In September 2001, the Owerri Digital Village was launched in Imo State, Eastern Nigeria, by Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF). The mission of YTF is to provide disadvantaged Nigerian youth in rural communities with access to technology. Taking a grassroots approach, YTF implements community-based technology programs by first gauging the needs of the community and understanding how technology can be used to enhance their lives, create jobs, reverse urban migration and lead to self-sustaining communities.
Owerri, an underserved Eastern Nigerian town, is roughly an eight-hour drive from the former national capital, Lagos. Owerri hosts five tertiary institutions, including a college of agriculture and a federal university for technology. Every year, hundreds of young Nigerians graduate from these schools with the hope of employment, a career and a sustainable life -- but that often turns into an illusion. The Owerri Digital Village is an example of a systemic, targeted infusion of information and communication technologies in underserved rural communities. The consequent empowerment of youth through information and technology knowledge and skills will serve as the coup de grace to poverty, crime, violence and youth unemployment.
In Nigeria, over 50 million school-age children are undereducated. Only a handful of youths have used computers or know how to apply technology tools in their daily lives for learning and improving their communities. A few schools have one or two computers that are often not used because they are outdated or the teachers lack the adequate skills to utilize them. Traditional teaching methodologies of a black board and four walls are not well suited in this area of education as they tend to be too far removed from practical reality to effectively instill the requisite technology skills and understanding. In addition, technology training and courses are not part of the educational curriculum in the 'early-adopter' stages of primary and secondary school levels, when youth are more likely to take an interest in learning new technologies.
Youth for Technology Foundation has taken a community-based approach of involving Owerri's community leaders, who understand that not having access to information and communication technologies will marginalize their local citizens. With very little infrastructure, no electricity and analog phone lines, it was once practically impossible to communicate with the outside world. Programs offered at the Owerri Digital Village have successfully demonstrated to the community how technology can effectively be used in grassroots communities and how people are welcoming to accepting and integrating solutions into their indigenous lifestyles.
The Owerri Digital Village is the first of Youth for Technology Foundations' community technology centers -- and the first of its kind in West Africa. The center offers ICT training at no cost to at-risk youth between the ages of 8 and 25, many of whom come from desperately poor subsistence-farming communities, have low educational achievement, have little or no parental support or are vulnerable to teenage pregnancy. The program will help solve youth unemployment, rural poverty and information and technology illiteracy by helping youth to develop self-confidence, self-esteem, discipline, team work and to respect and value others who are different from themselves. Through established programs offered at the center, Nigerian youth and their communities have access to technology tools, resources and training for the first time.
For an eleven-year old named Nzebechi, YTF's TechKids program has brought some instant gratification. "Being able to send a letter from a machine and receive a reply from an e-pal almost immediately is something I never knew could be possible," said the wide-eyed teenager.
Youth for Technology Foundation has established several goals for the current year:
The Owerri Digital Village will train 500 Nigerian youth, between ages 8 and 25 to use technology as a tool for learning and in their daily lives.
200 civil servants will participate in YTF's TechEnhancement program to gain skills to allow them to compete in the global workforce.
50 local community-based and non-profit organizations will benefit from the services offered at the Owerri Digital Village.
10 local schools will participate in the Global Classmates program, a cross-cultural communication program, offered at the Owerri Digital Village.
Starting in July 2002, YTF will launch two new programs at the Owerri Digital Village. The Global Classmates Program, in partnership with Digital Partners Institute, will teach young Nigerians to produce and share information through information and communication technologies as they seek to further contribute to the outside world and promote cultural exchange globally. The second program, TechCommunities, will be aimed at training poor rural women to improve their standard of living by gaining employment skills. The program will offer academic learning, vocational and technology training and adult education business management skills to empower these women. Through the TechCommunities program, women will become well-informed, computer literate and economically self-reliant.
As one villager requested an application to join the program, she stated with excitement in her voice, "I will learn the necessary skills to assist me with my shop in the market." The YTF program manager agreed as she stood in the classroom doorway, with light pouring in on a beautiful Owerri Day. "The simple fact is that community participants are emerging from anonymity and discovering things they never even imagined on a level playing field," she said.
"This is what technology does. The tools will certainly improve their lives."
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