Africa’s Brain Gain

Virtual schools bring hope to a war-torn continent

| November / December Issue

In dry, dusty Dakar, the computer is more than a token convenience. It is a window to the outside world. Since the turn of the 21st century, local web access has increased at a startling rate, reaching thousands of the city’s residents. Internet cafés filled with chattering businesspeople and students line the wide boulevards. The telecom industry is booming.

But even as Senegal’s capital transforms itself into the hub of West Africa’s cyberrevolution, the country is struggling to keep its brightest minds at home. It’s a dilemma that is familiar across the continent. According to the International Organization for Migration, approximately 20,000 professionals leave Africa each year, seeking more prestigious posts in Europe and the United States. Educational institutions, home to many of those up-and-coming professionals, are the major casualties.

To stem this brain drain, a number of innovative e-learning ventures are trying to connect students to classes from abroad while keeping their feet firmly rooted on African soil.

Since 1997, the Nairobi, Kenya–based African Virtual University has worked to improve access to web-based learning in sub-Saharan Africa. As connection rates improve, the group has expanded its reach, launching satellite campuses in war-torn countries like Rwanda and Somalia.

In such countries the situation is infinitely more challenging than in relatively prosperous Senegal and Kenya. Consider the case of a small organization called Sierra Visions, which was founded in 2003, just one year after Sierra Leone’s long and bloody civil war ended. The country is still mired in reconstruction efforts. Poverty and economic stagnation loom large; the country is listed as number 176 on the United Nations’ Human Development Index of 177 nations.

Despite the daunting obstacles, Sierra Visions plans to launch a series of programs this fall aimed at teaching professional skills in areas like accounting, customer service, health, and education. The catch: Roughly half of the 50 Sierra Leonean instructors teach from their homes in Canada, Europe, and the United States.

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