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Every year, robed merchants from the Sahara travel south, stopping when they reach the Gambia River. Here, they set up stall. In the gloom of Banjul’s Royal Albert Market, they sell the wares they have ferried on their long voyage across the desert.
Boxes of toys and tools spill out of shopfronts. Spices mix with the smell of the docks just over a wall. Inside the shops, traders lounge on piles of rugs, sipping syrupy tea and relishing the darkness after weeks in the sun. The threads on their robes look like shapes branded into chilly air with sparklers.
The Gambia is a logical destination. Here, a mighty river completes a journey that begins in tropical highlands a thousand kilometers away. A transition is apparent in the landscape, the weather, the dress, the food. In Gambia, one Africa gives way to another. North hands over to south; dry plains are interrupted by the first green shoots of rainforest. It is a good moment for travelers to pause.
Living at a crossroads, Gambians are used to seeing interesting things. Ancient trade-routes have been joined by modern additions. Tourists come and go; Gambians live and work around the world. Stories are told here, ideas and goods exchanged. The result is a country that, despite it’s a laidback reputation as ‘the smiling coast of Africa’, is always open to new possibilities.
Bakau is a town to the west of Banjul, on Gambia’s Atlantic coast.
A long beach faces an unbroken ocean horizon. On the other side of the dunes, mud-brick houses form a cryptic maze in which it is easy to get lost – although bemused locals will point you in the right direction if you ask. Bakau is known for its crocodile pool. Now an offbeat tourist attraction, the pool is surrounded by a fragile thicket of primeval woodland. An unknown number of wizened reptiles lurk in its mysterious depths.
On a hot a Tuesday morning in November, a big marquee stands outside Bakau’s school. Although high summer is past, the sun still beats fiercely, and the tent provides welcome shade even at 10am. Inside the marquee, fifty or so pupils in impressively crisp uniforms crowd around half a dozen tables. On each table is an exhibit that, like the exotic produce displayed in the arcades of the Royal Albert Market, is meant to enrapture and excite.
At one table, a girl of about fifteen is holding a remote control. She twiddles a joystick and presses buttons. As she does so, a small robot judders around the table, lurching this way and that. Once or twice the machine threatens to plunge onto the floor, until someone sensible nudges it back to safety.
At another table, a group is gathered around a tablet, each craning for the best view. The tablet’s camera is relaying a mundane scene to its screen: chairs, the tablecloth. But also in the frame are little characters, hyper-realistic humanoids, whose actions adapt as if by magic to the movement of the camera across the space. The onlookers coo in astonishment as the virtual genie dances mischievously.
Something hovers a foot or two above a third table. In this part of Africa, buzzing creatures are a fact of life. But this is a tiny drone, controlled by a pupil strained with concentration. As its rotors spin, it emits a little whine. Suddenly, a thumb slips on the remote, and the drone veers to the left, causing two girls to duck, both shrieking with laughter. The boy at the controls mutters an apology as he wrestles the drone back under control.
The “Geek Express” sounds like something from an intergalactic sci-fi adventure. In fact, it is the phrase stamped on the walls of the marquee as this hubbub plays out: the initiative which, on this particular morning, has come to provoke the curiosity of Bakau’s schoolchildren.
Launched by Africell in November 2021, the Geek Express introduces Gambian youth to cutting-edge technologies such as drones, robots, virtual and augmented reality, and 3D printing. It is the first mobile tech lab in the country, and its first season ran from 16-22 November. An intensive inaugural tour encompassed twenty schools in under two weeks and attracted the participation of well over a thousand pupils. Under expert supervision, pupils built, handled and controlled the devices, learning how they work and what they can be used for.
The Geek Express was conceived as a practical initiative to boost to technology education in The Gambia. According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa has a big shortfall of digital skills. The region reports only half the average global level of digital skills adoption, with skills such as digital literacy, web development and data science available to a tiny and privileged minority. Poor digital literacy disadvantages Africa. The International Finance Corporation estimates that over 230 million jobs in sub-Saharan Africa will require digital skills by 2030. If this shift is to yield economic growth, increased productivity and improved standards of living, Africa’s youth must have the confidence to embrace digital opportunities.
Africell is Gambia’s biggest mobile network operator, with hundreds of employees and over a million customers. Its mobile network is a versatile platform for ordinary Gambians. The GSMA reckons that by 2025, mobile technologies and services could add over $150 billion is value to Africa’s economy. Mobile adoption has certainly spurred Gambia’s economic development, and Africell’s ambition to get more Gambians using digital devices is aligned with the growth of Gambia as a whole. By giving school pupils in The Gambia hands-on tech training, the Geek Express roadshow ensures that the benefits of digital transformation are understood by the generation that will lead it.
At another school, after removing a VR headset which had transported her from coastal West Africa to the towering rocks of Utah’s Monument Valley, 14-year-old Aminata can’t stop grinning.
“I have never left Gambia”, she explains. “Wearing that mask is like travelling to another world”.
Asked what she and her fellow pupils will take away from the visit of the Geek Express to their school, she adopts a long-term view. “The session today was fun, and I hope we can do it again. But ultimately it was about learning, and I want to use my experience to one day teach others about these technologies too”.
The success of the Geek Express’s maiden tour, which passed through schools in Banjul, Bakau, Brusubi, Kanifing, Brikama, Faroto, Serrekunda, Bundung, Manjai, Lamin and Busumballa, means that plans are already in place to relaunch in 2022. The next iteration will focus on upcountry communities which have even more limited access to the up-to-date technologies. Meanwhile, schools visited in 2021 will benefit from active follow-up support from the Geek Express team, pushing children whose interest has been piqued to develop their knowledge further.
Hussein Diab, CEO of Africell The Gambia, considers why the Geek Express formula has been so effective.
“Africell is living and breathing technology company and is a household name in The Gambia. Most Gambians have used an Africell phone or sim card, so when Africell comes to schools to showcase other technologies, the kids sit up and listen”.
He continues: “The great thing about the Geek Express is how interactive it is. Rather than just listening to a teacher in a classroom, pupils get up close to the machines, controlling them with their own hands. This is the best way to learn and we hope it will inspire a new generation of Gambian youth to pursue careers in tech.”
It also helps that Africell’s Geek Express project taps into an old Gambian tradition.
Just as merchants from the north travel south each year with artefacts designed to dazzle, so the Geek Express has the flavour of a nomadic caravan laden with strange and wonderful gifts. However, rather than jewels and spices, tables are weighed down with robots and electronics. Rather than occupying shadowy bazaars, the Geek Express travels to schools. And rather than selling, the project aims to teach. The mewling drone surrounded by pupils may be a snapshot of modernity, but the underlying principle – of curiosity and openness to ideas – is timeless. It is this force that will ultimately propel Gambia into its digital future.