My first experience of a refurbished computer was as an undergraduate student during a one-year study break. That old laptop completely influenced my life on campus, and later led me to change my career from biology teacher to ICT development officer, now with 13 years’ experience. Many other students like me would never have been able to afford a new PC. But simply placing a refurbished computer into their hands offers them an otherwise unimaginable opportunity. It really can be a life-changing experience.
This is especially true for women and girls in many African societies who are often excluded from higher education and postgraduate studies. The recent introduction of global e-learning programmes is one way to improve their access to technology, and can also be extended to those living in rural communities. Kenyatta University, for example, placed more than 1,500 refurbished PCs in eight rural training centres as part of their open learning programme. This has provided women heads of household, adult learners and out-of-school youth the opportunity to participate in online vocational training which in turn will eventually lead to greater gender equality and social inclusion.
Refurbished computers can also have an impact at a distance, even in agriculture. In Africa, farming is the backbone of many societies. But the majority of farms are small in scale and located in rural and semi-arid areas. For these communities, timely and reliable weather information can help them decide on the best type of crop to grow, planting and harvesting times, and can even help in crop and animal disease management, all of which can make a great difference in terms of daily survival. By equipping rural weather stations across Africa with affordable ICT equipment, and improving local skills to collect, analyze and disseminate information, crop yields and livestock productivity can be increased. Such improvements can help to reduce, if not eradicate, extreme poverty and hunger.
These problems are not solved just by placing PCs on the ground. They must be supported by sound partnerships with the recipient institutions and other agencies. Today, my role is to oversee the expanding work of Computer Aid in Africa. Together with our own programme officers and our partners throughout the continent, we supply computers for education, health, meteorology and agriculture. This technology can provide real solutions to improve people’s lives and achieve sustainable development.
The most important issue for us is always quality. All computers are fully tested at Computer Aid’s warehouse in London, and only those that are found to be completely usable are distributed to African institutions. This is not always the case with the many individual initiatives that just collect and ship PCs to Africa, however noble their intentions. Sustainability, therefore, is also extremely important. Our computers are only placed with partners who have the skills to use them, and where technical support is available locally. Without local support, a new computer is effectively useless in the hands of a new user.
The final consideration is affordability. Schools and development projects often have to choose between purchasing a few new computers or many professionally refurbished PCs. Their ultimate decision is dictated by their budget and the numbers required. There are certainly many schemes for introducing computers to Africa, including the $100 laptop project. Will these laptops meet the criteria of quality, sustainability and affordability? Perhaps they will, but whatever option is chosen, the important consideration is that the recipients must be able to make immediate and sustainable use of the equipment. Governments should therefore be encouraged to put into place policies and laws to ensure that end users benefit at all costs, without hindering development. Zero rating taxes on ICT equipment, goods and services is one such step.
Where would I be without computers? I can’t even begin to imagine. What if I had started my career five years earlier? To have access now is better than 10 years from now when it comes to education. Today is better than two seasons too late when talking about food security. And one day can even make a difference when health information is needed as a matter of life and death.
It is said that to eat an elephant you have to cut it into tiny pieces and chew one piece at a time. And so it is with the problem of giving access to computers – there are still millions of children throughout the world without access and there is a long way to go. But I am glad to be playing my part in ‘chewing up’ the great ICT divide in Africa. Every one of the 90,000 PCs placed by Computer Aid so far is a bite towards closing that gap, and getting closer to our target of 10 PCs per 1000 people (currently 9.2 per 1000 in Africa). We have only just started! And it doesn’t have to be only about computers. I own a TV converted from a refurbished PC monitor. Every effort is worth it as we strive towards bridging the digital divide.