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Interview with Thomas Karyah: A Joomla Story in Liberia

Interview with Thomas Karyah: A Joomla Story in Liberia

The Ebola epidemic, the Liberian government, and connecting with local tech enthusiasts are some of the areas where Thomas Karyah is using Joomla to make an impact in his home country of Liberia.

How have you been involved with Joomla locally where you live?

My involvement with Joomla in Liberia has been very deep. I got to know of Joomla when working with a newspaper as a graphics/layout guy, and the institution needed a website. The site at the time from was not intuitive, and did not meet the expectations of my bosses. 
After a period of trial-and-error messing around with everything I could find online about developing a website for a newspaper, I finally hacked-up a site using Joomla. The site was basic and visually unappealing but it was scalable and extremely functional, which made it easy for my bosses to accept. Since this first encounter, I have pushed for Joomla to be used as the platform of choice for any online project I’m a part of. 
I have conducted lectures at the iLab (Liberia’s only tech hub where ICT enthusiasts meet) on the process and advantages of using Joomla for different kinds of web projects.
Both within and outside of my circle of (tech) friends, I have organized meetups at night to explore and discuss challenges and opportunities mastering Joomla web development, and openly discuss issues people have, as well as latest updates to the core. My aim is to organize a Joomla User Group in Liberia, which is happening one-step-at-a-time. What I have been doing is to identify developers who use Joomla, encourage conversation amongst us, and encourage others to try it. More and more people are now using the CMS here, so that I often lose track.
In my small team of six persons, the conversation on Joomla never stops because we rely on the combined knowledge of the group to deploy projects quickly. The technology space in Liberia is opening up since the arrival of fibre-optic Internet. More institutions are now including development and maintenance of websites in their budgets. As I learned from one of the presentations on the last day of the 2013 Joomla World Conference (Bringing Back the Mullet), Joomla combines both fun and business. The guys here are having so much fun building complicated projects in Joomla that I can safely say we will soon have an active user group here. 

What events and experiences have contributed to your passion for Joomla?

I have been passionate about Joomla since I first encountered the CMS. Because of the countless hours I spent trying to build a functional CMS before discovering Joomla, I’m always eager to know what’s happening with Joomla and what’s coming up next. Unfortunately, I haven’t attended lots of Joomla events yet, but the one I did attend –– JWC Boston 2013 –– really switched me to a higher gear in working with Joomla. 
The Joomla World Conference 2013 was the best tech conference I ever attended. Not because it was on the campus of Harvard University, but because it was structured in a way that there were lots of opportunities for interaction, networking, fellowshipping and tech-chats, in addition to the breakout sessions and keynotes.
I think that people take for granted the little things that matter because of the societies in which they live. Living and working (online) in a country like Liberia leaves one filled with a load of unanswered questions and uncertainties. JWC2013 provided me the chance to gain full understanding of how the CMS works both from a technical perspective and at the level of the community.
The time I spent with Peter and Hans (of The Netherlands), the chat with Andy Miller who shared with me his African roots, the linkup with teams from StackIdeas, Rochen, SiteGround, and guys from all over the globe, was really eye-opening. The presentations/keynotes were educational (especially for a guy like me who runs a small business), but the chance to talk with experienced developers and have any question (about Joomla CMS or web development in general) answered instantly in a conversation can’t be compared to anything I’ve ever experienced.
So upbeat was I about Joomla CMS following the Boston event that when upon my return I delved right into a project I always wanted to do––to build an information portal for the Government of Liberia using Joomla. I forfeited my honeymoon to do this project because I was burning with passion for Joomla and the new knowledge I had acquired. Upon presenting an offline draft of the portal to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf during a special Cabinet Meeting, it was immediately approved for publishing: http://www.micatliberia.com.
Prior to the development of this portal, the Ministry of Information had a website (also built in Joomla) just for news on its activities. Before this, I had the opportunity to express my passion for Joomla when Monrovia hosted the High Level Panel (HLP) Discussion on the UN Post-2015 Millennium Development Goals Challenges which was attended by David Cameron of Britain, Yudhoyono of Indonesia, and our own President. All foreign journalists coming for the conference had to be accredited in real time, which required them filling in an online form that had to be processed by the Ministry of Information and the EPS, the group that handles presidential security.
All of the options offered during the last communication meeting seemed too complicated and time consuming because journalists had to travel ahead of others. Overnight, I built a simple event site for the HLP and added a prominent ‘Call to Action’ button for media accreditation. It worked out-of-the-box like magic during the HLP conference. A journalist from the Guardian UK told me it was the coolest accreditation process she has ever gone through because of the ease of use of the online form on that event site. I quietly said to myself, “THANKS TO JOOMLA”. So, sorry I took down that site few months after the HLP conference. But I felt that the impact of such a small project really justified my passion for Joomla. 

Tell us your story about how a Joomla website has helped the effort to fight the Ebola epidemic.

Oh, this takes me back to a very difficult period––the height of the Ebola health crisis. Well, Joomla web development was one of the very few positive things I could turn my mind to, to forget about what was going on around me in late 2014. 
During the health crisis of 2014 there were several initiatives rapidly implemented to curb the spread of the deadly Ebola Virus disease. The Ebola Community Action Platform (ECAP) run by MercyCorps Liberia was one of such programs. I was contacted after they advertised that the project needed “an intuitive Content Management System for ECAP’s partners to to use for collaboration and communication”, and most of the guys who bidded the offer had flat websites that didn’t meet the expectations of the project team. The long and short of that story is that I took on this ECAP project with specific instructions to build a platform for partners involved in the fight against Ebola under the ECAP umbrella, to use to exchange information and collaborate on resource distribution. 
This www.ecapliberia.org project has since been used by MercyCorps to share awareness information and take stock of ‘who’s doing what?’. With its two-tier system, the site is useful both to those doing community mobilization and awareness, as well as those in the offices making decisions on where resources should be shifted. With the integrated data visualization dashboard, ECAP’s partners knew at all times what was happening in the field. More importantly, ECAP mobilizers in every county could tell the status of the project by logging on the platform using their mobile devices. 
As a result of the success of ECAP, MercyCorps became one of the key players in Liberia, making it the first of the highly hit West African countries to achieve Zero Transmission status.

What organizations and institutions in Liberia are using Joomla?

There are several organizations and institutions using Joomla in Liberia now. It used to be just some NGOs using the CMS for their intranet a few years ago. But nowadays, Joomla projects are popular in every sector––Private, Public, Civil Society and International Non-governmental Organizations.
It will be a mistake on my part to attempt listing all of the sites in Liberia running on Joomla because I really don’t know all of them. There are new sites coming up everyday here because of the decreasing cost of internet access, the affordability of smartphones, and the rising popularity of the Internet in this part of the world.
Here are few of the websites running on Joomla in Liberia:
  • Center for Transparency & Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL) http://www.cental.org
    An Anti-corruption civil society organization that represents Transparency International in Liberia
  • University of Liberia  http://ul.edu.lr
    Liberia’s State owned university. Just recently made the decision to Joomla, hence, the site is not fully developed.
  • Independent Information Commission http://www.iic.gov.lr
    The body that enforces Liberia’s Freedom of Information Law
There are a lot more. If there is need, I will do a full listing of all of the sites in Liberia that are running on Joomla.
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