Bridging the digital divide

In the beginning, YouBridge was all about bridging the digital divide by providing computers and access to the internet in educational institutions in less developed countries. But the project has evolved and is now all about making a difference in someone’s life with the aim of helping them make a change for the better in other people’s lives.

Michel De Wachter, Kande Kazadi, Jonas De Cooman, Pieter Dewinter, Elise Eeckhout and Barbara Van Speybroeck (lying down)Set up originally by three former Vlerick students, Jonas De Cooman, Pieter Dewinter and Barbara Van Speybroeck, and more recently aided by four of their friends (Kande Kazadi, Elise Eeckhout, Michel De Wachter and Jef Leysen), YouBridge was conceived in 2008, and became an official non-profit organisation in October 2009. The team realised that if it was going to be there for the long term, then it needed solid foundations, good financial planning and a strong board to provide practical advice. A lot of time and energy therefore went into writing the business case, and finding the appropriate team and funds on which to build the platform for future success.

Herman Van Rompuy

The concept needs people, both in Belgium and elsewhere, to give money – donations can be made from as little as 5 euros – for the purchase of new laptops for students in developing countries. The organisation has been pretty successful in this, and to date some 545 laptops have been provided, 11 projects have been created, and the community counts 1,424 members. In March 2010, the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, and his wife Geertrui Windels, who later agreed to become a board member, presented the first laptop to Racheal, a student at the International Health Science University (IHSU) in Uganda.

More than just giving money

The idea is to let both the donor and the student stay in touch, and give more than just money. There’s a possibility to have a real exchange – small or big – and so change lives one conversation at a time. The aim is to enrich and educate, on either professional subjects or anything else that might help make their local dream come true. The ultimate goal is that some of the students will go on to create projects that make a real difference close to home.

There are now 11 projects in a range of countries, including Uganda, Thailand and Nepal. And many conversations and exchanges have been started.

Facebook for change makers

There are clearly plenty of ideas still in the mix, as the team gears up for the future. A new website is under development that will let individuals pick the aspect of the project that is closest to their heart and ideals. There’ll be YouConnect – you can be connected and follow the project of your choice; there’ll be YouShare – it’s here where you’ll be able to interact, share knowledge and stories; and finally there’ll be YouBridge – where you’ll be able to use each other’s skills and talent to make things change for the students.

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Jonas De Cooman, one of the founders and a former Masters of General Management student, originally studied bio-engineering. He came to us to broaden his horizons after his engineering degree. Following a short stint of marketing training at Unilever, he now works as a senior brand manager at Coca-Cola but still felt there was a dimension of life that wasn’t being fulfilled. “My dream was to realise a project that enables you to make a difference in a contemporary and interactive way. YouBridge allows you to see what and to whom you give and to get direct feedback about your donation. In that sense, YouBridge is unique in the world.”

Real change in the lives of those less fortunate - a few stories from Africa illustrate the richness of the concept.

A network of toilets and washrooms in Kampala

Francis Ojok received his laptop from YouBridge just over two years ago. There followed many conversations about his life both at home and at university, and it was these that convinced him that he could do something about the lack of hygiene and toilet facilities in his local community. So after graduation, and with the help and encouragement of his contacts at YouBridge, he built a network of toilets and washrooms in Kampala.

Orphanage in Lusaka

Liliane Nwiza, also from IHSU in Uganda, received her laptop two years ago, and apart from the fact that it is helping her in her studies, she too has been able to realise her dream. Her idea was to establish her own orphanage and, with the help of Professor Hans Crijns, a YouBridge supporter, she has achieved this aim. As head of the Centre for Entrepreneurship, he has helped her secure seed capital, and she now cares for 10 orphans in a house in Lusaka.

AIDS centre in Rwanda

Jared Mokaya is a doctor based in Rwanda. His laptop was put to good use and while it certainly helped him graduate, it also gave him access to many contacts – particularly doctors in other parts of the world. For example, he was able to access the latest and most up-to-date medical information, superseding some of the older textbooks that his university was still using to teach. His dream was to create an AIDS centre that offered both treatment and education about the disease. YouBridge has given him the contacts and the courage to make his project a reality.

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