A problem shared

Crystal Watley

Introducing technology to rural areas can be difficult. But networking and sharing ideas has provided solutions for one village in western Kenya, where a group of women is now learning how to use a computer. The next step is to learn about web 2.0.

The arrival of the internet in the village, in the words of one rural women's group leader, was like ‘bringing the people out of the darkness into blinding light’. In the land of the Bukusu people in western Kenya – where there are no paved roads, no running water, and no electricity – the Voices of Africa project is testing some of the latest technologies.

Located in the tiny village of Lwanda, in Bungoma district, is the Mbambe Rural Resource Management Programme, known simply as Mbambe. In 2005, with the help of several local NGOs, Mbambe purchased a 65 watt solar panel system and a refurbished computer. The idea was to train farmers to use an online integrated pest management tool, the Online Information Services for Non-chemical Pest Management in the Tropics (OISAT). While the Mbambe programme did achieve some of its objectives, and the farmers did learn something, ultimately the technology failed. The solar panels produced too little power, so that the power-hungry computer could only be used for about an hour each day, rendering the project futile. Mbambe programme director Celestine Simiyu therefore had to seek partners outside the village to find technical solutions to the problem of how to power new technologies without access to electricity.
Celestine’s idea was to build two telecentres in the west and south of Bungoma district, each with 10 computers where villagers would be able to access educational resources. He then wrote a funding proposal, which passed through many hands before it reached the desk of Crystal Watley, who was conducting a study on sustainable information and communications technologies (ICTs) applicable to rural Kenya. Crystal was in the process of drafting her own proposal to pilot a host of cutting-edge technologies in a Kenyan village. The two proposals complemented one another perfectly.

In June 2007, Crystal and Celestine met to assess the situation in Lwanda village. Over the next two months, they and Collins Mubendo, a native Bukusu researcher at Moi University in Eldoret, combined their knowledge and decided to focus on the most disadvantaged community members: the women. Through conversations with the women they came to realize the extent of their marginalization. Again and again, they said they felt ignored by the world. NGOs had promised to help but seldom delivered results. The government appeared to care little about their welfare, and researchers frequently came and asked questions without giving anything in return. It was clear that providing an outlet for the women to express themselves would be a necessary component of the project.

Mbambe survey results

The Voices of Africa team recently conducted a survey of 153 women in the village, aged between 15 and 80.

  • 100% believed that education was a key to development and a high priority.
  • 97% responded with a resounding yes when asked if they would use a new technology to access educational resources.
  • 73% chose agriculture as their first learning priority, 47% choose health as the second. Others included family health care, business and income generation.
  • 80% derived their income from agriculture. There was a particular interest in the conversion to sustainable organic agriculture.
  • 64% had heard of a computer. 50% had seen one. 10% had touched one. Of the 18% of respondents who had heard of the internet, 3% had accessed the internet, but only one had opened a web browser; the other 4% had only used email.

The results clearly showed the women’s immense desire for educational resources. Considering the importance of education, the willingness to learn and the areas of interest, it was clear that the proposed programme could have enormous impact on long-term community development.

Using the UN Millennium Development Goals as an outline, the team then began to develop a new plan for the telecentres and the Voices of Africa project began, with several objectives, including reducing child mortality, malnutrition and poverty, and increasing agricultural crop yields in an environmentally sustainable manner. To see what was already being done elsewhere, the team also travelled to Nkonkonjeru, just over the border in Uganda, to investigate was being done elsewhere. There, two ultra-low-power Inveneo computers were installed at a rural community-based organization similar to Mbambe. From this experience the team decided to use one of these computers to begin a pilot project in the village.

Inveneo computing systems have been designed specifically for use in the often difficult conditions found in rural areas. The physical challenges include dust, unreliable electricity supplies, and lack of communication alternatives. Users typically have little experience with ICTs, and make use of the technology in projects where the budgets for equipment and maintenance are usually tight. This ultra-low-power computer runs on less than 20 watts of power at maximum capacity, one-tenth of that necessary for a refurbished desktop computer. Using the open source Xubuntu operating system requires less disk storage space, increasing both the computer’s memory, and operational efficiency.

New tools

The Voices of Africa project team members are spread all over the world. The use Google applications enables us to meet online to discuss progress and where to go next. In addition, the project website now features a number of web 2.0 tools, including a blog and a mySpace page. This has meant that the team has grown from the original three to 20, and new people are joining every day. New tools are being added to the website, making more online networking connections, and adding more content. The website has been easy to build and to maintain, and is constantly revised to make it stronger.

Unfortunately, though, the website cannot yet be used by the women of Mbambe, who are still waiting (rather impatiently) for a modem to arrive. Project funding is still also lacking. In the first year, the costs of installing, equipping and staffing the two telecentres will amount to US$80,000. This includes 20 computers, all solar-powered, a technical adviser to oversee the project, a project manager, a full-time help desk/ IT person, and a security guard. By the second year, it is hoped that the income from user fees will be sufficient to cover all operating costs.

In the meantime, 16 women in the village are already receiving training in how to use the computer. The training programme begins with ‘this is a computer’ and will end with a look at web 2.0 applications. All training is provided free of charge, but after the women have been trained on the computer and internet, they will be charged a fee of 40 Kenyan shillings per hour. This is considerably less than the 60 Ksh charged in Bungoma town, not including travel costs. The profit generated will be used to ensure the financial sustainability of the project. Any additional profits will be reinvested in other community development projects.

Voices of Africa hopes that the Mbambe programme will become a model for other villages by showing how to give women the skills to create their own development process through a variety of educational tools. It is critical to the villagers that they share their lives with the world. This project is about sharing rather than giving technical advice. It is about sharing cultures, experiences, and our humanity. It is our vision to see projects like this all across Africa. Now is the time for true grassroots sustainable community development, African style.

Crystal Watley is a graduate student of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, New Orleans, USA. She and Collins Mubendo, a student researcher at Moi University, are project directors of Voices of Africa.

More information:

Mbambe Rural Resources Management Programme


Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN)


26 October 2007

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