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19 July 2005

USAID Program Helping To "Bridge Digital Divide"

Technology program helping Africans market worldwide

By Charles Corey
Washington File Staff Writer

Dakar, Senegal – The U.S.-funded Digital Freedom Initiative is helping to “bridge the digital divide” between developed and developing nations, says Fatimata Seye Sylla, director of the program in Senegal.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and a host of private-sector companies, the program seeks to drive economic growth, enhance competition in the field of information technology, increase the profitability of small and medium-sized businesses, stimulate employment in the local community and increase the participation of small and medium-sized businesses in the global marketplace.

The program targets 20 developing countries.  Senegal was selected as a pilot program and Peru, Indonesia and Jordan have also been selected to participate.

“The idea was to get positive results from the pilot country and replicate those results in other countries,” Sylla told the Washington File in a recent interview.

The Digital Freedom Initiative (DFI) in Senegal commenced on October 1, 2003, with the aim of using information and communication technologies such as computers and cell phones, along with volunteer expertise, to develop private sector companies, she said.

The program has had a “huge impact,” Sylla explained, with four separate projects being run in Senegal: access to market, management operations for small and medium-sized enterprises, telecenter and cybercafé management, and capacity building for private sector IT (information technology) service providers.

On access to market, Sylla said DFI supports an association of women tie-dyers.  “We trained 45 trainers in management, marketing [and] dying techniques and have set up a Web site for them to help them better market their products and have access to a wider market both locally and abroad," she said.

DFI, she said, is not only providing training but also access to markets via the World Wide Web.

PROGRESS ON MANAGEMENT OPERATIONS, INTERNET ACCESS

On management operations, Sylla said much progress has been made in the health sector, helping clinics and doctors manage their practices both medically and financially through computers.  Sylla said DFI is also getting ready to work with the American company Voxiva to set up a management information system for HIV/AIDS in Senegal.

Additionally, she said, DFI is supporting the University of the Sahel through the creation of a Web site for students who have access to a local virtual library, a chat room for teachers and students and an e-learning (electronic learning) platform.  All of this, she added, will be replicated at other public and private universities worldwide.

Setting up cybercafés is the program's major focus, she said, because demand for access to educational information on the World Wide Web is so high.

“The main problem we have concerning telecenters and cybercafés here in Senegal is with regard to management,” she said, noting that many of those operations opened in Senegal but then closed -- not because of lack of demand but because of bad management.

After consulting and training with DFI, she said, a woman who owned a cybercafé with four computers now has 12 computers and is hiring more people and making more money.  Also through DFI, women are now marketing their cloth worldwide instead of just locally.

To date, she said, DFI has trained about 200 managers of telecenters and cybercafés in Dakar and six other regions throughout the country and plans to expand as well.

The training, she said, is being documented and translated so it can be replicated in other countries worldwide.

In the fourth project, capacity building for local IT service providers, volunteers from the U.S. private sector come in for one to three months to work with the service providers and local volunteers to strengthen local expertise.

One of those volunteers, Matthew Berg, a recent MBA (master of business administration) graduate of the prestigious Thunderbird Garvin School of International Management in Arizona, told the Washington File he is helping to create a Web-based accounting system for merchants and women’s’ groups in Dakar so they can do their own accounting.

The system, he said, is online, so anyone with an Internet connection can take advantage of the multilingual system and find tips on how to manage their stock, do their accounting and run their business.

Berg said his experience in Senegal has allowed him to test some of the ideas he formed in college and implement something that can have a lasting and positive impact on the continent.