Feb. 28, 2007, found villagers and officials in Ihiala, Nigeria, at the opening ceremony for the SI May Knowledge Centre where, for the first time, local residents would have free access to the Internet. The center housed four computers offering resources of use to farmers and unrestricted access to the Web.
The process of creating the center involved an intercontinental collaboration between Dr. Louisa Ha, telecommunications; Primus Igboaka, a BGSU doctoral student in telecommunications, and Dr. Raphael Okigbo of Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria. It was the focal point of their pilot study looking at whether farmers would like and use the Internet and a specialized Web site, how they would use it and what they would find helpful.
One of the articles they wrote about the project, “Knowledge Creation and Dissemination in Sub-Saharan Africa,” was published in Management Decision. It has been chosen for a Special Commendation for Research of Value to the Developing World among the 2009 Literati Network Awards for Excellence.
But more important than the award is the impact that sharing knowledge can have on people, according to Ha. “Creating something that has both theoretical and practical use to the community and that can contribute in some way to economic development—for the scholar, that is the most rewarding and gratifying,” she said.
The project to bring information to farmers in rural southeastern Nigeria through the Internet was begun in 2007 with $12,000 in funding from the Emerald Publishing Group in the United Kingdom. The grant was the first foreign grant to be received by BGSU and, as a nongovernmental grant, carried no political baggage, Ha said.
With about 20,000 people, “Ihiala is a rural area but with a certain distinction,” Igboaka said of his hometown. “The people are quite well educated. And because it was visited by missionaries early in the last century, it is not uncommon to see Indian and Irish families; there is a lot of diversity.”
However, Ihiala is poor, with high unemployment. It is still suffering the effects of being on the losing side in the 1967-70 civil war and lacks access to many government services. Its terrain is scarred with hundreds of erosion sites from deforestation. Before the creation of the center and the Web site, named Nigeria Knowledge Center (http://www.nigeriaknowledgecenter.net/), there was no Internet access to the world of information or for local farmers to share their knowledge with others outside the area.
Another problem, Igboaka said, has been that government services are often not useful to citizens because they are not based in research on what is actually needed. “We wanted to provide relevant knowledge to farmers in Ihiala.”
Working with a team of student volunteers, Okigbo conducted a series of interviews and collected written questionnaires from local farmers—including a number of women farmers, who are particularly disadvantaged—asking them to identify their major farming problems and what they felt would be most useful in solving them, and how they thought they might participate in knowledge creation and sharing. Another goal was to assess their agricultural knowledge.
Following the center’s initial three months of operation, the same farmers were again surveyed. “They perceived the center as helpful,” Igboaka reported. Ha added that the farmers encouraged their friends and relatives to use the center. “It became a social atmosphere. People met and talked with one another.”
While the Internet center was a success, getting it under way was exceedingly difficult. “It took a lot of money, time and energy” to provide the connection in rural Nigeria, Igboaka said. “In the United States, there are telephone poles everywhere, but in Nigeria there are not.”
A VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) satellite was chosen to bring the Web to Ihiala, using broadband service, which allows for downloading pictures and videoconferencing. “We are at the very forefront of broadband in Nigeria,” Igboaka said.
Now that the pilot study has been completed, “the knowledge center is no longer a research project, it’s a service,” Ha said. The goal is to find ways to continue that service in a permanent location for the villagers. Some funding has been received from a local foundation, and the team is seeking additional support.
Reported in the African and Chinese press, the study and the center would not have been possible without the help of Professor Okigbo and his volunteers, Igboaka said. “You need someone there to supervise. Finding the key people is the most important step to making it work.”