‘How recycling your computer helps developing countries’

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A wonderfully inspiring article (‘How recycling your computer helps developing countries‘) in The Independent today:

James Muthoka is a miracle worker. For 27 years he has tended his small farm outside the dusty town of Machakos, a two-hour ride from Nairobi. That anything grows in this parched land is staggering enough, but this year Muthoka has grown four times more maize than his neighbours. How has Muthoka pulled off this agricultural wonder? With nothing more than a computer.

For the past two years the Kenyan Met Office has been computerising its forecasting service. Thanks to a donation of 300 PCs from the UK Met Office, the Kenyan Met Office working with the London-based charity Computer Aid has been able to provide computers for all the country’s 36 weather recording stations as well as its Nairobi headquarters.

Using special software, all these weather stations are now able to process more than 60 years of carefully recorded weather data, and so provide farmers such as James Muthoka with crucial advice as to when the rains are likely to fall and which variety of crops to sow.

Muthoka’s life has been transformed. “My farm provides the only income for me and my family,” says the 43-year-old, who has five children. “The drought is very severe and without the information my crops would have definitely failed.”

The bumper harvest means that Muthoka has been able to sell around 18 bags of maize, while the farmers next door have produced barely enough to feed their families.

And, of course, the better the crop and thus the greater the income, so too the greater the likelihood of an income surplus that will send his kids to school and pay his family’s medical bills. Education and health, in turn, increase the likelihood that his children will enjoy a higher standard of living and a more secure future.

Education and health, then? there’s even more good news:

By providing district hospitals deep in the Kenyan bush with donated PCs, digital cameras and scanners, medical teams have been pioneering a system of tele-medicine, which can vastly improve the healthcare of ordinary Kenyans.

Here’s how it works: because of a lack of trained doctors, many remote hospitals often don’t have the expertise to treat complicated cases. Now, if they have a patient with a particularly nasty injury, they can simply take a picture of itand send it, along with case notes and even X-rays, via the PC to more qualified medical staff in Nairobi.

And where they have access to the internet, the same remote hospitals can access the World Health Organisation’s website for up-to-date treatments for the big killers in Kenya: TB, malaria and HIV/Aids.

And education?

Computer Aid also works to improve the lives of some of Kenya’s most disadvantaged children. Despite being in one of Nairobi’s notorious slums, Our Lady Fatimah school is at the cutting edge of Kenya’s IT revolution. Earlier this year it took delivery of 25 refurbished PCs from Computers For Schools Kenya (CFSK), the charity’s partner in Kenya. “The job market is very competitive and, unless you’ve got basic IT skills, your chances of getting a job or going to college are severely limited,” says IT teacher Kezziah Muthoni. …

Perhaps even more disadvantaged than the pupils of Our Lady Fatimah are the 250 blind and visually impaired pupils at the Salvation Army School for the Blind in Thika, 50 miles east of Nairobi. It is the only secondary school for the blind and visually impaired in Kenya. Thanks to Computer Aid, which has been working with Sightsavers International, the pupils’ education is now greatly improved, as IT teacher Dorothy Ogongo explains. “As well as providing them with vital IT skills, our pupils are able to use the PCs to listen to talking books, which reduces the need for expensive Braille textbooks.”

So “ICT for development” turns out to be a lot more interesting and empowering than simply training up people to sit out long days in offshore call centres. Give farmers the information they need to plan the growing of their crops; give hospitals the infrastructure for providing medical support to rural communities; give children the opportunity to learn new skills … and, Africa, you’re on the way back up.

If you’ve got an old computer that you were planning to dump in a landfill this Christmas when you get your bells-and-whistles new PC, think again: donate that old box to Computer Aid (or any one of a number of similar charities). Is your school, college, or university upgrading its computers? have a word with the IT manager about how the old stock can be put to good use. Tell him there’s someone in Africa who can make good use of it.

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