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Penn Team Bridges The ‘Digital Divide’ in Cameroon
January 30, 2007, Volume 53, No. 20

Locally, CommuniTech’s upcoming projects include work with the West Philadelphia Childcare Project and also Neighborhood Bike Works, both of which will involve computer literacy training and free technical support. The organization will be doing an Alternative Spring Break trip to New Orleans where they will work on small business development from a technology standpoint with businesses that are struggling to adapt in the ‘new’ New Orleans environment.  This will include teaching classes and installing computers. They are also planning a summer 2007 trip to Sri Lanka and India.

Members of CommuniTech, a non-profit service organization at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, spent their winter break in Cameroon, Africa installing computer labs and conducting research. The team of students, faculty, and alumni shipped over 150 machines in a container this October, and spent two and a half weeks refurbishing and setting them up this January.

CommuniTech, a non-profit student organization that seeks to “bridge” the digital divide, takes in old computers from Penn and outside corporations, refurbishes them, and then donates them to schools and non-profit organizations both locally and globally. With funding from Google, ProLiteracy, and the Cameroon-based Meta Quality of Life Improvement Foundation (MQLIF), the team of students left Christmas Day and met up with Dr. Godlove Fonjweng (GSAS ’97), assistant dean of advising in the College. They prepared the computers in Mbengwi, where Dr. Fonjweng is a ‘family head,’ and then spread out across the country to set them up.

The International Telecommunication Union ranked Cameroon’s Digital Access Index a 0.16 out of 1, which indicates that technology availability and computer literacy is abysmally low. CommuniTech donated mostly Pentium 2 and Pentium 3-class machines, which in Cameroon can cost upwards of 160,000 CFA, or nearly $320. This cost is prohibitive to many schools and non-profits from obtaining technology.  CommuniTech installed computer labs at Our Lady of Lourdes Secondary School, Sacred Heart College, Government Secondary School Tudig, and at the Parents National Education Union Classical Nursery School (PNEU). The team also networked with Penn alumni, such as John Awahmukalah (C ’78), who assists at St. Fredericks Comprehensive High School in Bamenda, and installed a lab there. Even some universities in Cameroon are not able to afford computers for students to use, and a lab was installed at Bamenda University of Science and Technology (BUST).

In Mbengwi, the students met up with Jenny Jinor (Penn graduate student, SP2), who assists with non-profit outreach. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) received computers too, such as the Akwi Memorial Foundation, which plans to use their machines for computer literacy training at the summer camps it offers. The Presbyterian Teachers Training College in Mbengwi will educate future clergy about how they can utilize computers more effectively. Religion plays a central role in Cameroonian life, so donating machines to faith-based organizations will have a large impact.

At each site, in addition to setting up the computers, printers and Internet where applicable, the Penn students also taught basic computer literacy courses, and organized future ones. “Some of these people have never seen a computer before,” said Brian Quimby (E/C ’08), president of CommuniTech, “We want to encourage computer literacy and make sure everyone has a basic understanding of what a computer does. The training materials are left with a ‘lab manager,’ who we stay in contact with even when back in the United States.  That way we can stay connected and ensure sustainability.” CommuniTech has developed their own training materials, which anyone can download for free online.

Other software on the machines featured reading materials from ProLiteracy, which can be used in a group setting to both teach literacy and raise awareness of different social problems. Educational games and open source office software are also included on the computers.

Members also visited lab sites from past projects and evaluated how well they had been used and sustained. “We visited the Community Technology Center in Mbengwi, which we installed a year and a half ago, and found it had been heavily used. They offered classes, certifications, and printing to the community,” said Steve Hershman (C ’08), technical director of CommuniTech. “It really warms your heart that you made such an impact, and makes you wonder how many people these new machines will help out.”

With the nearly 100 computers scattered among some 15 sites, Dr. Fonjweng is trying to set up a consortium of organizations to ensure sustainability among the labs.

CommuniTech has now installed computer labs in Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, D.C. Himachal Pradesh and Pune, India, as well as in Ghana, Ecuador, Lahore, Pakistan and Cameroon. 

To donate computers, send an email to ctech@dolphin.upenn.edu.

The Cameroon Team:

Brian Quimby (E/C ’08)
Steve Hershman (C ’08)
Dr. Godlove Fonjweng (Assistant Dean of Advising, CAS; GSAS ’97)
John Awahmukalah (C ’78)
Jenny Jinor (Graduate SP2)


CommuniTech Team installing computers.
After computer setup...
Above, Penn students Brian Quimby (left), and Steve Hershman (right) with the team that helped prepare the computers at MQLIF Education Center in Mbengwi, Cameroon.
Above, Penn juniors Brian Quimby and Steve Hershman beaming with pride as they watch a young student use one of the donated computers, while his classmates wait their turn, at the PALMERS Nursery and Primary School in Mbengwi, Cameroon, in Africa.
Almanac - January 30, 2007, Volume 53, No. 20