Camfed And Google To Launch ICT Centres In Ghana

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ICT centres run by women provide hubs of learning in remote rural regions of Ghana

The Campaign for Female Education (Camfed) has teamed up with tech giant Google to establish a network of three ICT centres, which will act as hubs for learning, communication and entrepreneurship in some of the poorest and most remote rural regions of Northern Ghana.

Camfed is an international non-profit organisation dedicated to eradicating poverty in Africa through the education of girls and the empowerment of young women. Camfed has been working in Ghana since 1998 and, with the help of the Ministry of Education, has reached 50,000 children in the Northern Region, as well as training over 2,000 women in economic and life skills.

The new ICT centres will be located at Nyankpala in the Tolon-Kunbungu District, Gushegu in the Gushegu District and Bimbila, district capital of the Nanumba North District. Bimbila will be the first centre to open in late October 2011.

IT role models for women

In choosing the sites, Camfed prioritised locations where support among local education and government officials was strong, as well as considering other factors such as socio-economic demographics, demand for improved ICT services, existing infrastructure and management capacity.

“The centres are run by women,” explained Catherine Boyce (pictured), Camfed’s head of enterprise and leadership, speaking to eWEEK Europe. “That makes them a safer place for all community members to be involved in.” Women in Ghana have few employment opportunities and are under pressure to marry young, so the centre managers are powerful role models, she said.

Camfed works in collaboration with the community leaders, to explain the aim of the projects and find out if they have any concerns or reservations. According to Boyce, support from the local community is vital.

“We hope the community members will be in a position where they’re celebrating the achievements of the young women to get to this stage,” she said. “That’s really the cornerstone of the success of our projects.”

With the support of a grant from Google, Camfed hired a new IT officer in May 2011, as well as six female managers and six female assistants from the Cama alumni network of rural women to staff the ICT centres. Several staff have been trained by Google volunteers in the basics of the computer system, web searches, emailing, Internet chat and online videos, as well as website creation and Google applications.

“The benefits of technology are that it supports them to run their businesses better, it helps them get information back to suppliers and providers and it enables them to build skills to become more employable in the market place,” said Boyce. “But also it’s very empowering to put technology in the hands of young women.”

Based on a model piloted in the Samfya district of northern Zambia, the centres will contain computers, printers, photocopiers and digital cameras, as well as a small library of political fiction and business texts. They will be connected to the Internet and managers will provide regular training sessions for members of the community.

Google has pledged to support the ICT centres for set-up and for the first two years of operation, but Camfed is keen to ensure the centres are sustainable beyond that time. The organisation will therefore invest in the latest technologies to make sure that the project is as cost effective and as environmentally friendly as possible.

Solar power is an option

In the case of the Samfya pilot, the IT system chosen was a hybrid thin-client system based on the Linux Terminal Service Project (LTSP) and Ubuntu open source project, which ran on robust low-powered Aleutia computers. The entire system of 18 terminals, two servers, a projector, printer and satellite modem takes less than 1,500 Watts to run. The lab is powered by the mains electricity, and by a generator when the mains is not working, as the electricity supply in the rural area of Samfya is extremely erratic.

For the Ghana centres, Camfed originally expected to use a solar energy system, which would have put constraints on the power requirements of the equipment it would have used. However, according to Boyce, the ICT centres may end up using mains electricity.

“When we wrote the concept, we were thinking we were going to need solar power. What we’ve learnt is we may not need it because power supply seems to have improved, so it’s not such a barrier,” she said. Camfed considers solar on a case-by-case basis, as it can be complex to install, and may cost more in the short term.

Another charity working to give people in Africa access to ICT and online services is Computer Aid. In March 2010, Computer Aid launched its first solar powered Internet café in Zambia, to provide the community with Internet access through Africa’s largest rural Wi-Fi network. A second was launched in Kenya in October 2010, and several more are planned in sub-Saharan Africa.

The portable cyber cafés are housed in standard 20-foot shipping containers, with built-in solar panels on the roof. They include a fully functional computer set up, comprising a thin client network of eleven monitors running off a standard Pentium 4 PC. Users can also charge their mobile phones.

The six solar panels on the roof provide enough electricity for 12 hours’ use everyday. And the panels will last up to 25 years.

“Computer Aid is committed to removing the barriers to ICT access in developing countries,” said Tony Roberts, CEO of Computer Aid International. “The solar powered Internet café is just one of a number of projects we are working on to provide ICT solutions for rural communities.”

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