Business

Amazing! High-tech nuns team up to build cyber cafes in sub-Saharan Africa

The Boston-based Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur are putting high tech into high gear with an initiative to bring cell phones, laptops, and other tech products to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Sisters have been making regular trips to the region since 1984. Through donations, they have been able to maintain 10 mission centers in Africa with schools, health clinics, water purification equipment and round-the-clock electricity.

Recently, they noticed a growing demand for use of their personal computers.

To provide equipment and an Internet connection to the local people, they solicited the help of the Alliance for Global Good‘s Innovation Fund, which provides funds to nonprofits that combine a mission and business model for sustainable social good. The Sisters were awarded $20,000 in funds.

“A few of our locations are so remote that using Skype is the only method of voice communications. One older man walked 80 kilometers to be able to talk with his son via Skype,” Sister Lorraine Connell, the general treasurer for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, told me.

“[During] a visit a couple of weeks ago, three whole schools came out to welcome the team of us who were upgrading the lightning protection and the data logger systems. They sang greetings and welcomed us with flowers, a traditional Congolese welcome,” Sister Lorraine said.

The nuns told me they are using the grant to build new Cyber cafés in which people can use computers, printers, and the Internet for a small fee, and will continue to provide education and access to disease-free water.

Since they launched the project a few months ago, several micro-businesses have developed, including phone charging stations (pictured, left).

According to Sister Lorraine, villagers walk long distances to visit the Cyber cafés because they heard they can “talk through the air” to their children who are living abroad. Members of other religious organizations, school facilities, healthcare workers, and NGO representatives will also travel for several miles to access these Internet cafés.

The computers are already making a difference in the community: Teachers use them to access information that is more reliable and current for students, and local leaders are surfing the Internet to research business opportunities.

The nuns’ ultimate goal is to help the local population become self-sufficient. However, they have needed to be sensitive to the country’s cultural limitations related to women operating businesses. To ease acceptance, they framed the Cyber Initiative under the heading of the local ministry.

With four of the new computers operating for three hours per day (the current capacity of the cafés), the revenue being generated is $360 per month. The Sisters hope to expand the project — additional computers would generate thousands of dollars per year and further bolster the community’s economic growth.


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