Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Liberian Tech: Barriers to Entry

Today was my first full day on the ground in Liberia, which I spent talking to a number of people about the mobile, internet and radio infrastructure – and, more importantly, the realities of their usage on the ground in the country. I try to not only talk to high-level executives and business officials, but also the implementers (people who really do the work), and laymen who just use the technology, but have no major tech background themselves.

A TV antenna in Monrovia, Liberia

Two of the guys I talked to run the IT department for a medium-sized NGO. One of these two, Joshua, is an engineering student at a local polytechnic, and we had a good discussion on why I’ve been having such a hard time finding young hackers and programmers in Monrovia. They came back with an interesting response on how the barriers in their country make it quite difficult to even get started.

A (very) brief background

Liberia came out of a civil war only a few short years ago. The infrastructure was torn apart (there is no electricity grid, rich people run generators), the university and education system are still trying to catch up, and no computer science degree is available. The mobile phone companies, due to not needing as much foundational infrastructure, have built out quickly and cover much of the main roads and major towns (I’ll have to do a whole post on this subject later). All internet connections come through VSAT connections, and they’re not reliable or cheap.


Barrier: You can’t get online to get to all the free knowledge. Unlike many other parts of Africa, there are very few internet cafes here. Joshua explained that young people find it very hard to get out to them to get free knowledge online.

Barrier: The few jobs that there are in the ICT sector are generally with NGOs, a few businesses and government organizations. Only those with good connections get in, so a lot of smart young people miss. Why is this important? Only those in these jobs are able to get the training and certification to do higher paying jobs because they have to be flown out to the training centers – none are in-country.


I’m on my first day here and will meet more people, so I still have more discovery to do on this topic. Though I do find it interesting that today, of the 5 tech people I met, not one was a Liberian grown and trained in Liberia. I think it’s fair to say that Liberia presents challenges that are steep to overcome, even by African standards.


  1. If there’s not electricity available, how do the cellphones get charged? Do people keep them off frequently to save power between charges?

  2. Are there few cyber cafes because VSAT and the electricity is unreliable/expensive? India, at one point, had similarly bad ICT infrastructure, but made a concerted effort to fix that. I wonder if Liberia could do the same (subsidize generators, facilitate connectivity, etc.)

  3. @Nate, there are a number of ways people get a charge for a mobile, at least as I’ve seen in other regions; Liberia may be different.
    One way is that at any place with power (say an NGO office), you will inevitably see a slew of mobiles plugged in to any available outlet to get a little charge.
    You will also find people who charge for a charge. They either have a generator or some other access to power and charge folks a nominal fee to charge up their phone.
    There are some inroads being made by hand powered devices, which I talked about here but overall, it just comes down to finding power wherever you can. And yes, folks will often have their phones off which can make it very hard to reach people sometimes.

  4. Truth and reconciliation through technology (in Liberia), entry published yesterday in the World Bank’s Africa Can blog

  5. According to a 2008 study, there are supposed to be about 200 Internet cafes in Monrovia. The US Embassy also provides about 20 computers for public use.

  6. Nice post amigo. Really looking forward to more of your on the ground insight. I’m working on a paper discussing the “Last Mile” gap between internet infrastructure and rural communities this term and will be paying attention to your findings. Would love to catch up when you return. Be safe.

  7. wind ups might do the job, radio, torch and lights to camp by, not sure about the tech side, the kids can master the winder as young as 2 years old. maybe it is possible to rig up the animals to a wheel and they can walk around and around to provide the power to the torch.

  8. Weird synergy: car batteries powering computers @ http://revision3.com/systm/hackedups. not very sustainable, but weird.

  9. Erik, your experience is very similar to what I found when I travelled to Liberia at the end of ’07. I was there with Oxfam, not on an ICT/web-related trip, but as that’s the area I represent it’s what I took an interest in. Web access is generally very poor – even within an NGO compound – and practically no sign of an internet cafe as you say, let alone 200! Billboard ads for mobile web seemed to be in harsh contrast to the reality on the ground.

    It’s not just tech that suffers from lack of homegrown input – many who fled during the civil wars simply haven’t returned, so every sector has suffered. Lack of local expertise is chronic, and it’s still very early days in terms of the transition from UN/NGO-supported institutions, so there are many challenges, as you say. I found some high points though – in West Point, a huge slum tacked on to Monrovia, a thriving women’s collective had organised a clothing business with accompanying e-commerce site.

    @Nate @Miquel there are loads of roadside shacks where those with generators charge mobiles for a small fee, this – alongside hairdressers – was the most active business I saw, even outside Monrovia.

  10. @Hugh thanks for the added info. I know, I too was surprised by the 200 figure but this information originates from a reputable source. The study in question was carried out in-country about six-months ago by a Liberia communications expert with plenty of experience and credibility working with media in Liberia.

  11. @Hugh – you were right, here’s the clarification by someone familiar with the report in response to my question vis-vis the 200 figure:

    “Well internet cafe is a robustly flexible concept is it not?….It was estimated by the people at LMC and it’s the probable number of ‘rentable’ pc’s…call them cafes if you want (or not)…They should have put an asterisk… but if you prefer a more formal number I would halve it….”

  12. @Patrick – the ‘robustly flexible concept’ of a web cafe sounds more like it – hotels, a few bars, and the embassies as examples. But more often than not these are places that ex-pats, visiting NGO workers, and the very occasional tourist are frequenting, rather than your average Liberian. Cheers for clarifying.

  13. Let me be clear, there are internet cafes around, but not nearly as many as I’m used to seeing in Africa’s capital cities. Also, the relative income related to cost of accessing the internet here (for the average person) is higher.

    More really cool stuff today… will post shortly.

  14. If there’s not electricity available, how do the cellphones get charged?

  15. Thanks for this information. How much does it cost to use a computer at a cafe for an hour?

  16. Thanks for this very crucial information; You are right most of the bright minds of Liberia fled the country. But we are preparing to return and help boost our Economy. I am a liberian now a Senior Marketing Research major at La Salle University.. What are the numbers of universities that offer internet Cafes or educational business structure? I have been saving, almost completed my business plan and I plan on launching in 2016.

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