Bringing Tech to Liberia: Buying Guide

As I said in my previous post, this post is really for future Peace Corps Liberia volunteers, but technically inclined people might also be interested to know what sort of gear I carried here. Backpackers, survivalists, and Burners might find some of these tips of use as well, since we all share common environmental conditions 🙂

And now, my tech buying gude for Peace Corps Liberia! (Alternate title: “How Kyle cleaned out his entire bank account before going to Africa”)

Smart Phones

A smart phone is probably the most universally useful piece of equipment you could bring to Liberia. You can get on the internet with it, check your email, take pictures, write blog posts… the list goes on. It can do most things a computer can, but has better battery life and is easier to charge.

I brought two old Droid 3’s that a friend gave to me. (Thanks again, Andrew!) It pays to ask around, since many people have old but good phones gathering dust on their shelves. You don’t have to bring two phones, but I really like having a backup because I use this phone for everything. (edit 12/29/13: My first phone just stopped responding to touch screen input, so it’s now useless… good thing I have another).

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This phone has a slide-out keyboard, which has been super nice because I do all my blogging on it. I also brought an external keyboard to use with my phone, but I’ve gotten so good with my thumbs it hasn’t been necessary.

I only use my smart phone inside my house. I use a cheap phone I got in country for all my regular calls. Using a smart phone outside makes me feel uncomfortable, because I feel like I’m giving off a “money” vibe, and become a target for thieves.

A lot of people find that the internet here is the most reliable on their phone, rather than using an internet stick on their computer. I haven’t tried an Internet stick, so I can’t say (I always use my phone). When I need internet on my computer or kindle, I turn my phone into a wifi hotspot. (A handy feature I’d suggest looking for in your phone).

You’ll need an unlocked phone to get on the internet here. An “unlocked” phone is one that can operate on any carrier (in America the major carriers are ATT, Verizon, etc., while in Liberia it’s Cellcom and Lonestar). It is best to get your phone unlocked while you are still in the states. It is sometimes possible here, but can be especially hard to do here depending on your phone. If you are unsure if your phone is unlocked, call your carrier (ATT, Verizon, etc.) and ask them. Sometimes your carrier will unlock your phone for you, othertimes you have to resort to other means. (Remind me to post a guide on this)

Don’t confuse “unlocking” with “rooting” or “jailbreaking”. Unlocking means you can run your phone on any carrier, while rooting / jailbreaking means you can run custom applications on your phone. Sometimes, features like wifi-hotspot are only available on your phone if you root it. Rooting is not always necessary in order to have your phone unlocked.

Be sure to download all the apps you think you’ll need before you get here. Some apps, like Viber, only let you download them from the US. There’s ways around this, but it’s a hassle.

Bring at least one extra battery for your phone if you can! You can swap batteries to lengthen usage time, and if a battery fails you’ve got a backup.

Also, check out Opera Mini for your phone… You can have the browser download only low quality images to make your internet faster. Even though I’m on a really slow internet, it zips in Opera!

Summary:
– Bring a smart phone to Liberia
– Make sure it’s unlocked
– Wifi hotspot ability is a plus
– Download all the apps you need before you get here
– Bring an extra battery
– Check out Opera Mini

Laptops

Having a laptop is very useful here. You won’t use it every day, but occationally you have to type up reports for Peace Corps, create tests for your classes, or update/sync your phone/ipod/etc. You can get by without it, but it’s easier just to have.

I don’t have any suggestions regarding brand of laptop, etc, but I would suggest something small, cheap, with a long battery life.

My netbook, a Eee PC 1015PEM has served me well.

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As I said before, be sure to get insurance! I’ve already submitted a claim for my netbook, because the usb controller / motherboard just died.

Bring at least one extra AC adapter for your computer. In hindsight, rather than getting the AC adapter specifically made for my machine, I wish I got a universal one (something like this one). That way, when your computer dies and you get sent a new one you don’t have to get a new backup charger as well. Also, it means can charge other people’s machines when their charger fails and be their best friend.

Bring at least one extra battery for your computer. It can be a really big hassle to charge your laptop, so keeping two batteries charged is really nice. Also it means if one fails, you’ve got a backup on hand.

Bring an extra keyboard and mouse. Builtin keyboards and trackpads fail here.

If you run Windows, be sure you have some form of antivirus. (Here’s a free one). If you plug a usb drive into a Liberian machine (to print a picture at a photo shop, etc.), it WILL get infected. Please practice safe computing!

And as I said before, have good backup system for all your personal data. Save a snapshot of all your data onto an external hard drive and leave it at home with a trusted friend or family member. Also archive it in the cloud with a service like Dropbox.

And when you’re in country, don’t just use one type of media to make backups, but backup across different types of media like your computer, portable hard drive, and usb sticks.

Summary:
– Bring a laptop to Liberia
– Get something small, cheap, and with long battery life
– Get insurance!
– Bring an extra universal AC adapter
– Bring an extra battery
– Bring an extra keyboard and mouse
– Install antivirus
– Make backups!

