Saturday, 14 January 2012

iLab Robbery Lessons Learned

In the past year iLab has had over five hundred visitors. This Tuesday morning, January 10th, we had our first visitor who left with more than a bit of IT knowledge – instead, he took two of our computers.

The thief signed in at the security booth at about 9:28 am, informing the security that he had a scheduled meeting with us. He had visited the day before, sharply dressed in a business suit, and had inquired with iLab’s office manager about his local NGO working with iLab. But on Tuesday, as he made his way into the iLab for the 2nd time, he opened the lab door quietly and unpluggeed two laptops c
losest to the door and put them in his bag then slip out – all of this with iLab staff in the next room. The lab computers were not locked as they normally are, and the office manager was momentarily out of the lab.

Our IT Director noticed the two computers were missing within an hour and we called colleagues at a local GSM company. They were able to geotag the location of the phone number the thief provided when he signed in with security. With the help of the police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the thief was found and arrested by the evening; the ex-pat who bought the stolen computers has also been arrested, and the police are now trying to recover the computers.

Lessons Learned

We at iLab have gotten too comfortable. Being on the last floor of a five-story building, surrounded by a huge fence and security system, we felt secure; although we anticipated the possibility of theft when first moving in and had locks for all the windows, doors and computers, the computer locks had not yet been reinstalled on our first days back from the holiday. We are just plain lucky that these were our two least valuable computers, and that only two of 16 were taken. Clearly, some changes need to be made – here’s what we’re thinking:

  • Bag checks by security when visitors enter and leave iLab
  • An automated doorbell that rings whenever the front door is opened
  • Having at least one iLab staff located in the lab at all times
  • Locks on computers and all equipment in the lab at all times
  • Making sure we have all the details of our equipment (not just the computers) – serial number, model and make – recorded so we can easily identify our equipment should it be taken
  • Possibly hiring another security officer to station directly outside the iLab door

This has been a valuable lesson for us about being in touch with the realities of one’s environment and not blinded by one’s feeling of security. As a public resource center, we don’t control what members of the public will come to iLab and thus we cannot assume what their intentions will be. If you have any other ideas on how we can improve the security of iLab, feel free to share.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Mobile Money in Liberia

Mobile Money is a term that refers to mobile financial services, mobile payment, mobile banking, mobile money transfer and mobile wallet - all of which generally refer to payment services operated under financial regulation and performed from or via a mobile device.

The Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) operators in Liberia, particularly LonestarCell MTN have begun offering this service, which is quite timely and has its advantages in a country where the economy is growing. At the same time, like the M-Kesh of Mozambique, the uptake of mobile money services in Liberia has been slow to start.

One way to start branding and customizing these services in Liberia would be for the GSM operators or Liberia Telecommunications Authority to come up with a unique nomenclature for this service instead of Mobile Money which is the generic name that refers to the technology.

Recently in Nigeria, GlobaCom and UBA has signed an MOU with the Government to launch it's Mobile Money service which though not yet functional but have named U-Mo .See

In other countries in Africa, such as Kenya, the M-Pesa mobile money service is blooming and has helped bridge the urban-to-rural gap in banking and money transferring services. When fully adopted in Liberia, I believe these services will help boost the economy. For example, institutions like the government can make salary payments using Mobile Money for county officials thereby avoiding transporting huge amount of dollars from county to county for the sole purpose of salary disbursement.

Why Mobile Money?

Many Liberians have to travel far from home to find work and need to be able to send money back to their families, particularly in far-flung counties. Existing money transfer options are extremely expensive and many people cannot afford it.

Traditionally in Liberia, money has been transferred in a risky unregulated manner via long expensive trips carrying cash in an unpredictable environment. Technology in the banking sectors has begun to close this gap, and this is where Mobile Money comes in – allowing users to make frequent transfers without having to personally access a bank.


Mobile Money can lower the cost of remittances as it removes the need for physical points of presence and ensures a timely and secure method of transaction. This technology has been a great success with a lot of benefits to individuals, societies and the Governments. Can you link to a site where there is evidence/accounts of the benefits?

