UK Tech Experts Help Tackle African Digital Divide

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Mesh networking is one of the tools being used to help improve internet access in some African countries

Despite the admission this week that around a third of European citizens have never used the internet – it’s safe to assume that at least some of those concerned have avoided the web by choice. But two projects announced this week could help the large number of Africans who don’t have a choice when it comes to accessing the net.

A scheme backed by the NHS and the Department For International Development, launched this week in Kenya is designed to create thousands of internet-based learning centers across the country. The first pilot in the Pasha Centre scheme was opened in Kangundo, with five other centres planned to open in locations around the country in the near future, according to Kenya’s ICT Board which is managing the scheme.

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“This is a modest yet important milestone toward implementing the national Pasha Centres that will be sustainable and thrive on the use and development of good -quality content, services and training. The Pilot Pasha Centres are critical to enable valuable field research and testing, incorporating community inputs,” said Dr. Bitange Ndemo Kenya’s permanent secretary for the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

Dr. Ndemo also made reference to plans to provide better internet connectivity for Kenya via new undersea cables. “The opening of the Kangundo PPC is timely as it coincides with the connectivity landfall of multiple undersea cable initiatives enabling the build-out of broadband infrastructure for Africa,” he said.

However two days after the opening ceremony in Kenya, a fault with an undersea cable in West Africa cut off much of the area from internet access according to reports but it is not believed to have affected Kenya.

The Pasha Centres, (pasha means “to inform’ in Swahili) are also being backed by internet infrastructure specialist Cisco, as well as local mobile provider Telkom Kenya, and other system integrators including South Africa’s Learnthings.

“Governments around the world understand the close correlation that broadband adoption has with increased productivity and better standard of living for their people,” said Steve Du Mont, vice president Cisco IBSG.

“Our experience within Cisco IBSG has proven that broadband access for the masses, who would benefit the most but can least afford it, can be achieved by orchestrating the infrastructure investment, the development of shared computing centers such as the pasha centers, and by developing smart locally relevant ICT services.

According to UN figures, there are more internet users in France than the whole of the 50 countries on the African continent combined.

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In another project announced this week, the University of Bournemouth has donated around 500 used PCs to a project in Zambia designed to create the largest rural mesh network in Africa. The machines were donated via UK IT charity Computer Aid which takes computers from British businesses, refurbishes them, and distributes them to schools and other deserving recipients in emerging economies.

“ We have thousands of PCs used by students and staff, and as part of every equipment refreshment cycle we want to make sure that working equipment doesn’t end up on the scrap heap,” said Maurice Downing, head of IT Service Delivery at Bournemouth University.

“The majority of schools and universities use the summer months to upgrade their IT systems and I urge them to consider donating the working equipment they are replacing to Computer Aid so school children and communities across Africa and South America can benefit from access to IT equipment.”

According to Computer Aid, LinkNet is a Zambian cooperative organisation which provides communications systems to disadvantaged communities. An additional 400 Wi-Fi routers were donated by Computer Aid to help extend the LinkNet mesh network, which provides internet connectivity to the hospital, malaria research institute, nurses’ training centre, schools and homes, the charity said. “Farmers are using the internet to research the most suitable crops for the local climate and soil and successfully diversify their crops and increase income, nurses and doctors are studying online to increase their knowledge, and school children are receiving enhanced education at the local Macha Girls High School,” Computer Aid said in a statement.

Mesh networks are usually created from so-called peer to peer connections, usually wirelessly, between individual PCs or routers to create a loose collection of access points for collaboration. The technique is key to the One Laptop Per Child Scheme which allows schoolchildren to find and connect to peers in their local area using the machines inbuilt wireless capability.

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Commenting on the need for IT in developing counties, Computer Aid chief executive Tony Roberts (pictured) said: “We desperately need to provide the least developed countries with modern information technologies that offer a genuine opportunity to break out of the poverty trap. Donating equipment for re-use is free, easy and straightforward, while universities, schools and colleges can guarantee compliance with e-waste legislation.”

To donate PCs to Computer Aid go to Computer Aid International.


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