off quickly.  How long could you watch a “foreign film” with no subtitles.  Action films of course, do better.  I found the early Harry Potter films hold universal appeal.  Even when we fried the video projector with power surges coming thru the generator.  (Only the fuse I hope.) Rather than give up, we just turned the computer screen towards the crowd gathered outside the house.  With some small speakers I brought, that sufficed for our village cinema.  The kids were happy.

Some adults just want to learn to use a computer because it’s now there. You may be asking who that handsome guy is typing away in the picture at the top of this story.  It’s Chief Caulker’s Uncle Stalin.  Seventy seven year old Uncle Stalin wanted computer lessons when we were together in a village.  He had been a bursar on a freighter carrying goods to and fro from England in his younger days.  That’s where he had learned to type. 

I had panicked when I bought PC’s to take two weeks before my last trip and found they were loaded with Windows 8.  I had to quickly teach myself how to use them to teach others.  In two lessons, Uncle Stalin had mastered Windows 8 basics. He could turn on the computer and start up, locate the last Word document he made and start typing a letter without help.  He was thrilled, and so was I.

It’s not too late for him – or for anyone in Rotifunk – to meet their aspirations using a computer. Yes, we have some ground to make up.  But my experience so far would indicate, that’s not going to be a big problem.






50 Computers Have Shipped Bound for Rotifunk

Fifty computers are on a container ship as I write this steaming its way from New Jersey to Sierra Leone and the grateful people of Rotifunk. These will be the first computers that allow The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation to set up a computer literacy program and start teaching regular computer classes for Bumpeh Chiefdom.

This will not just provide computer skills, but skills to give the people of Rotifunk a shot at the 21st century job market. Skills to modernize school and chiefdom administration.  Skills to help people start or expand small businesses.

This is the dream that Prosperity Girls High School Principal Rosaline Kaimbay and I had two years ago when I made my first trip to Rotifunk in over 35 years and first met her.  Prosperity Girls was just finishing their second academic year after the school was founded in 2009.  She then had 67 girls in 7th and 8th grades – or as they say Junior Secondary School 1 and 2. The school now has four grades and triple the students. 

As Principal Kaimbay and I talked about her goals for the school in July 2011, we acknowledged that most of these girls were unlikely to go on to college.  They need vocational training programs in the school to give students practical job skills.  We quickly agreed computer training was top of the list.  Whether going to college or being a clerk in a shop, people today need computer skills to excel.

By next month at this time, our dream will become reality.

This dream has been made possible by two generous U.S. companies that I serendipitously met in Cincinnati – Schneider Electric and TIP Capital.

I went on the spur of the moment to a preview showing of the new PBS series, Half The Sky, about the plight of women and girls in the developing world that was given at the public library. Jenny Brady, Schneider Electric employee and CARE volunteer was leading the showing and a discussion afterwards.  She encouraged the audience to not just watch the video, but to find a real project to help a girl or a woman like those we had just seen.  Progress starts with one person here willing to help one girl/one woman somewhere in another country struggling to move her life forward.

OK, I said to myself, raise your hand and let people know you have such a project, and in Sierra Leone, one of the countries just profiled in the Half the Sky video. My “project” then was a discussion with a principal in a small town on the other side of the world, and a piece of paper she and her teachers prepared with their objectives for a computer lab for the school and the community. 

Teaching lab by day, Internet café by night.  Never mind they have no Internet service and no electricity. That was part of our dream for Rotifunk, too.

schneider elec_logoJenny liked this project herself.  She invited me to another Half the Sky showing where she brought the Schneider Electric HR manager, who I spoke with. She liked it, too, and took it back to Schneider Electric management as a proposal to send laptop computers to Rotifunk. 

The project now had legs.

This is an example of the kind of social responsibility effort I found Schneider Electric is globally known for as a multinational corporation in the world of energy management and sustainable development. They are recognized as one of the Top 100 World’s Most Ethical Companies.

TIP Capital logoSchneider leases their office IT equipment from an IT leasing company, TIP Capital.  They would get refurbished computers from TIP, who very generously agreed to sell these at cost and pay shipping charges to the New Jersey port. Giving up their profit on 50 computers was another very kind donation made by TIP.

As we were getting this underway, the Boston marathon tragedy occurred.  A horrific vicious circle of hatred where just two people wreaked incredible havoc and heartache.  How fortunate I remember thinking that I am instead involved in a circle of virtue, where one person’s desire to help on a compelling need enlists the help of another, who in turn draws in another person, and another.

Other donations have followed as people have heard of the project and seen it taking shape.  But a huge thanks goes out to the people at Schneider Electric and TIP Capital for the being the first ones to step up and say, I want to help on this.

A lot has happened in the last year and the project has grown.  More teachers have come to Rotifunk for the growing Prosperity Girls High School and formed an all-volunteer community development Nonprofit they call The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET).  I found other worthwhile projects needing support in Rotifunk on a later trip, and formed the Sherbro Foundation. 

The computer lab project has already grown in anticipation of receiving 50 computers.  CCET and Sherbro Foundation decided we should open computer training to more of the community beyond one girls schools.  There are four secondary schools in Rotifunk with girl and boy students needing computer skills.  There are school graduates in town that would like the opportunity learn computer skills for their own career development. There’s other adults who want the chance to learn to use a computer, or who have basic skills, but no access to a computer in town.  People now have to go the capital or another larger town with an Internet café to use a computer.

Even the women in the adult literacy class who are just learning to read and write their own names are excited at the prospect of learning to use a computer.  If primary school kids learn to use them, why not these women?  I say more power to them.  In this way, I hope computer classes will serve as an incentive for all students, young and old, to continue in school and keep learning.

Computer based training via DVD’s can also be a boost for students trying to master basic subjects like math and English grammar.

Paramount Chief Caulker has given CCET a building to use for their office and classes.  Sherbro Foundation has contributed some money to pay for a local carpenter to build office furniture and tables to hold classes.  And, next month, they will be firing up their own computers.

It’s one thing to learn to use a computer, but what do people then do with a computer in rural Africa?  More on that in another post.

If you would like to become part of this circle of virtue going out to the small town of Rotifunk, Sierra Leone, you can by using the on-line donation button to the right of this website.  There’s still plenty to do. 

We need simple things.  $15 will buy a computer bag to store and carry laptops. $25 will buy five gallons of fuel to run a small generator for hours of charging time. Educational DVD’s will help, like math and typing tutorials and programs like National Geographic and PBS.  Used DVD’s you’ve outgrown are fine. Let us know on Contact Us for that.

Top of the list though is a long term plan to provide power for this new computer lab to charge computers and light classrooms at night.  Part of the initial dream is still on the table – to fund a solar power system for the computer lab and to run adult education classes at night.

We haven’t given up on that part of the dream. It’s still growing.