However, there are a few aspects that the LTA (Liberia Telecommunication Authority) as a regulator of GSM operators needs to address relating to Mobile Money Transfer:

  1. Should the regulator allow a non-banking institution, such as all the GSM companies in Liberia, to get into the banking domain by accepting deposits and doing most of the functions of a bank without applying the same level of regulations on it as with banks?

  1. How will the regulators and financial institutions bring interoperability in mobile banking?

  1. How do the unbanked customers of mobile banking build their credit history?

In the case of Liberia, we are in our early stages of Mobile Money’s growth and we need to carry out a lot more awareness and publicity of the service in order to have it widely spread and adopted as soon as possible.

For those who are interested, I will outline what you need to do to sign up for Mobile Money. Since it is only LoneStar Cell MTN whose offering the service currently, I will outline the user procedure related to Lonestar:

To register for Mobile Money you need to:

  • Fill out an application form

  • Provide valid identification card (Passport, Driver License, Voter ID)

To complete Registration:

  • Dial *156# and the call/ok button

  • A welcome message is received, Welcome to Mobile Money, please select, Please select ID type

    • Driver's License

    • National ID

    • Passport

    • Others (School, Church, Work etc.)

  • Select reply/send

  • Enter ID number ex. 1214

  • Select reply/send

  • Select Pin code ex. 12345

  • Repeat Pin code ex. 12345

To download the entire Mobile Money User guide for Lonestar Cell MTN, click here

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

iLab Liberia announces a grant from

iLab Liberia is pleased to announce that we have received a $250,000 grant from to continue our work in Liberia. This grant will enable iLab to continue its current activities and introduce new trainings, upgrade our dedicated internet connection from 1.5mbps to 2.0mbps, double our laboratory space and purchase new computers. With’s support, it is possible for iLab to meet the growing demand in Liberia for access to cutting-edge ICT resources and trainings.

Some of the new events made possible by this grant will include:

  • A customized set of trainings for IT professionals seeking employment in Liberia’s NGO community

  • Providing free access to online courseware in ICTs and computer programming for Liberian students and professionals

  • HTML, PHP, CSS and Python programming language trainings

  • Introductory course in ICTs for small business entrepreneurs

  • Office hours for interested users to learn, experiment and create their own projects with assistance from our staff

  • ICTs for young women in Liberia: a course designed by iLab and Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee

  • Data management trainings with a focus on standardization and portability of information for variety of users from government ministries to NGOs

  • YouTube parties that allow our users to contribute local content and directly experience the power of video as a learning tool

And these events, piloted and made popular in 2011, will be back in 2012:

  • Mapping parties where Liberians use Google's Map Maker software to add the breadth and depth of their local knowledge to the map of Liberia

  • Beginner, intermediate and advanced free and open source software (FOSS) trainings

  • Hosting Google Technology Users Group meet-ups and other IT-related groups in need of a regular meeting place

  • Blogging and “social media for development” trainings

  • Web development classes for high school students

  • Continuing to host workshops and events for organizations requiring ICTs

We at iLab are incredibly thankful for Google's generosity, and we’re very excited about the possibilities this grant will provide us in the next phase of iLab’s development.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

SMS and Liberia: A Love Story

These days technology just works. There's no magic and there's very little rocket science. You put in some 1s and 0s and get out 1s and 0s. It all works just as it should. The days are gone when bugs, actual insects, would chew their way through the computers wire and cause mayhem.

Now some of you right now are saying, “Yeah, but I still can't figure out how to make my Facebook profile private.” That's a user interface issue; the underlying technology is working perfectly. The layer that exposes that technology to you may be poorly designed, but that's not what we're here to discuss.

Technology, it hums along gloriously.... until certain assumptions no longer hold true. Such assumptions usually include constant electricity and constant Internet - two things that just don't happen very often in Liberia. Thus what seems like a perfect combination - SMS technology and Liberia - has a few obstacles to overcome before riding off into the sun set happily ever after.

