Saturday, October 2, 2010

Cyber Days

So what is running a Cyber Café in Africa like? Now that I work at Cyber 3 mornings and several afternoons a week, I’ve learned a lot about the Cyber business. My first observation is that things usually don’t run as smoothly as they do in your typical Cyber in America, but we muddle through somehow and the Cyber often does a brisk business of Internet, printing, scanning, photocopying, typing, and various other computer related things.

First the set up: We have 2 computers for internet and 2-3ish computers for other business such as typing, scanning, printing and such. We have one color printer/copier/scanner and two black and white printer/copiers. However, one of these has been out of toner for over 1 month and the other refuses to talk to computers. So in reality we have only one black and white copier. *Update: We got a new printer/copier/scanner. **Update: We got the toner for the copier. Now we have something like 4 machines for doing various jobs usually done at Kinkos (or is it Fedex office now?) Here is the main room of the Cyber:

During the morning when the generator on, there is another room of desktop computers for people to use for individual work as well as for classes. The Cyber offers classes in basic computer skills, Word, and internet navigation and is also used by the local schools for a computer class. Here is the back room (I took this picture when we were already closed for the day so the computers have been tucked into their blankets for the night):

Now, onto our services. First, of course (because it’s called the Cyber) is Internet. But sometimes (a lot) the Internet doesn’t work. This is because it isn’t catching the signal, or it’s expired, or it’s cloudy, or it’s sunny, or it’s daytime, or it’s a day that ends in y. However, when the internet does work, both computers are often in use and sometimes there is even a line of 2 or 3 people. The line might not get so long if it didn’t take 20 minutes to merely sign into email, never mind actually read or send an email. I always feel bad that most of the time the customers pay for is them waiting for the internet to work and not actually using it.  

One of our most popular services is photocopying. We make lots of photocopies. As I mentioned there are two copiers, one for color and one black and white (and now 4! But the 2 new are redundant as they offer the same services and problems as the old). The color is very slow and the ink is expensive, so we can’t make more than a few copies. The black and white is big and can make lots of copies, but can only be operated when the generator is on. Thus, we can only make lots of copies in the morning. So when someone comes in asking for 5 copies of a 200 page book at 4 in the afternoon, we have to say, “sorry, come back tomorrow between 10 and noon.” Or if the copier is out of toner and we haven’t figured out how to use the other one, we have to say, “Sorry, come back in several months when we can get toner from Kampala.”

The last major service is my specialty: typing. I’m a lightning fast typer and can do pages and pages in a single day. This is why I went to college and spent hours hammering away at the keyboard. The first few weeks I was here I typed 3 English reports (those were easy) plus a bunch of different things in French (not so easy). I typed for hours each day, until my fingers were sore. I hope no one ever thinks that working with computers doesn’t involve hard labor; it was certainly hard labor for my fingers!

Some of our smaller services include scanning pictures or documents and emailing, charging telephones, printing documents, and searching the internet. The other day I attempted to search for information on Congolese contract law. Searching in French on a subject that would be difficult to understand in English…that went well.

When explaining the Cyber it is very important to mention the difficulties of power. Computers need electricity. So do printers and copiers. Electricity is therefore essential to running a Cyber. Electricity is a bit of a problem in Africa. For 2 hours in the morning we have generator power, but we operate for another 4 hours each day without the generator. That’s where the sun comes in handy. There’s a lovely solar panel on the Cyber roof powering all our electronics when the generator isn’t on. However, the sun is unable to power more than 2 laptops and 1 small printer at a time, which means we are constantly taking turns running down the battery for the different laptops. And you can imagine what happens when there isn’t any sun for several days. 

As it happens, Cyber is a bit of a misnomer. Now you can see a better name is “Place where there are computers and related equipment that sometimes works.” But I’m not sure that would bring in customers. At lease with the name Cyber we can bring in customers, even if we have to turn them away when they want something that doesn’t work at the moment.  

I think with all this computer experience I might just try to get a job at Geek Squad when I return home!

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