Washington, DC — Africans are finding it easier to buy into globalization, thanks to a U.S. government-funded program that encourages merchants in Senegal to use computers and the Internet to sell their products.
The Digital Freedom Initiative (DFI), a collaboration between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of Commerce and the Peace Corps, was inaugurated by the White House in March 2003 to help spur use of the Internet among developing nations.
While DFI currently operates partnership projects in Jordan, Indonesia and Peru, its pilot program began in Dakar, Senegal, where USAID representatives partnered with a local merchant organization to establish an Internet café called "Cyber Louma" in Dakar's Sandaga Market.
Merchants and other Senegalese learned that computers and the Internet are not just the domain of scholars and libraries but can be useful tools in researching market prices and costs that have a direct bearing on their livelihoods.
After word got out, curious merchants dropped by to examine the new technology themselves, according to a USAID document.
Souhaibou Diop, a cloth merchant who usually bought his goods from wholesalers in Dubai, became interested in the computer operation. After training, Diop set up an e-mail account, looked for new suppliers and established a more lucrative relationship with a new supplier, Magna Fabrics of New Jersey.
Another enthusiastic consumer of the new electronic business link is Gor Mbaye, a wholesaler in Sandaga Market who does business with many suppliers in Senegal. According to USAID, Mbaye, who once spent hours doing his bills and other paperwork by hand, received training at the U.S.-sponsored cybercafé and now does all his bills and accounting by computer. In addition, he now e-mails suppliers, receives offers and negotiates prices electronically.
The future has especially brightened for Abdoul Fall, USAID notes. A construction-materials wholesaler, Fall was able to use computers at Café Louma to search the Internet and find fans he could buy at a price lower than available locally. Fellow merchant Mamadou Guèye, a dealer in tiles from Italy, also has used the Internet at Café Louma to enhance his business prospects.
Guèye told USAID, "I'm now planning to arrange a space in the shop to build an office and buy a computer to better manage my business."
Since its inception, DFI has expanded beyond Sandaga Market. In 2005, USAID officials working with Peace Corps volunteers and other international organizations helped more than 70 people find jobs while training people in 360 businesses to use computers. More than 300 entrepreneurs in Senegal were also trained to use information technology to manage their businesses better.