The First African Winner in Google’s Annual Coding Competition Has New Obstacles to Overcome — Like Lack of Internet Access

UPDATED August 20, 2019 08:32 am .

Francis Cordor
August 20, 2019 08:32 am

Each year, Google hosts a worldwide “code-in” contest where young coders ages 13 to 17 from around the world complete a variety of open source coding tasks. These tasks included coding, documentation, outreach or research, quality assurance, and user interface and are performed for open source organizations who have demonstrated strong mentoring skills through their own participation with the Google Summer of Code program.

A Reason to Be Proud: An African from Cameroon Takes the Top Prize

This year’s contest attracted more than 1300 participants from 62 countries. One of the two grand prize winners, Nji Collins Gbah, is a 17-year-old from Bamenda, Cameroon. Gbah has the distinction of being the first African to win this prestigious contest.

This is an amazing accomplishment for any young developer and especially meaningful as Bamenda is but a stone’s throw away from an emerging area of the world known as Silicon Mountain. This area gets its name from the nearby Fako Mountain — and the tech startup culture clustered around Buea.

It’s easy to imagine this young developer honing his computer science skills at one of the local universities and finding meaningful work in Buea, maybe even starting up his own tech business.

A Reason to Hang Our Heads in Sorrow: The Government Shuts Down the Internet

The only problem is, within days of finding out he had won the grand prize of the Google Code-in (a four day trip to Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley), the Cameroon government switched off the Internet in the country’s two English-speaking regions in what is believed to be a crackdown on political protests. Both Bamenda and Silicon Mountain have been virtually disconnected from the rest of the world for several weeks now. The tech startup industry in Buea is reeling — as are the banks, Internet cafes, and other businesses that rely on Internet connectivity.

According to an article by the BBC, Gbah has since traveled to Yaounde to ensure Internet access, further his studies, and stay in touch with Google. He is what is now being called an

“Internet refugee.”

Why is the Internet Cut Off in Parts of Cameroon?

Cameroon shut down the Internet in the only two English-speaking regions of the country, the South-West and the North-West, which have been home to several anti-government protests leading up to the shutdown. The nation’s telecom provider and fiber optic backbone operator, Cameroon Telecommunications, or CAMTEL, happens to be state owned, making pulling the plug a relatively simple matter. All other ISPs and mobile networks serving the area rely on that same backbone to deliver their services, giving them no real say in the matter.

What Does this Mean for the Future of Tech in Cameroon?

Silicon Mountain was a bright spot for both technology and entrepreneurship in Africa just a few months ago. Today, one of the world’s young coding champions has had no choice but to leave his home town in search of basic Internet access. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs and other tech workers from Silicon Mountain have had to do the same. If Internet access is restored in the near term, these digital refugees may eventually return home. But then again, they might not. Morale is low, and some have already expressed a desire to “… just leave the country like my friends and never return again.”

In a time when Africa is struggling to plug the brain drain, here we are giving our brightest techpreneuers yet another reason to leave — not just leave Silicon Mountain or Cameroon itself, but leave the continent.

Gbah’s interests include deep learning, artificial intelligence, and neural networks, and he is working on developing his own model for data compression. It’s hard to imagine making much progress in any of those areas without the Internet, without strong support locally.

No doubt, Nji Gbah’s future is bright. He will make valuable contacts at Google and acquire a wealth of knowledge during his trip to Palo Alto. No matter which continent he establishes his professional roots in, we congratulate him for a job well done as the Google Code-in Champ!

Featured Photo: NJI COLLINS GBAH

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