For us at Ushahidi Liberia, we wanted SMS and Liberia hit it off. SMS is a great way for people on the ground to send in reports of what's really happening. All you need is a phone and a cell phone signal. Most places in the world have cell phone coverage, and more and more people have cell phones. The Ushahidi platform even has built-in support for SMS because it has worked so well in other deployments. Lets start off by getting to know a bit more about the compatibility of this couple - SMS and Liberia.

SMS, or Simple Messaging Service, is a GSM standard that uses extra bandwidth in the signaling path that controls call flow. The signaling path is used to tell a cell phone that a new call is coming in, that the call has been hung up, the number of the incoming call and so forth. Since the signaling path isn't used when there is no phone call, phone companies realized they could add a messaging service on top of this unused signaling path – and thus SMS was born. Because the signaling path is only intended for short messages like, “incoming call +231-6-555-343”, SMS messages can only be 160 characters long.

Liberia is a small country in West Africa still recovering from a civil war that devastated the nations infrastructure. Despite the lack of power lines, power stations and any kind of hard-wired telecommunications infrastructure, Liberia now has a relatively robust cell phone network. While less than 1% of Liberians have access to the Internet, at least 20% own cell phones and even more have access to shared phones. SMS seems like a natural choice for Liberians to send messages to our Ushahidi Liberia sites, given that even the cheapest cell phones available in-country support SMS.

At this point things look good for our two lovebirds. A simple global standard for sending short messages and a country where about all their telecommunications infrastructure can handle is short messages. In fact, such a partnership has worked so well in other countries that the wonderful people at created FrontlineSMS. FrontlineSMS is a program that turns your average laptop and a cell phone into an SMS gateway for routing incoming SMSs to the internet. By connecting a cell phone to a computer via a data cable, FrontlineSMS can intercept incoming SMS and automatically send them to a website of your choosing – an ideal matchmaker for SMS and Liberia.

However, it is here we encountered our first obstacle. Computers need power. You can get around this requirement for a few hours by using a laptop. Most laptops can reliably go 4 to 6 hours without power. Ushahidi Liberias first office used a diesel generator for electricity, like most Liberian workplaces that do not have access to a power grid. Diesel isn't cheap in Liberia, so the generator only ran from 9am to 7pm. That leaves 14 hours without power – in other words, 14 hours without the ability to send and receive SMS via a desktop SMS gateway. Because many of the reports sent to our Liberia instances about conflict and instability, we could not afford to be operational for only 10 hours a day.

The second obstacle was an unreliable Internet connection. In Liberia, all Internet connections are via satellite - far slower and more expensive than fiber optic connections. Ushahidi Liberias first ISP leased a satellite Internet connection comparable to a slow DSL connection in the US – until the ISP splits that connection among all of its customers who then split their slice of the connection amongst all the users in the office/home. During peak working hours we could make an educated guess that approximately 500 people were using that one Internet connection, causing it to drop out when bandwidth was exceeded, and cause any user to grind their teeth in frustration when it was working but painfully slow.

When the Internet dropped out in our office and FrontlineSMS received an SMS to forward to Ushahidi servers, the sending would fail and FrontlineSMS would drop the message without resending. FrontlineSMS does not notify the sender or the receiver that a message failed to send, so it could be days before the person manning FrontlineSMS might realize that half the sent messages were missing. FrontlineSMS, like many platforms, is built under the assumption that the Internet works – as it does most of the time in most places.

Considering these glitches, our couple might not be as compatible as we thought – that is until SMSSync came along. SMSSync is an Android app written by the Ushahidi team that replaces the computer as the intermediary and runs the SMS gateway program on the phone itself. Since Android phones can connect to the Internet via WiFi and GPRS, they can receive an incoming SMS and then send it out over the Internet all by themselves. This solved our first problem of power. Phones can easily run 14 hours, or a couple of days, without recharge; that's what they're made to do. But we still have the issue of unreliable Internet.

