Students and teachers at a French-speaking digital campus in the Senegalese capital Dakar follow courses online, download text books which would cost too much to buy and enjoy access to a wealth of Internet data.
Their experience will be important input at a groundbreaking global summit on bridging the digital divide, the World Summit on the Information Society, which opens in Geneva today with the aim of reducing the digital gap between rich and poor.
Abdou Faye, a master's student of human resources in Dakar, says the digital campus facilities here give local students access to books they would otherwise never be able to afford.
"Some works cost [US$120]. I couldn't buy them," he said.
The campus with its 100 computers connected to the Internet was set up at the initiative of the Francophone University Agency (AUF), a worldwide network of more than 450 French-speaking higher education and research establishments.
"By putting lecture courses and research papers on the Internet, the campus has demonstrated that Africa is not a scientific desert and that it can compare with the northern hemisphere countries," said Bonaventure Mve-Ondo, head of the AUF's west African bureau.
Mve-Ondo says the center's vocation is to make knowledge, essentially a product of the northern hemisphere, more accessible to everybody.
The digital campus first went into operation in October 2000 and now between 400 and 500 mainly students use its facilities daily at a cost of only US$4.60 a month, greatly reducing the time they spend on research.
Facilities are provided for the students at the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar. Archivist Aminata Sakho Deme assists with online research.
"I have access to databases," says Aminata, who also handles requests for documents from Europe: "I provide a lot of assistance to students preparing their thesis, and also to professors preparing for congresses."
Mve-Ondo says the digital campus also serves as an "enterprise incubator" for Senegalese graduates provided with technical facilities for a 10-month period.
"Last year young graduates set up a service company here," said Thomas Noel, regional technical coordinator: "There were six to begin with. Now they're out of the incubator and there are 30 of them."
The digital campus also helps university staff in obtaining teaching materials.
Linguistics professor Moussa Daff has used the Internet to find material for his lectures.
"Without the the Internet, I would have to go to Europe to buy books," he said: "Now I can give my students Web-bibliographies."
But above all he considers the Internet a fantastic means of communication, enabling him to talk to other academics and get his own research papers more widely known via his online review Sudlangue.
Five other west African cities, Abidjan in Ivory Coast, Bamako in Mali, Cotonou in Benin, Ouagadougou in Burkina-Faso and Niamey in Niger, have followed Dakar's example and set up digital campuses equipped with between 25 and 70 terminals.
Four other more modest information centers with 10 to 15 terminals have been set up at Lome in Togo, Conakry in Guinea and Nouakchott in Mauritania, and in a further Senegalese town, Saint-Louis.
Cooperative networking takes places regularly between the various centers.
"Thanks to an online advertisement recently, researchers in five countries of the region realized they were working on the same project and and set up contacts with each other," Noel said.