Early in March, Close the Gap invited me along on a "CEO tour" of a few days visiting various projects in Kenya. In order to support and encourage local staff, a few of their main partners had been invited to come along. That way, some of the newest decision-makers at Belgian and Dutch companies could be more closely involved in Close the Gap's functioning and together, help identify possible future initiatives to make a difference in bridging the digital gap for the population of Africa.
The visit to Kenya was brief but intense. However, as always when visiting the African continent, it left a lasting impression. A brief report.
Tuesday evening, March 21st, we departed from Schiphol airport. We flew all night and Wednesday morning at 8 o'clock, the program commenced. We started at CFSK Computers for School, an organization which brings donated equipment to local schools. They make sure it's provided with software and educational programs suited to the capabilities and experiences of the young people at these schools. I kept noticing how these people just radiate an enormous enthusiasm. Their hope, courage, and dynamism – it's catching. While to be honest, the problems are overwhelming. I'll give you just one example. The population in Kenya consists of 50 million people, half of whom are under 20 years of age. You can imagine the challenges this provides relating to education and employment.
Our next stop was a recycling business, set up with the assistance of Close the Gap and its sister organization World Loop. One of the major problems confronting Africa is the fact that developed countries use the continent as a dumping ground for used electronics. With this in mind, they have collaborated with Recupel and Umicore to set up recycling facilities near Nairobi. Later in the afternoon we attended a presentation at the United Nations (Nairobi is one of the four sites of UN headquarters) about the waste recycling problem. Subsequently there was a reception at the Belgian Embassy, where local and Belgian economic business leaders were given a chance to mingle.
Thursday we visited the Agha Khan University and its attendant hospital under the guidance of Marleen Temmerman, a gynecologist of international renown who has done extensive research on AIDS prevention. Together with Ms. Temmerman, we attended a presentation and debate on healthcare in Kenya. The visit to the Agha Khan hospital was impressive. This hospital is comparable to Belgium's best. It's clear that it can only serve a very small fraction of Kenya's population. The contrast with our next destination could hardly be greater, as Marleen Temmerman then took us to a small local (maternity) hospital. A maternity hospital that witnesses approximately 60 births a day. The building was similar in size to our Realdolmen lunch room in Huizingen. Sanitary facilities mostly non-existent. Back to reality, I guess.
In the afternoon we went to Embakasi High School (near Nairobi), where they were expecting us for the inauguration of the computer room containing equipment we'd donated. This was a huge event, and the entire school had turned out to greet us. The Governor of Nairobi province was also in attendance. We were treated to a party to remember, with music and dancing. The younger generation's enthusiasm is remarkable. Their hope for a better life and their optimism that they'll truly get it.
Friday it was the turn of the young businesspeople we support through Close the Gap. Young, dynamic entrepreneurs, who came to present their businesses and with whom we met to offer support and some practical help and advice here and there. It was an inspiring day, and these young people seem to have plenty of energy and creativity to make things happen. After all, let's be honest. Our initiatives can provide a little boost occasionally. What's really vital is that these countries develop a dynamic that lets them improve things through their own resources and potential. Our company's ambition is to help people and organizations realize their potential; in that respect you could hardly find a better match for us than Close the Gap. The positive thing about this kind of trip is that a few days there are enough to make you realize that even given the enormous challenges faced by this continent, this country and these people, quite a few opportunities do exist and the digital gap can be closed. That's really a great feeling.
Saturday we had a brainstorming session about the future of Close the Gap and then... time off. Sunday evening we flew back. Monday morning we arrived at Schiphol and started another work day at Realdolmen. It was an intense and very satisfying trip.
In the meantime, two more Realdolmen employees (Kevin Bauwens and Jeroen Staal) have traveled to Tanzania to teach a course there. This was intended to prepare some people so they can support the rollout of the thin client infrastructure to various schools following the donation of 4,000 thin clients by Dutch Railways. That was a fascinating adventure as well. You can read their report here.
Meanwhile Close the Gap has contacted me again. There's a school in Tanzania for children with speech and hearing difficulties. They receive a normal education, but it takes a bit longer thanks to their handicaps. The school now has a computer classroom and would like to use it to prepare these young adults for professional employment. Possibly through the setting up of a two-year IT program. I have no idea yet what this will involve or how Realdolmen can help, but the desire to search for further solutions together with Close the Gap is certainly there. To get there, together! Yes, even if it's all the way to Africa.
Marc De Keersmaecker, CEO Realdolmen