Earlier this month, an Oregon-based nonprofit that has provided networking technology and training to some of the world’s poorest nations for nearly 20 years received a $1.25 million check to scale up its efforts. The surprise gift to the University of Oregon’s Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC) came from Google’s Charitable Giving Fund.
“It’s not a grant we could apply for,” says NSRC director Steve Huter, who notes that Google employees nominated the NSRC based on their impressions from business trips to Africa. “One Googler said, ‘I visited 15 universities, and almost all mentioned getting help from NSRC.’ ” That help might have come in the form of hardware, such as routing, switching, or wireless equipment, or technical training and support to build up a country’s cyberinfrastructure—all with the goal of enabling scientists, engineers, and students to communicate and collaborate with their counterparts abroad. More than 100 of the world’s poorest countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, have benefited from the NSRC’s work since it was founded in 1992.
Although the gift came as a surprise, the NSRC and Google are hardly strangers to each other. Google has donated 30 tons of decommissioned networking hardware to the NSRC since 2006, says Huter. “We have warehouse space [on our campus] with 25 pallets of network switches right now, and we just sent two of those to Senegal.” Because Google frequently upgrades its data center equipment, the company’s castoffs are more than adequate. “It's equipment that any university in the U.S. or Europe would be glad to have,” says Huter, who has worked with the NSRC since 1993.
Considering the formidable obstacles to IT projects in developing nations—from a meager electrical grid and a shortage of well-trained technical workers to weak regulation of telecom monopolies and a lack of affordable Internet bandwidth—it’s remarkable what the NSRC has accomplished in so many different countries. “Today there is roughly a hundred million users on the Internet in Africa,” says Huter, “but I remember when there were fewer than a thousand.”
One key to success in the developing world, Huter says, is to build personal relationships and mutually cooperative communities. He talks of treating locals as genuine peers, cultivating a culture of network operators helping each other, and encouraging information sharing across regions, so that an expert in Ghana or Nigeria, for example, can help train colleagues in East Africa—and vice versa. “Focus on building programs and a community of professionals that enables continuous progress,” Huter advises, “rather than simply investing in switches and routers.”
Based in San Francisco, Marina Krakovsky is the co-author of Secrets of the Moneylab: How Behavioral Economics Can Improve Your Business.