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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 May, 2003, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
Computers to Africa scheme criticised
Warehouse of computers
Thousands of computers head for Africa each year

The practice of supplying second-hand computers to Africa can prove to be an expensive mistake, according to a UK report.

The UK Centre of International Education has said that Western organisations trying to bridge the "digital divide" are having some unfortunate consequences for teaching.

It says that software compatibility problems are leading to chaos in some classrooms as teachers battle to make the machines work - claims backed up by some organisations in Africa themselves

"It has been a very very costly mistake," Bildad Kagai from the Open Source Foundation for Africa told the BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"The issue is that we did not consider the consequent costs that come with the donation of computers."

Software problems

Mr Kagai added that the main problem was the inconsistency of the software supplied which could often frustrate teaching plans.

"The computers that are donated vary. They come with different applications," he said.

"It's difficult for a teacher to tell where he's going to start teaching computer lessons."

The digital divide is too important not to get bogged down in the debate over software
Garry Hodgkinson, Microsoft

Indeed, teachers in Africa are well aware that not all donations are worthwhile.

"You have maintenance problems, you have to constantly upgrade your systems," Theo d'Souza, of the Dar es Salaam headteacher's conference, told Outlook.

"You might be donated a system in 2003 that might not be very helpful in 2004."

Teacher training

To solve such problems some organisations that supply second-hand computers have begun teacher training schemes.

"We work very closely with beneficiary organisations in Africa," said Sonja Sinanan, operations director for Computer Aid International.

She highlighted the example of the Computer Education Trust in Swaziland, which takes delivery of computers and makes sure the technicians who install them can network and ensures they are used productively.

Computer being recycled
Checking computers before they are sent out is becoming more important

Garry Hodgkinson, Microsoft's Regional Director for Community Affairs for Africa and the Middle East, said his company was also doing everything it could to tackle the problems.

"We've been working with organisations similar to Computer Aid," Mr Hodgkinson said.

"We're currently sitting on a situation where we have commitments from UK companies to provide 25 PCs to every single school in South Africa with electricity over the next three years.

"That's quite a tremendous donation."

Useless dumping

And he insisted that regardless of the supplier, the important thing was to ensure computer access for schools in Africa.

"The digital divide is too important not to get bogged down in the debate over software," Mr Hodgkinson stated.

"One of the deputy generals of teacher training in South Africa went into a classroom and saw a teacher standing on a PC to reach the blackboard.

"That sort of dumping is really useless to anybody."

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