Maxine Moffett is working to increase digital literacy and lower the cost of access to online information in Cameroon. Through this work, she is bridging the digital divide that excludes Cameroonians from the benefits of digital infrastructure and information exchange.
The New Idea
To circumvent the high costs associated with Internet use, Maxine has created an online platform, Bridge Africa, which hosts the websites of individuals, small businesses, and citizen organizations (COs), along with other useful tools, for a small fee. Consumers are then able to access this platform and communicate with others on it by using their mobile phones to send and receive information at the cost of an SMS. In this way, Maxine empowers individuals with affordable access to useful information on the Internet and a mechanism by which they can identify, communicate, and collaborate with others on Bridge Africa in common.
Through Maxine’s organization, Bridge Africa, she trains individuals, small businesses and COs to use Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in their work, and to develop websites that provide useful information on their services to a national and international audience. She has twenty trainers in all ten regions who act as physical intermediaries to train Cameroonians and get more people connected through Bridge Africa’s online platform. Maxine publicizes the benefits of bridging the digital divide and the need for low-cost Internet access through television and radio shows she hosts.
Bridge Africa’s outreach efforts to improve digital literacy, its promotion of the value of the Internet economy in traditional media forums, and its low-cost solution to Internet access, all contribute towards increased demand for Internet service provision and digital infrastructure. Eventually, this growing demand will spur competition among Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and ultimately lead to improved digital infrastructure and lower Internet costs. Maxine has built a grassroots effort to open up the digital world to small businesses, the citizen sector and consumers and created a lab in which the transition to a digital economy can take place.
Cameroon, like many developing countries, is behind in the race to digitize. Only 23 percent of the population in the developing world actively uses the Internet compared to 71 percent in more developed countries. This digital divide is especially pronounced between Africa and the rest of the world and even more so within Africa itself—only 5 percent of Cameroonians use the Internet while 12.4 percent of Africans use the Internet across the continent. This digital divide essentially excludes Cameroonians (and other African countries) from the benefits of improved digital infrastructure and information exchange in a time where ICT is a significant driver of collaboration and growth.
There are two interrelated reasons for the low use of the Internet in Cameroon. Firstly, there are prohibitively high transactions costs associated with Internet use. Economic development and productivity are hindered by the high costs of computer Internet service provision, and website development and hosting. Household Internet costs around $68 per month on average, which is unaffordable for a country where 48 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In addition, most Internet solutions do not provide low bandwidth packages that are ideal for mobile use. Thus, there are few services that cater to low- and middle-income groups (the vast majority of the population) who do not have a computer but could potentially use their mobile phones as a source of connection. Secondly, there are low levels of digital literacy across the population and, more specifically, within the small business community and citizen sector. Few Cameroonians, small business owners, and citizen sector leaders have the skills required to design and develop a website and without these, cannot use this medium to provide information about their services to a national and international audience. Consequentially, the digital divide is compounded by a content divide, whereby there is little information available online about the people, businesses, and COs in Cameroon relative to the information available about countries with greater levels of digital literacy and infrastructure. Low levels of digital literacy and the prohibitively high costs associated with Internet use have resulted in low demand for Internet service provision. This low demand has only perpetuated the monopolistic nature of the sector. There are only a few ISPs in Cameroon and they have little incentive to reduce prices. Therefore, improving levels of digital literacy and finding a low-cost solution to Internet service provision could boost demand, improve competitiveness among ISPs and fuel Cameroon’s effort to digitize.
With low levels of Internet penetration and digital literacy, Maxine would need both an online and offline strategy to catalyze and support the transition to the digital economy. Thus, she first set out to build an online platform that could be accessible with or without an Internet connection. Bridge Africa trainers, who are embedded within every region, complement this platform and empower people with the ICT skills needed to get online and promote themselves and their services on a national scale. Increased levels of digital literacy and Internet use will fuel demand for more affordable prices for Internet service provision and demonstrate the need for investment in better digital infrastructure. Ultimately, accelerating Cameroon in the digital evolution will fuel greater collaboration and growth and provide Cameroon with access to the global digital economy.
A Beta version of the Bridge Africa platform was launched in early 2012. Individuals, small businesses, COs, and government agencies can create their own website and have it hosted on Bridge Africa’s online platform. In addition, they have access to the platform’s communication tools and hiring solutions. Bridge Africa provides these services for a small fee, or free if needed. This platform will simplify the process of searching for and communicating with talent, businesses, and organizations in Cameroon. Given the high costs associated with digital technology and Internet use, Bridge Africa’s platform is accessible via an offline SMS mechanism which allows users to create profile pages, perform system searches, and send and receive messages through a standard cell phone SMS service. A user will not need to be connected to the Internet to interact with the Bridge Africa platform. Moreover, all users who utilize the SMS/text message system will be visible through the online platform and appear as full members of the global system.
Maxine understood that Bridge Africa would need to have both an online and offline presence because it would be essential to directly engage Cameroonian communities through face-to-face trainings if she were to improve levels of digital literacy. Therefore, she developed a field training program that seeks to directly train Cameroonians on how to utilize Bridge Africa’s platform, and ICT in general as a tool for development. Bridge Africa has hired twenty full-time trainers—two for each region of Cameroon. These trainers serve as brand ambassadors for Bridge Africa and ensure that key members of their regional communities are identified and trained using the Bridge Africa curriculum on the platform and using ICT in their work. This program is based on a train-the-trainer model, whereby each person who has been through the curriculum is asked to pass those skills on to others. So far, around two thousand people have been trained and many more have indirectly joined the network. Maxine sees great potential for this mobilization strategy to be used in other countries in West Africa.
Maxine grew up in Aurora, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago; her mother was a social worker and her father a policeman. She loved to play basketball and trained with the help of her dad until age ten. She dreamed of being a National Basketball Association player and continued with basketball through high school. Unfortunately, that dream was not to be. As a student she asked a lot of questions, frustrating her teacher, who would issue her with a question card each day, indicating how many questions she was allowed to ask. This led her mother to pull her out of the public school system and put her in a private school, where she could ask as many questions as she wanted.
During her final year in high school, Maxine forfeited her prom and other activities to go on a student exchange program with the Rotary Club to Zimbabwe. She ended up finishing high school in Harare. It was challenging because the curriculum was different, but the experience opened her eyes to challenges on the continent. Maxine returned to the U.S. and studied journalism at Howard University. As the editor of the school newspaper, she ran the international news, politics, and Eye-on-Africa columns. She often went to the World Bank to get real news and quotes. Maxine landed an internship that enabled her to collaborate directly with a team that worked in Cameroon on the national coalition to abolish the death penalty. Maxine secured another internship with then Senator Barack Obama and worked with committees focused on Africa. Maxine was also involved with the Whitaker initiative for girls in Africa and went back for field work.
Maxine received a Fulbright scholarship and chose to work in Cameroon. After living in Cameroon for four months, she decided to stay and founded Bridge Africa as a vehicle to address the challenges associated with the digital divide.