WiderNet: Defeating Information Poverty In Developing Nations

An “Internet in a box” bridges the information divide between developed and developing countries.

Imagine not ever having access to the Internet. How could we possibly survive! We use the Internet for our communications, streaming music and videos, banking, telehealth, social media, online learning, games, exercise, cooking lessons, working remotely, and more! We’ve become so used to the Internet as part of our everyday life that we’re practically spoiled and can’t seem to go without it.

The Disconnect

But, did you know 90 percent of the 1.1 billion households not connected to the Internet are in developing countries? That’s according to the U.N. Telecommunication Development Bureau, which also reports fixed broadband services remain expensive in developing countries, accounting for 30.1 percent of average monthly income, compared to 1.7 percent in developed countries. And in the developing world, 31 percent of the population is online, compared to 77 percent in the developed world.

It’s hard for us to imagine not having instant access to information anytime, anywhere. But in many universities, schools, clinics, and hospitals in developing countries, there is no Internet access. Information poverty is real. It is an individual’s or group’s inability to access information that would otherwise inform their decisions. Information poverty has always existed, but the disparity has never been greater in today’s high-speed digital world. Globally, seven out of eight people cannot access the Internet because of either lack of hardware, expensive connectivity costs, or low bandwidth.

The WiderNet Project

In 1999, Professor Cliff Missen, a Fulbright scholar, was studying in Nigeria. Frustration set in when a lack of Internet access hindered his ability to teach at the University of Jos. Determined to come up with a solution, he worked with a University of Iowa graduate student and created websites on a CD, the first version of an offline digital library. In 2000, when Missen returned to UI, he founded the WiderNet Project to “provide training and research in low-cost, high impact uses of information technologies in developing countries.”WiderNet continued its work in bridging the digital communication gap and developed a solution in which thousands of educational websites were copied with permission onto a hard drive. Additional materials were uploaded to servers at partner institutions located in developing countries and other underserved areas worldwide. Over 32 million educational resources could be accessed by users instantly without cost. The project was an overwhelming success and named the eGranary Digital Library, an offline digital library that holds “seeds of knowledge.” The “Internet in a box” solution can be used as a standalone or over local area networks. Subscribers can also upload their own materials and access tools to create their own website.“eGranary Digital Library has been a great bridge in the digital divide for us at the University of Jos in Nigeria. It has served the purpose of bringing the Internet to our doorsteps… The eGranary holds great promise for developing economies where bandwidth and the cost of Internet access is high,” says Dr. Stephen Akintunde, Deputy University Librarian of the University of Jos in Jos, Nigeria.WiderNet also offers numerous digital technology training opportunities and performs technology research. The training enables communities to become independent and self-sufficient in utilizing information and communication technology. Thousands of university administrators and staff have been trained in programs customized for their institution’s needs.In essence, WiderNet has an approach that decentralizes communication technology and can scale to every economic class. According to WiderNet literature, “The impact of these changes on the political, economic, cultural, and private lives of the entire human race — connected or not — will be the critical issues of the next few decades.”

Making a World of Difference

Based out of Durham, North Carolina, the WiderNet Project is a non-profit affiliated with the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The organization provides computers, networking, and educational resources to developing countries, and empowers people by having access to knowledge, information, and communication. In 2018, WiderNet became a founding member of an international consortium for offline content.

Making progress on a global scale, WiderNet strives to serve the information-poor with programs that “spread the gift of knowledge worldwide, with a focus on implementing technology in places where it simply didn’t exist.” The impact WiderNet is having is monumental, but it is only the beginning. Millions of people are being served, but perhaps one day, billions will be. “The eGranary has come as one of the best solutions to address most of the challenges related to connection speed and the high costs associated to it,” says Teklemichael Tefera, Director of the Information Resource Center at the United States Embassy in Ethiopia.There are numerous examples of eGranary success stories, here are just a few: In 2019, nurses of the Chogoria Hospital in Kenya gained access to the latest medical data for the first time. At the EP Basic School in Ashaiman, Ghana, students are going beyond static texts of traditional libraries and diving into rich digital content. And according to the Nigerian National Universities Commission, “eGranary challenges the staff to want to go back to school to acquire degree certificates on a number of relevant disciplines.”

For more information and how you can help make a difference, visit widernet.org.

Photo Credits: WiderNet Project