A West Side technology center is reaching across the Atlantic to help close the digital divide in Africa.

Only 5.3 percent of that continent’s estimated 900 million residents have access to the Internet, according to the website, Internet World Stats.

The Digital Development Corporation and Oversight Committee, based on the West Side, is spearheading the effort in Africa. The group plans to replicate its computer training and refurbishing program in two African countries-Accra, Ghana and Kigali, Rwanda.

“The opportunities are right here and technology is how you are going to get them,” said Lowry Taylor, executive director of the group.

The goal, he explained, is to train people to fix and refurbish computers as a way to increase computer literacy, Internet access also create economic opportunities. The group trains ex-offenders in computer technology.

Trainers will stay in Africa for about a month, teaching residents to rebuild computers and update them with virus protection and Open Office software, a free program similar to Microsoft Office, but without the “sticker shock,” Taylor said.

The West Side group has collaborated with Bethel Mennonite Community Church and the Midwest Rwanda Community to open the computer technology centers. The joint effort has blossomed into the “Bridge Builders of Chicago.”

Digital Development Corporation will acquire the computers through e-cycling program where colleges and corporations recycle their later model hardware. Taylor noted the irony of Africa becoming a dumping ground for used computers from industrialized countries, though, residents cannot afford to buy even a used computer.

“There’s still life in some of these computers,” he said.

Taylor is hopeful that the effort would mobilize villages to insist that African companies refurbish their older systems and donate them to schools or community centers there.

But being part of the global economy includes business development, Lowry added. Having Internet access creates business opportunities, he said, noting that only five Internet service providers exist in Africa, and most are operated outside the continent.

His group has planned a series of fundraisers for Bridge Builders of Chicago, with an upcoming event in Evanston this Saturday, May 17.

They hope to raise $60,000 to cover travel costs, lodging and shipping for 200 Pentium IV computers to Africa. Logistics are still being hammered out, but the group hopes to make its first trip to Africa by year’s end.

Rev. Tony Bianchi, pastor of Bethel Mennonite Community Church, said establishing tech centers is an extension of his church’s mission work. For 15 years, Bianchi, a native of Ghana, and his wife, a dentist, have traveled to Africa with other doctors to provide medical care.

While corporate CEOs contemplate how or what to invest in Africa, Bianchi realized that technology was the last frontier for Africa, an idea he gleaned from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

“When he visited Africa his dilemma was whether or not to invest in technology or farming,” Bianchi said. “I chose technology because with technology comes knowledge and with knowledge comes power.”

Bianchi added that with technology, Africans have the knowledge to fight environmental issues, grow organic gardens and take online classes, instead of depending on western civilization to supply their needs.

Countries such as Ghana and Rwanda must also move from being labeled as “developing countries” to developed ones, explained Olivier Kamanzi, of the Midwest Rwanda Community, adding that access to technology and the Internet are the tools to accomplish that.

He’s also hopeful that Internet access would create government that is more open and make Africa a more democratized continent.

“Right now we are living in a small village (but) this is a global economy… and if we want to be competitive we have to have access to technology,” Kamanzi insisted. “We cannot afford to continue to be the followers. We cannot be left behind.”

A fundraiser for Africa

The Digital Development Corporation and Oversight Committee's fundraiser takes place from 6 to 11 p.m. on Saturday May 17, at the Jewish Reconstruction Congregation Hall, 303 Dodge Ave., in Evanston. For more information on Saturday's event, call 312/421-3871, 773/ 807-7959, or visit www.ddcoc.org.