Tablets

I didn’t bring a tablet to Africa, but I saw some other volunteers with them. The reason I didn’t take one is because everything I’d want to do on a tablet I can already do on my phone, except my phone takes less power to charge (which is important for my solar system).

Another reason I didn’t take a tablet is that I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get internet on it. Some tablets have 3G capability, but I haven’t heard anyone’s experience using that here. Someone should try this! If that doesn’t work (or you don’t have a 3G tablet) you’re stuck without internet unless you can find a wifi hotspot (which you probably won’t have at site). Yeah, you could make a wifi hotspot with your phone, but then you’d might as well just use your phone in the first place.

Cameras

In a camera, you want something that:
– has a small profile, easy to get in and out of a pocket
– fast focus, for quickly shooting
– good low light performance
– usb chargable (or you’ll need yet another proprietary AC adapter)

Expecting the worst conditions here, I got the water-proof and shock-proof Olympus TG-2.

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It takes beautiful pictures, and it’s nice that its water/shock proof, but has two big-ish problems:

1) It’s too big, making it hard to take pictures without being obvious
2) It has no lens protection. I almost scratched up my lens when I put it in the same pocket as my keys

Other than that, it’s been great. Although, if I was going to do it again, I would get a non-rugged camera with lens protection. Since it’s covered by insurance, you don’t really have to worry about it breaking (other than the hassle of replacing it).

I’d also advise getting some extra download/charging cables, since you’re going to have a hard time finding proprietary cables here. And don’t forget to backup those pictures!

Portable Speakers

Portable speakers are wonderful to bring for music, movies, etc. I would advise NOT getting these squishy type:

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Yes, I know they’re cheap and compactable (and the vacuum action gives them a bass boost). But really, they break easily and don’t sound all that good (compared to your other options).

What you really want is one (or two!) of these JBL micros:

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These guys are well-built and sound really good – they can fill a small room, especially if you string two together. There’s even a wireless version you can beam music to via bluetooth.

For my use, the micros are fine. But the king of all the speakers is the JBL charge. If you’re serious about your music, get this thing. It’s LOUD.

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With this, you can host your own dance parties outside. Seriously, go to the store and listen to one. They’re phenominal. Not only that, but it’s also a giant battery that can charge all your USB devices.

Radio

Sometimes people ask if you should bring a survival radio like this:

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My parents got me one from Amazon, and they’re pretty cool – you can charge it with a crank, with imbedded solar panel, or over USB, and it’s got a flashlight built in. Unfortunately, as mentioned in the Amazon comments, they do break pretty easily. The “volume up” button on mine is getting more and more flakey.

But you really don’t need one. You can buy radios here cheaply in country, and many phones can be used as radios as well. (Both my country phone and smart phone can do this).

So yeah, these radios are fun little toys, but totally not needed here. (But who knows, if I get into a survival situation I might end up eating those words…)

USB batteries

I highly recommend bringing at least one usb backup battery (I brought three). This way, you don’t have to flash your expensive phone or camera at a sketchy charge station. It also allows you to charge your phone / camera / whatever in an emergency.

Since I’m a fan of multi-use things, I got some with flashlights built in.

They’ve been great! I haven’t used the flashlight all that much, since I’ve been using a headlamp. But with my AAA batteries running low, I might fix a sling to mount one of these on my head…

Travel Surge Protector

My fellow LR4 David uses one of these and swears by it.

You can hand this thing to the charge station along with your devices to protect them from surges. And having a few extra outlets can be super handy during training when the plugs are packed.

Memory

As I said earlier, bring as much extra memory media as you can. SD cards, usb sticks, and external hard drives are super expensive here. Bring as much as you can.

I also got a carrying case for my SD cards, which is nice.

I’ve also just recently ordered a USB SD card reader. This way, I can read my SD cards on computers without card readers (like the ones in the Peace Corps Office)

A Tech Travel Bag

You also might consider getting a little carrying case for holding and traveling with all your gadgets. I got an AmazonBasics one.

This is what it looks like all filled up:

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On the left there is:
– my smart phone
– a usb charger and cable
– a usb flashlight/battery

On the right in those compartments is:
– my JBL speaker
– another usb charger (with an adapter for my nokia country phone)
– extra cellphone battery
– usb memory stick
– earbud headphones
– an extra usb micro cable
– my camera’s proprietary charging cable.

A Solar System

I was hoping you’d ask! Check out this post!

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3 Responses to Bringing Tech to Liberia: Buying Guide

  1. Sarah Novack says:

    I just got my invitation for PC. I too will be teaching math in Liberia. This has been very helpful!

  2. Rebecca says:

    Hey Kyle, I will be coming to Liberia with LR-5 and have been reading your posts diligently, but the more I read the more overwhelmed I get! Thank you for all of the info, it has been super helpful. I was wondering what you do for music? You mentioned bring the speakers but where do you store your music?

    • khusmann says:

      haha don’t worry, even if you brought nothing to Liberia you’d be alright. All the stuff I’m talking about is fluff 🙂 I put my music on an SD card and I listen to it on my country phone or smart phone. Anything works, really.

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