Friday, June 22, 2007

A decade of providing computers in Africa

When Tony Roberts and two colleagues came up with the idea of assisting communities in less developed countries with computers, the idea was termed as “crazy”.

Roberts and his colleagues never gave up! They started Computer Aid, a UK based charity that refurbishes computers and ships them to various communities in the world.

This year, the charity celebrates a decade with an aim of surpassing the 100,000 computers’ mark. To date, Computer Aid has provided about 90,000 computers to various organizations, 75 per cent of them in Africa, and the numbers are rising by the day.

“It’s a good way to celebrate our 10th anniversary. Back then, the idea was termed as crazy but today, that question is not open for discussion,” said Roberts.

At first, Computer Aid worked with major international organizations such as Action Aid and Oxfam where they identified community organizations in need of computers and worked together to make it happen.

To make it easier, Roberts says the charity posted an application form on their website where the non governmental organizations were expected to fill and update on the number of computers needed.

“We not only received feedback from our partner organizations but other people surfing stumbled on our site and expressed interest. We received applications from organizations working in sanitation, education, health, among many other fields,” says Roberts.

According to Roberts, the various organizations wanted to introduce computers but lacked the money to buy new computers and even where they had the money to buy, they felt a need to make savings.

Because Computer Aid could not meet the overwhelming demand, Roberts says communities were urged to meet the costs of refurbishing and shipping, which still ends up being cheap.

From humble beginnings, Computer Aid has now provided 75 per cent of the 90,000 computers to African schools, colleges, hospitals, among other community based projects.

Asked about community response, Roberts says communities have mobilized resources and applied for computers, as well as government institutions.

Rwanda government has been at the forefront of embracing computers. Indeed, the Ministry of Health in the central African nation has deployed 500 computers in the national referral hospital, and is pushing digitization to the districts hospitals and local level.

At the just concluded E-learning Africa conference, Roberts met with government ministers from Uganda, Zambia and Madagascar who all expressed interest to continue the partnership.

In Madagascar, the minister requested 26000 computers in five years, which translates to about 6,000 computers annually; a task Roberts says is easy.

“We have hit such numbers before Computer Aid provided 6000 computers in Chile annually during their computerization programme,” said Roberts.

Whilst Roberts insists that the response has been good, he cites other challenges such as training of users and servicing of the computers once deployed.

“Supply is one part, training teachers, providing installations and rolling out the ICT curriculum is another part that requires concerted efforts between governments and communities to work together,” he adds.

The policy framework in African countries has also been problematic but more countries are formulating policies to guide the rolling out and implementation of ICT projects. In Kenya, the government has published the Kenya Communications (amendment) bills and is expected to b e debated in parliament soon.

With donations to over 100 countries, Roberts has helped communities achieve the dream of having computers and making their work easier.

“I could see in my own country (UK) computers benefit schools, hospitals, and in economic and trade. The EU has successfully built its economy on ICT for 15 years and I wanted that to happen in other parts of the world,” says Roberts, with a look of satisfaction on his face.

But for Roberts, the real satisfaction is in hearing the story of James Muthoka, a farmer in Machakos who has used computer generated metrological analysis to determine what crop to plant and make a bumper harvest or the ministry of health official who is able to map the patterns of the malaria carrying mosquitoes and advise residents accordingly.

His satisfaction is also reflected in the faces of students and teachers who are able to access computers in their schools.