To address the Internet, our team worked closely with SMSSyncs creator, Henry Addo, to incorporate a resend function that tries sending a message over and over until it is received by the target URL. Now with this feature added, messages can be received by SMSSync even when the Internet is out and they stay in a holding pattern until the connection returns. At this point it seems like everything is going to work out for SMS and Liberia, but not so fast.

There's still one more assumption that I hinted at earlier – that humans will interact with technology correctly. Even the most well-intentioned, experienced user will occasionally get it wrong. The civil war held up the arrival of the latest technologies, and as a result many Liberians don't have extensive experience with technology. This is nothing against Liberians, just the reality of their situation.

We noticed that every so often we'd receive a blank message from our users in the field; someone probably hit send prematurely. At first we didn't pay much attention to this, but then we noticed that SMSSync would stop sending messages after receiving blanks. After a lot of hair-pulling, we realized the problem was with the Ushahidi platform itself. It was programmed to reject blank SMSs as erroneous. SMSSync would try to forward the blank SMS to Ushahidi, Ushahidi would reject it, SMSSync would wait 5 minutes and try again, meanwhile all the other messages were waiting in line. We reprogrammed the Ushahidi platoform to accept all messages, blank or otherwise. Messages that appeared to be errors would be marked as such for the users of the Ushahidi platform to decide what to do with them.

We also had a similar problem with promotional SMSs from the cell phone companies. They'd send out things like, “Talk free this Saturday. Often these messages wouldn’t be from numbers like, “06-555-123”, but from “winBig” or “LonestarCell.” Again, we didn't think much of this, but SMSSync stopped working shortly after receiving these messages. It turns out that the Ushahidi platform is also set to reject SMSs from numbers that aren't numbers, sending an app like SMSSync into a never-ending loop. We also fixed this in the Ushahidi platform.

At this point we've accounted for assumptions about electricity, Internet and human users. The final assumption we had to overcome is that the technology will always, from now to eternity, until you tell it otherwise, do what you want. It seems that in an effort to save battery power, Android phones are programmed to turn off their WiFi radios after a certain period of inactivity. Thus SMSSync would work brilliantly for awhile, but then stop forwarding messages for no apparent reason. We'd look at the phone, see the unsent SMS, and since we were using the phone the WiFi would come back on and mysteriously work. Much to our embarrassment, this also took a long time to figure out.

At this point I'd like to make it clear that 99% of the time it's the simple things that get in the way. It wasn't some small manufacturing default in our phones, it wasn't a rogue bit of code deep in SMSSync, it was just a simple feature of the phones that, when they aren't working as SMS gateways, works to the users advantage.

We fixed the WiFi automatic sleep by installing KeepScreen on the phones. KeepScreen is a free Andoid App that just keeps the screen on all the time. By keeping the screen on, and making the Android think the user is still using the phone, the WiFi also never goes off.

Now our phones work perfectly, day and night, through power and blackouts, high bandwidth bliss and connection timeouts, to send SMSs from our users on the ground to our servers high in the Internets metaphorical cloud. Finally, after so much struggle and hardship, Liberia, a beautiful country, and SMS, a messaging protocol of elegant simplicity, are together at last.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The *iLab_ Web Challenge

What programming course would you teach someone in Liberia with little or no previous computer knowledge? That was the question that lay before us as we thought through possible trainings to offer at the *iLab_. Our interest was in a course that would be both relevant and practical to the unique Liberian situation, and one that will prepare them to take advantage of the possibilities the Internet brings—looking forward to the landing of the Africa Coast Europe (ACE) cable in Q2 2012.

As mentioned in our previous blog post titled, Developer Training in Liberia, there are no Computer Science degree programs in any Liberian university, thereby hindering would-be developers from acquiring the requisite skills to compete in the digital age. Also, in an earlier post, Tech Centers in Liberia, we made clear our desire to make the *iLab_ a space for innovation and training.

