By EB Moore, KF12 Liberia
Several days ago I attended an event at Monrovia’s City Hall called “Internet Camp Liberia.” I found it very informative and well-targeted, in addition to having some larger implications for microfinance.
Representatives from Google’s regional African offices, in coordination with a local programming expert, put on a two-day series of presentations targeting a variety of audiences throughout the region including businesses, NGOs, students, academics, and general internet users. The presentations and Q&A sessions spanned a number of topics ranging from search basics to web page creation and ad revenue. A backdrop of the event is the scheduled arrival of a new internet access cable to reach Liberia in 2012 – this arrival is anticipated to greatly increase Liberia’s accessibility to the internet (while there are currently internet connections available, they’re extremely slow and unreliable). When this kind of connectivity has reached new regions in the past, the level of use has tended to increase at least ten fold, according to one of Google’s reps. In preparation for this, Google is trying to encourage Liberians to become more active online and become more aware of all that the web – and Google – has to offer. Rather than marketing Google products, which for the most part are free to all, the emphasis was on creating content about Liberia by Liberians.
While this may not seem directly related to microfinance, increased web access and many tools available on the web could be of tremendous use to microentrepreneurs. Take mapping for instance – business owners can add their shops and other locations to the map to take advantage of local user searches to bring in business. As internet use becomes more widespread in the region, they can also create websites (for free) to attract new customers and potentially sell products online. Or individuals can start a blog to showcase their talents and post a resume for networking. Even simple tasks, like being able to check flight status and arrival times (very easy to do with a Google search) would be helpful for a local taxi driver that wants to generate some fares.
Not only can existing businesses leverage themselves with the power of the internet, but widespread usage can actually create new opportunities for entrepreneurs. Soon an internet savvy person could collect detailed data on local hotels to create a custom map for tourism, a service which hotels might be willing to pay for if the map became popular enough. Or someone could start a business registering domain names for others (the process is rather difficult now as most domain registrars require either a credit card for purchase, which few Liberians have, or some other logistical challenge). The possibilities are endless, and it will be very exciting to see what new opportunities are created as Liberia becomes more active online.
Google’s presentations did a good job of addressing both the future of Liberia’s internet usage and its current state. Well aware of how slow the current speeds are, the presenters spent time giving tutorials in specialized searches that will increase the likelihood that you find what you’re looking for on the first search page. They also spent a good amount of time responding to questions and frustrations about features and applications not available in Liberia, such as an online payment platform. Once these features become available and widespread they have the potential to change the face of business in Liberia, as they have in so many other countries, provided enough people in Liberia have the access and education to use them. The internet is a powerful tool, and the conference was a good start to teaching Liberians how to harness it.
It’s clear that change is on its way, but until it arrives please support traditional Liberian microentrepreneurs by lending to a business with LEAP!
EB Moore is a Kiva Fellow working with LEAP (Local Enterprise Assistance Program) in Monrovia, Liberia. She is currently looking at the world through a microfinance-colored lens.