The Transcend Project was initiated in 2022 by Kimmie Weeks, an internationally acclaimed Liberian activist and recipient of the World’s Children’s Prize Award. It aims to establish computer labs with internet connectivity in all Liberian and Sierra Leonean high schools within five years. By increasing digital literacy and computer proficiency, Transcend boosts students’ chances of accessing opportunities to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. In vulnerable postwar states, career pathways for young people are a vital step to stabilizing democracy.
According to UNICEF, 8% of students have access to a computer and less than 14% have access to the internet in sub-Saharan Africa. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, less than 5% of young people are computer literate. These low indicators are precipitated by the lack of access to computers and computer training opportunities. Families living in extreme poverty cannot afford a home computer and only elite private schools have computer labs.
Studies recognize that the best way to address this is by providing community computer training opportunities in places where young people already assemble. Rwanda and Botswana have implemented strong computer education policy in schools. As a result, both countries are reaping dividends including higher per capita incomes and low unemployment rates.
The innovativeness of the Transcend project is in delivering computer labs efficiently and at a low cost while eliminating the drawbacks sometimes associated with similar projects. The concept of computer labs in high schools is not groundbreaking, but organizations have donated computers to establish labs with mixed results. The primary complaint has been the underutilization of donated computers. Findings show that the failures of donated labs are usually because donors did not take steps to ensure that the computers were operational prior to turnover or because no mechanisms were put in place to ensure long term sustainability. In many instances, the schools did not have electricity or teachers to operate the labs. Subsequently, they sat unused until the equipment was destroyed or stolen.
With our model, each lab is set up within the existing infrastructure of the school and is completely solar powered to ensure that the computers are operational from day one. Set up includes renovating the space and providing computers, a projector, desks and chairs and a whiteboard. Transcend works collaboratively with schools to recruit teachers and also provides training on our uniform curriculum. We run the lab collaboratively with the school for the first year to ensure familiarization with standards and systems before fully turning the lab administration over to the school. The contract with each school stipulates that all fees collected to support the computer lab be segregated and used exclusively for upgrading the lab equipment. In addition to serving the needs of the students attending the high school, the lab can also serve as a community training and internet center after school hours.
WHY COMPUTER LABS?
In the ever-evolving landscape of education and technology, the significance of computer literacy cannot be overstated. It’s an essential skill for employability and entrepreneurship, and a cornerstone for growth and development, particularly in Africa. However, a glaring disparity exists as millions of African students graduate without even basic computer skills. This disparity is keenly felt in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where learning to use a computer has become a luxury, forcing aspiring learners to face exorbitant fees at private institutions, further burdening their pursuit of education.
This dilemma becomes particularly poignant when one considers that Africa boasts a youthful population – over 60% of its populace is under 25 years old. This demographic, while brimming with potential, is hindered by issues such as war, corruption, poverty, poor infrastructure, and limited investment in IT infrastructure. These factors perpetuate a digital divide, where access to computers and the internet remains a privilege. In fact, only 34% of African households have internet access, and access to computers is limited to a mere 8% of students in sub-Saharan Africa.
Large chunks of Africa’s population languish in poverty and therefore cannot afford access to home computers. The Afrobarometer shows a substantial digital divide both across and within countries. Not only is this heightened by lack of software and hardware but by other issues such as unequal access to electricity. UNICEF estimates that less then 5% of high school students in Liberia or Sierra Leone are computer literate and UNESO estimates that computer knowledge for the overall population is at 2%.
Liberia and Sierra Leone, nations with a history marked by adversity including brutal civil wars, continue to grapple with the aftermath of conflict and economic challenges. The education sector, a vital avenue for transformation, has been deeply affected and slow to recover. While both countries have national ICT policies emphasizing computer and internet access for educational institutions, resource allocation has lagged, leaving a vast majority of schools without computer facilities.
The pressure towards strengthening youth skills in computers and greater youth participation in ICT occurs in a context of increasing interconnectivity. Propelled by a ‘youth bulge’ in Africa and the arrival of undersea fiber optic cables, interconnectivity is set to continue its exponential growth, and computer training programs leading to improved computer skills have enormous potential to engage a diverse audience, including youth young women and other traditionally marginalized groups.
Sadly, Africa’s large youthful population, which is ripe for computer knowledge, is being deprived of it. Public institutions, which should be conduits for such knowledge transfer lack the equipment, training opportunities, and or materials. Even at home, a vast majority of families cannot afford to own a home computer because they live below the extreme poverty line. From an intervention perspective, it would also be a daunting task to provide computer equipment to individuals. Students who attempt to enroll in private computer schools find themselves having to pay predatory prices. These are tremendous barriers for those who can barely make ends meet and places them at a long-term disadvantage especially since many jobs require at least basic computer knowledge and skills. Some form of proficiency is crucial for young Africans to successfully compete in today’s technology-aided society.
Youth Action International’s Transcend Project emerges as a beacon of hope, aiming to bridge these gaps and empower the next generation. This ambitious initiative seeks to establish computer labs in high schools across Liberia and Sierra Leone. The project’s multifaceted approach goes beyond digital literacy, fostering innovation, critical thinking, and gender equality by encouraging female participation in technology education. Moreover, the labs remain open after school hours, transforming into vibrant community spaces for continuous learning.
The Transcend Project echoes a global call for increased technical and vocational training, aligning with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy. As Africa stands at the threshold of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” marked by the fusion of the digital, biological, and physical worlds, the Transcend Project aspires to equip Africa’s youth with the skills they need to navigate this transformative era. Through this initiative, Youth Action International envisions a future where computer knowledge is accessible to all, creating opportunities for economic growth, empowerment, and inclusivity across the African continent.