By Matt Berg, ICT Director, Millennium Villages Project
To demonstrate the critical role technology can play in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, the Earth Institute, Columbia University has partnered with Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential Community Technology Skills program to establish a computer programmer training center at the Millennium Villages project (MVP) office in Bamako, Mali.
Known as the “Rural Technology Lab,” the full-scale training center is equipped to cultivate local computer programming talent in Mali and offers a demonstration model for how small investments in technology and education can build local capacity in rural communities elsewhere in Africa.
Promising university graduates apply to the nine-month training program at the Lab and have a chance to apply their new skills to develop web and SMS-based applications that serve other MVP initiatives, particularly in the areas of health and education.
By focusing on developing practical solutions for impoverished rural communities, the Earth Institute provides the Lab with local on-the-ground knowledge and experience, in coordination with the Modi Research Group, while Microsoft donated the funds, software, and specialized training curriculum to support the Lab in the long term.
So far, the Lab students have developed a program called Kodonso to track the enrollment rates and school meals data by SMS for 6,000 students at the MVP site in Tiby, Mali. This program will help monitor the school’s performance in regard to attendance and provide Millennium Village health coordinators with real-time data on how much students are eating at school.
The aim is for the Lab students to conclude the training program with opportunities for full-time employment or internships with the MVP or other project partners as well. Four of the 2010 Lab graduates have already moved on to full-time work with a local software development firm in Mali.
In keeping with the MVP’s goals to use science and technology to help rural African communities lift themselves out of extreme poverty, the Lab’s most important contribution is the development of local talent. The Lab’s first eight graduates are already building up Mali’s capacity to resolve its own challenges, within its own communities, and this is just the start.