Ushahidi Liberia: new office, new lessons in importing + cold water

Ushahidi Liberia began this year with a new mission-critical: set up a well-resourced technology lab for local partners to use the Ushahidi platform and other information sharing tools.  We’ve been on the ground since June 2010, so you would think by now we have everything in place for the Ushahidi platform to work.  And in part, we do: we set up customized instances for 14 partner organizations, held dozens of trainings with partners’ staff, and created a free shortcode for easy reporting in the field.  But despite our best efforts to go over, under and around certain obstacles, we realized we now had to go through them; namely, electricity and (lack of) Internet connectivity.  We had both in painfully erratic doses all year, just like our partners, and this was no way to run a tech organization in Liberia, let alone expect our partners to regularly add to their instances when they didn’t have these basic resources.

Moving out of our one-room office, with its questionable structural integrity, was a good first step.  The picture below, taken when our AC was replaced, gives you a sense of the place.

Ushahidi Liberia's original office

After searching the better half of Monrovia, I found an apartment building still under construction that promised to have everything we needed. We got a good deal because there were nothing but walls and a roof when we moved in; over the following month, the AC, power, and security were fully in place and we had our dedicated VSAT up and running.

New office's future tech lab
The building's wiring

In the meantime, our staff grew from two ex-pats to an additional five Liberians, several of whom are the best and the brightest in Liberia’s IT scene (no exaggeration they are phenomenal), and we now had the space to accommodate them.

Our shared office

Our dedicated VSAT is a modest 384/128 kbps (C-band), but I tell you that is lightning speed in Liberia (and it’s pretty cool to have a dish that big).  The building runs on an industrial generator and has a backup so we’ve got power at all times.  Just in case, we have UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) units plugged into our VSAT modem, router and the desktops so they don’t blink out when there’s a power glitch.

Our very own VSAT

In our new space, we can breeze through Ushahidi instances that used to take minutes to upload at the old office.  But as of March, we still didn’t have dedicated equipment for partners – we just had the connectivity and an empty room we called “the lab”.   So we began to purchase computers locally. Always a gamble.  We started out with Dell Inspiron desktops, a hefty 1,200 USD in Monrovia (the same desktop is about 640 USD in the States).  After buying three, we realized that it might be a better move to get twice as many computers abroad for the price of one locally.  This requires importing.  If that word alone doesn’t scare you, suffice it to say bringing tech equipment into Liberia is…complicated.  Organizations here have a whole staff position if not team dedicated to bringing in equipment, and thus far we acquired our Stateside equipment through friends’ suitcases on trips back and forth.  With no importing experience and little more than a dose of determination, I ordered the computers anyway; my trusty mother packed up the eight Lenovo ThinkPad SL510s with FedEx, and off they went.

“You know they’re going to have to pay a large import tax just to get these,” the FedEx fellow said after charging us an arm-and-a-leg for sending the two 40lb packages.  The cost of getting the computers over to Liberia was still less than buying half as many desktops in-country, but I dreaded the inevitable red tape. I had one advantage on my side: our organization’s accreditation in Liberia. With this, we were allowed to get imported items tax-free if they were for educational purposes.  When I got word that the two packages had arrived at the airport in Monrovia, I went to FedEx with accreditation papers in hand.  If we wanted to take advantage of our tax-exemption, FedEx said, the papers weren’t enough; we had to go to the Ministry of Finance and get some countless number of signatures from every higher-up for duty-free permission.  I asked our Director and Deputy Director of IT to make a trip to the Ministry and get the necessary signatures. One of them had worked at the Ministry before, so I thought we had this in the bag.

Instead, the Deputy Minister of Revenue said the approval process for first-time importing would take days.  We didn’t have days; the computers were baking in an airport hangar.  Another option: the Commissioner of Customs could submit a special request to have the packages released quickly.  Both options required formal letters of request, along with a copy of Ushahidi Liberia’s rent check for proof of existence in-country.  I thought the accreditation certificate demonstrated our presence in Liberia, but okay: my team came back, I wrote up the letters, and we printed out the scanned rent check.

Our team returned, with multiple copies of the letter just in case; assistant clerks took the documents and said come back in a couple days.  Two days later, and the documents hadn’t budged; it was going to be another couple days, said the clerks, who indicated that some “cold water” might speed up the process (code for bribe).  When I got word of this, I’d had enough; surely, my Liberian colleagues are more capable of navigating these waters than I, but I was not prepared to lose our computers to negligence and heat.  On top of the mounting obstacles, the Deputy Minister was apparently furious that our landlord was charging so much for rent and the Ministry wasn’t aware of it; word was she had called for an investigation.  Great.

I put on my best power suit and set out for the Ministry.  What ensued can be summarized as follows:

  • Deputy Minister’s office: Me – here are the letters again, we need these packages, I am not moving until we get permission (please).  I am ignored for a couple hours until Asst. Deputy comes in and I make a fuss (politely). I’m sent to unnamed office in basement
  • Unnamed office in basement: lots of questions about the packages. Details typed up on 1950s typewriter.  Take this to the Asst. Deputy to sign and you’re set. Back to Deputy
  • Deputy’s office: clerk looks at the paperwork and puts it down on the desk. “Come back tomorrow.” I say no, all we need is one signature. He doesn’t care. I stand resolute in front of his desk and promise not to move until I have the signature. He says I have to sit down for the process to begin. On the contrary, I will stand. Clerk reluctantly tells me the location of the Asst. Deputy.  I go one door down the hall, find the Asst. Deputy, and he signs

After 5 hours at the Ministry, I made it to FedEx with the documents just before they left for the airport. By 8pm that night we had our computers, tax- and bribe-free.  We set them up then and there, tested out each one, and took a moment to breathe in that new computer smell.

FedEx Delivery

Our IT Director marveled, “I’ve never seen a computer this new before.”  And all eight worked, without a hitch.  Whew.  Now we can start the real work. Stay tuned for the latest on iLab Liberia in our next post.

That new computer smell

11 Responses to “Ushahidi Liberia: new office, new lessons in importing + cold water”

  1. Cool. I like your resolution at getting your computers without bribing anyone. Your experience and resolution should be taught to all people who live in countries where corruption is widespread.

  2. Shanker

    Wonderful post… Great work.. Keep pushing!

  3. Gilles

    I agree with Rachid, this info should be shared. Some tech info should also be shared so that people know what type of satellite dish to get, what type of UPS, etc…

  4. Rachel Kasumba

    What an adventure! An eye opener for a lot od beginners who are not used to the way “systems” work in a lot of emerging markets. Great that you pursued the matter quickly and successfully.

    It goes to show that it can be done – with determination, courage, and integrity. Bravo!

  5. I am very glad to see your blog since every thing you described in simple and systematic manner.So that readers and visitors easily attracted to your blogs.It gives great opportunity to learn on new developments.

  6. Its amazing this day in age how connected we HAVE to be. A fixed/stalized vsat antenna can transfer/receive data and voice communication from even the most remote areas.