After some deliberation, we agreed that providing training in the fundamentals of web development using HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) would be an excellent introduction for select first-time computer users without scaring them away.

Just about when this question was laid to rest, the second one arose: Who do we provide these trainings for? As you might imagine, being the only center providing this free training in the country, we could not just open the “flood gates” of interested techies without compromising on the quality of the training, so we had to be selective. Finally, we settled on providing this training for select high school students from across Monrovia, Paynesville, and Virginia to enable them to build websites for their schools.

We selected four schools namely, Calvary Baptist Church School System, College of West Africa, Ricks Institute, and the Bethesda Christian Mission School represented by three students from each school. During our initial visits to these schools, we had to explain to school administrators what web development meant and convince them that the training would be free of charge—which was a harder message to get across, giving that it sounded too good to be true.

At 10a.m. that Monday morning, we had a total of twelve enthusiastic students filling the *iLab_ in preparation for the launch of the *iLab_ Web Challenge on June 13, 2011. To ease the natural tension in the air, we played a naming game to acquaint ourselves with all names in the room. Afterwards, we delved into the training aspect of the *iLab_ Web Challenge.

The structure of the *iLab_ Web Challenge is comprised of three weeks (3hrs, 5 days a week, for a total of 45hrs) of intensive training in web development and 3, 5 hour days, of the actual web development competition. After the first week of HTML training, the participating students produced their first project work—developing a seven-page website for their school using only a text editor. It was an impressive display of talent that had College of West Africa taking the first position.A website made by the College of West Africa team is on the right.

The second week of the training centered on styling HTML files using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Whilst HTML proved popular with the error-prone starters due to its forgiving nature (Modern browsers often correct for errors in HTML files and display them properly), CSS was not as forgiving and therefore not as popular. But despite the frustrating effect of errors on the parsed web pages, these students persevered into the mastery of CSS. By the end of the third week, many of them had befriended CSS and some even asked if they could forget HTML and only learn CSS.

During the final week of training (June 27 – July 1), we covered more advanced CSS topics as well as web hosting, domain registration, WYSIWYG editors, updating websites, and browser issues. Students also used this time to fine tune their code structures to make them easily readable by humans. It was also during this week that students presented their first CSS project. Once again, College of West Africa came victorious.

Then came July 11-13—the time set aside for the actual challenge. It was an intensive but beautiful display of teamwork and creativity. Going through code line by line, students perfected their final projects and submitted them for evaluation.

The evaluation process was difficult for us to conclude, considering the enormous amount of creativity and uniqueness of each submitted project. After a rigorous inspection of functionality and style, we concluded on the winner of the first *iLab_ Web Challenge.

So the winning project came from the Ricks Institute (On left), followed by College of West Africa tightly in second place, and Bethesda Christian Mission School in third place and Calvary Baptist Church School System in fourth place.

Representing the winning team were Mohammed Musahson, Samukai Sarnor, and Moselyn H-Mai Johnson from Ricks Institute. For College of West Africa we had Samily Panton, Pete Wiah, and Kaizerline Johnson in second place, and Michari Tomah, Juliawo Cyrus, and Richmond Roberts from the Bethesda Christian Mission School in third place. As at the end of the challenge, the team from the Calvary Baptist Church School System was left with only one representative, Terrence Mandeh, in fourth place.

Looking back on the *iLab_ Web Challenge, we are convinced that it was, and still is, an endeavor worth pursuing. The show of talent by previously computer-illiterate students in such a short period to time confirms to us the potential Liberians have to compete in the global technology arena if given the proper training.

We are aware that although training in HTML/CSS alone does not necessarily make one a career web developer, it forms the basis for more advanced web programming and scripting languages. And as we look forward to another exciting round the *iLab_ Challenge, we are considering teaching these advanced web programming and scripting languages for past participants of the *iLab_ Web Challenge.

