09/24/2012 07:15 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Emerging Phenomenon Of Community Knowledge Centers In Africa (VIDEO)

In today's world access to digital information must be a basic human right and is a necessity for economic viability. Unfortunately, Africa is disadvantaged compared to other continents because of its lack of a reliable broadband infrastructure. The rural poor have been left out of many stages in the development process due to their lack of information and communications.

Ninety percent of rural Africa lives without electricity and the majority of the population have to walk many miles to overcrowded schools without desks to learn. Few communities have libraries or resource centres and are thus socially and economically deprived of the much-needed resources of information, including information about their own country! There is no sense of belonging to the wider global village.

Cisco is working with non-profit organizations, local communities, government leaders and international partners like Inveneo, OGE and AppleSeeds Academy to create bottom up, sustainable social businesses in rural and underserved communities in Africa. By creating Community Knowledge Centers (CKC) that are technology hubs in rural communities, we can contribute to creating vibrant, connected communities. CKC's help people improve their quality of life by leveraging information technology, and are driving economic growth in underserved areas.

It took a village to get it started: Cisco used an ecosystem approach to bring together a community of actors to create and support the CKC model. This approach ensured that the CKCs could access the best technology solutions to address communities' education, healthcare and economic needs.

Each CKC has its own unique attributes, yet all share a belief that information technology can be a powerful means for community members to improve their livelihoods. CKC's are providing basic building blocks to create social change in these underserved areas. They improve the ability of community organizations and individuals to access information, communicate globally, and sell and purchase their products and services. They increase job-readiness and marketable skills through training programs like Cisco Networking Academy, and increase participation in educational experiences for all age groups in the community. Finally, they improve the relevance and effectiveness of social services such as e-Government services while improving overall quality of life.

The first country to start the implementation of this program was Kenya. Through all the lessons learned, we were able to create a replicable model that was implemented in the rest of the countries.

By way of example: In Nyangweta -- which lies at the shore of Lake Victoria -- the structure for the CKC was put up by a group of women who are all HIV positive, through funding support by USAID. They knew that the community needed a place that offered valuable services that they could use instead of idling around. When this CKC was set up, there were no local businesses around; the community had no power for many years. But today, not only has the CKC provided a source of power, income and jobs to the community, it has also helped local entrepreneurs start up businesses around the CKC. A luxury 3-star resort has sprung up in the vicinity, and is a great example of how this technology hub is spurring up economic development in this area! The local community members also use the CKC to apply for online jobs, to get information on new fishing techniques and to connect with the world and look for markets for their produce.

Another alarming statistic: 98 percent of the African population has no access to Internet services, which is now an important utility and a MUST for every person, home or business. There are numerous challenges to providing affordable Internet connectivity to these areas. For many of the service providers, investing in rural areas does not justify their return on investments, and this was the case in Kenya. It took a good two years to come up with a solution that uses radios that are mounted on the existing cell phone towers of the operators. This solution was replicated in Haiti by Inveneo after investigating the possibility of providing connectivity to the CKC's in Kenya. This model can now be used by the operators to connect schools, hospitals, clinics and small business in rural areas -- a first for the country.

Another example is of a Masai community in Sekenani, Mara, Kenya who now have a "cool place they can hang out" up to late in the evening. This is another community that has never had power. Thanks to the CKC, the community members stay up late and watch movies and sports through the internet. The youth and women have benefited a great deal from this CKC. The Masai women make beaded necklaces and are selling their products online. The youth have learned foreign languages and can communicate easily with the thousands of tourists who visit the famous Masai Mara National Reserve.

At Cisco we have seen the power of networks to multiply impact time and again around the world. I am fortunate to be part of an ecosystem that connects and collaborates to address social challenges and build sustainable communities here in Africa.