VC, scientists team up to bring education and Internet to war-torn nation
Stephen Phillips
Silicon Valley Business Journal, October 26, 2001

Craig Johnson's stint in the U.S. Peace Corps left a lasting impression on the Menlo Park venture capitalist, considered one of Silicon Valley's most powerful financiers.

During the 1990s, Mr. Johnson's Venture Law Group helped get Internet portal Yahoo and e-mail service Hotmail off the ground. But while the 54­year-old stoked the Internet revolution, his experiences teaching English in the small East African state of Eritrea more than 30 years ago were never far from his mind.

War-torn, famine-stricken Eritrea is the second-poorest nation in the world, above only the teeming squalor of Bangladesh. But its people are special, Mr. Johnson says. "They are very motivated and bright ... I kept in touch, trying to figure out ways to help."

How he could help was crystallized in 1997 after an encounter with computer consultant and Eritrean Teclu Tesfazghi, who was in Silicon Valley soliciting funds for victims of his country's 30-year war with Ethiopia.

The two conceived a model for Eritrea's economic development that would harness its "human capital" but not be limited by the "dearth of natural resources," recalls Mr. Johnson.

Taking their cue from Bangalore, India, and Taiwan -- two developing regions that have become global centers for software and semiconductors, respectively -- Mr. Johnson and Mr. Tesfazghi set up NetAfrica, a nonprofit company aimed to bring Internet services to Eritrea's 4.3 million people.

"If you can create the core of a software industry in Eritrea, this could be connected to Silicon Valley," explains Mr. Johnson. "Eritrean entrepreneurs in the Bay Area could employ programmers in Asmara (Eritrea's capital) like Indian companies employ people in Bangalore."

In 1998, soon after staging Eritrea's first-ever Internet demonstration, however, Mr. Johnson's ambitious plans were dealt a reality check. War with Ethiopia, which had ended in 1991 with Eritrean rebels defeating Ethiopian forces who had invaded 30 years earlier, erupted again following a border dispute. Thousands were killed before the United Nations brokered peace last December.

While the conflict raged, Mr. Johnson folded NetAfrica into a Fremont nonprofit called the Math/Science Nucleus, an educational and research organization composed of scientists, educators and community members.

The group, which serves as a resource center to assist school districts, teachers, and administrators, had devised an Internet-based math and science curriculum.

The Math/Science Nucleus has been experimenting with electronic textbooks for more than a decade. With the help of pen technology, teachers can pull up lesson material by logging onto a Web site. An infrared pen-based interface and projector allows them to use the computer much as they would a chalkboard. "What they write on screen will be projected onto the wall," says geologist and Math/Science Nucleus president Joyce Blueford.

Many of the villages in Eritrea are without electricity. Ms. Blueford says NetAfrica plans to supply villages with solar panels to power up computers.

Under the umbrella of the Math/Science Nucleus, NetAfrica painstakingly developed online coursework using Eritrea's nine dialects for its 1.5 million schoolchildren.

After peace was declared in Eritrea, the project moved into its deployment phase. Technician David Lundeen, formerly of Fremont, traveled to the country this month to load software onto donated computers at Asmara's teachers college and hook them up to the Internet. Next month, Ms. Blueford will begin training teachers in navigating the technology.

The project keeps alive the ultimate vision of establishing an Eritrean software industry, says Mr. Johnson.

"One of the reasons India has been successful is that it has a pool of educated people," he says.

NetAfrica has so far raised $85,000 of the $135,000 it needs to complete its mission, Ms. Blueford says. Apart from fund-raising events, Mr. Johnson has used his own fortune and professional network, tapping other business moguls for donations -- among them, Silicon Valley Bank Chairman John Dean and Aspect Communications founder Jim Carreker.

Such a goal will take small steps in a country still reeling from war and starvation. Mr. Johnson is undeterred but concedes that it may take 20 years before NetAfrica's benefits are felt.

Sharing his faith in Eritrea is Stanford University law professor, Tom Campbell, who was also a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate last year.

"Of all the countries in Africa that I've visited, Eritrea is the only one where there is no begging," Mr. Campbell says.

Mr. Johnson acknowledges that subsistence may be a more pressing need for Eritrea than learning math and going online. But, recalling a biblical parable, he says he is thinking long term:

"Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime."

STEPHEN PHILLIPS is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.