Kpetermeni Siakor
IT Director
*iLab_ Liberia

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Developer Training in Liberia

At the heart of all the technological advances in Africa is the hope that African people will use these technologies to their gain. Fiber-optic cables surround Africa’s coasts; mobile operators are investing in wireless technologies like WiMax in preparation for a flood of data that could break existing networks. Mobile devices and computer manufacturers are selling low-cost superphones, tablets, and netbooks, hoping that these devices will integrate well with the African lifestyle whilst platform developers scout the continent in search of developers to build apps for Africans on their systems and networks.

At this point it is quite obvious that the focus of these market players is the people—because it is the people who will spend their money on these technologies. A huge “side-opportunity” is created as a result of this new focus—the demand for developers of these Africa-relevant applications. At the moment, a few African countries have woken up to this new reality and are striving to meet this huge demand.

Liberia is not one of those countries awake to this new reality. For public and private sectors alike, the primary focus is on rebuilding systems and infrastructure destroyed by the two civil wars, as well as dealing with international debt accumulated over the years. Instead of technology being the means by which these reconstruction efforts are undertaken, it has become a project of the future. With our education system still weaker than its pre-war status, technical training has still not matured for even the best institutions.

At the moment, there are no Computer Science (CS) programs in any of our universities. The closest and only program we have is an e-Learning program for BSc. Information Technology from Amity University in Uttar Pradesh, India, offered through the Pan African e-Network with the University of Liberia[1]. This program primarily focuses on infrastructure setup and management, with little programming. This stands opposed to the programming-rich B.Tech program in Computer Science and Engineering offered in India by the same university[2].

Other institutions that offer courses in programming include the Starz Institute of Technology[3] and Silicon Pro. These courses are mainly introductory courses to languages like Visual Basic and PHP/MySQL. Furthermore, training in web development is more concentrated around tools like Dreamweaver than on the underlying programming/markup/scripting languages. These institutions are relatively new and the programming courses are not as popular with students as courses like networking and hardware. Courses in popular languages like Java, C++, and Python which are relevant to mobile application development are non-existent in these training institutions. Furthermore the high cost of these trainings makes them inaccessible to most would-be programmers.

Liberia's small developer community is comprised mainly of people who studied outside Liberia, self-taught, and those who learned on the job. As a result, programmers are in short supply which causes programming jobs to go to foreign firms. There are a handful of tech firms in Liberia that are involved in software development that often have to train their recruited staff to program on the job. This is on a very small scale and benefits very few people.

Due to the limited number of programming languages taught in Liberia, developers are often not prepared to build applications on platforms that are language-biased like iOS. Since this is the case mainly for mobile devices, Liberian developers are cut off from harnessing the potentials of mobile applications. To date, it is still difficult to find mobile applications for Android, Apple or Symbian that have been built by Liberians.

This situation leaves us woefully unprepared to tap into the vast opportunities the mobile and Internet revolutions bring to the continent. Without mobile and web developers, Liberia will be left voiceless on these emerging platforms. Mobile and web applications relevant to Liberia need to be built by Liberians but, without effective training in modern languages, this will be impossible to accomplish. It is hard to imagine Liberia playing a pivotal role in the tech industry without a growing developer community. As important as computer networking and hardware are to Liberia's technological advancement, these skills are inadequate to spur maximum Liberian participation in the global tech arena. They also do not promote innovation as programming skills do.

Until our tertiary institutions start offering relevant CS programs, Liberia will remain a consumer of information technology and may never grow to be a provider. Until Liberian students get early exposure to programming, they will be unable to compete with their regional and global counterparts in the technology race. And until we get a shift in our thinking about science and technology education, we will never get free from foreign technological domination.

Kpetermeni Siakor
IT Director
*iLab_ Liberia

[1] Pan African e-Network -

Tech Centers in Liberia

In 2007, SocketWorks Global[1] of Nigeria began setting up a technological hub at the University of Liberia to bridge Liberia's digital divide in the project called the Liberia Digital Bridge with the sponsorship of the International Finance Corporation. After inauguration, the project did not get off the ground, dashing the hopes of thousands of students and staff who anxiously awaited the outcome of the project. This project died without making any significant impact.

