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.