In an effort to bridge the digital divide in Liberia, various organizations and individuals have stepped up to the challenge by setting up technology centers in Liberia to meet this end. These typically take the form of community libraries, resource centers, and training centers. Since these efforts do not have the strong investment backing that the Digital Bridge project once had, these tech centers are run on a much smaller scale.

The most popular approach has been to setup training centers that charge a fee for the courses it offers. One example is the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA)[2] training center in Monrovia. This training institution offers introductory courses in the Microsoft Office suite as well as graphics design. Using mainly proprietary software (i.e. Microsoft products), which inure costly fees for licensing. As a result, despite being registered as a non-profit organization, the YMCA charges fees for courses to sustain the training institution. The downside of this approach is that only those who can afford the fees are eligible to attend. The training center is also not an open space for tech professionals to meet and host events; the YMCA charges for the use of its facilities to host events.

A second approach has been to setup resource centers with a hybrid of a library and a computer lab for public use. Two centers with this arrangement are the Information Resource Center (IRC)[3] at the US Embassy and the Liberia Intellectual Society of Scholars & Academia (LISSAA)[4] setup by a Liberian citizen living in the US. While the IRC does not charge users for the facilities, computer use is usually limited to an average of thirty minutes a day per person. These centers provide Internet access, a small library and a few computers running Microsoft products. The high cost of running tech centers in a country like Liberia has taken a toll on LISSAA in particular making them charge for Internet use, while the IRC runs safely with US government sponsorship. Since these centers do not have a specific technological focus, users are allowed to do anything like following sports news to using social networking sites without restriction. Occasionally, basic computer training is offered to select users of these centers. In regards to accessibility, the IRC is located on the grounds of the US embassy where visitors are usually screened by security guards before entry. The location is frightening enough for would-be users. This leaves the IRC out of reach for many Liberians who may not be able to muster the courage to go to the US embassy. LISSAA, on the other hand, is located on Benson Street which makes it more accessible for Liberians.

Based on our observation of these technology centers, we decided to follow the style of *iHub_ Nairobi. With this arrangement, we setup an innovation hub called *iLab_ Liberia to focus on the tech community, as well as anyone interested in learning more about technology. Usage of our space for training and events hosting is free of charge, and our computers run free and opensource software like Linux and FireFox. At the moment, we are the only people using this approach in Liberia. At *iLab_ Liberia, our focus is to promote information sharing and the use of opensource tools. Instead of offering training in regular proprietary software, users are introduced to web and software development as well as to opensource alternatives to proprietary software. This is significant considering that most users who cannot afford to buy genuine copies of proprietary software often make pirated or cracked copies of them which often leaves them vulnerable to viruses. Equipped with a dozen computers on a dedicated VSAT Internet connection, the tech hub is suited for hosting tech events as well as for providing contextually relevant training to users. This is usually done by understanding what potential users want to learn about and then directing trainings to these needs. This is a paradigm shift from the traditional definition of a tech center which is nothing more than a computer school or Internet cafe.

Since inception, we have hosted PenPlusBytes' Africa Elections Project workshop to train journalists in technology reporting. We have also hosted Monrovia Google Technology Users Group (GTUG) meet-up sessions and web development trainings. The West African Network for Peacebuilding, Liberia Early-Warning Working Group, and our elections partners have all been hosted for various workshops and trainings at the *iLab_. Right now, we are training thirteen students from five high schools in Monrovia, Paynesville, and Brewerville in web development to take each other head-on in the *iLab_ Web Challenge.

We are positive that we can make a far greater impact in the lives of Liberians with this approach to technology centers.

Kpetermeni Siakor
IT Director
*iLab_ Liberia


[1] SocketWorks Global Digital Bridge -

[2] Young Men Christian Association –

[3] Liberia Intellectual Society of Scholars and Academia –

[4] Information Resource Center -