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Last Updated: Monday, 15 March, 2004, 06:13 GMT
Bridging the global computer divide
By Guy Robarts
BBC News Online business reporter

One-and-a-half million PCs end up on landfill sites every year
Where do computers go to die? Empty bottles and newspapers have their place, tossed into big bright bags, destined for a new recycled life.

But what about the office PC?

Its working life can be even shorter than the winner of a reality TV singing contest.

After about three years plugs are pulled out from crumb-filled keyboards and computer stacks and they disappear in a puff of megabytes.

Once a state-of-the-art Pentium princess, now a relic before its time, your PC is then unceremoniously dumped in favour of a faster, sexier model.

Next thing you know to your faithful but redundant old Dell is left to rot with a pile of computer mice and old mobile phones, leaking lead and other hazardous waste into landfill sites.

E-Waste

Discarded computers and phones mean more environmental headaches. Namely, the growing problem of E-Waste.

Around 1.5m PCs end up on landfill sites across the UK every year - that's roughly 125,000 tonnes of IT equipment.

Computer teacher
Most children in developing nations have never touched a computer

These are nearly always perfectly functioning, user friendly, well kept machines.

But with technology racing ever faster, the next best thing can become last year's fashion within the bat of an eyelid or the click of a mouse.

Yet schools and small businesses in poorer countries are crying out for them.

One charity, Digital Links, is making use of these wasted resources by rescuing unwanted PCs and transporting them to countries desperately in need of high-tech help but equally desperately short of cash.

Digital Links International has provided more than 3,000 computers at low-cost to 12 countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Senegal, Gambia, Tanzania and Armenia.

In many of these developing countries over 95% of children leave school without ever having touched a computer.

New lease of life

Digital Links takes used Pentium computers from companies and cleans them up, wiping out hard drives to Ministry of Defence standards ready to be shipped in containers to whichever country needs them.

The donating company is freed from the worry of sensitive data and software getting into the wrong hands and bypasses the costs of recycling and storage.

The hardware is the easiest part. The expertise, the maintenance, training teachers and technicians in schools is the tough part
David Sogan, chief executive Digital Links

The refurbished computer provides "90% of the functionality of new computer equipment for as little as 10% of the cost", Digital Links claims.

Buying a computer is the easy part, says founder David Sogan. The more expensive part is installing it, networking it and keeping it running properly.

But the effect of putting an internet enabled computer into a classroom where there are no textbooks and where even access to TV or newspapers is limited is "quite simply transformational".

High-tech missionary

The impact of the internet on local economies is easy to imagine and full back up support is on hand.

Computer students
Deprived youngsters are "transformed" by computer access

Aside from procurement and delivery, 'aftercare' is provided with qualified IT volunteers sent out like internet missionaries to help schools, hospitals and small firms set up their computer systems.

Donating companies, which currently include Barclays, Reuters, Bupa and Centrica, can even keep track on where their equipment ends up, whether it be a school, university, charity, community group or small enterprise.

And rather than shifting a potential environmental hazard to another country, Digital Links plans to develop systems for the safe disposal of toxic waste for the computers it exports.

Its first recycling programme begins early next year in Kenya.

Local rivalry

But do local computer suppliers in poorer countries feel threatened by this foreign influx?

There is a often flourishing second hand computer market locally, Mr Sogan admitted, but without the technical support to keep systems running.

"But we don't just supply computers we try to set up systems to deploy them into," he told BBC News Online.

In many countries it's not a question of computers, it's actually a question of pens and paper and getting the kids into school
ActionAid

"The hardware is the easiest part. The expertise, the maintenance, training teachers and technicians in schools is the tough part.

"It's easy to get a PC on your desk, but getting the thing running is when things can get tricky."

Back to basics

However, many rural areas in developing countries do not have electricity to light a room let alone get a computer up and running.

"In many countries it's not a question of computers, it's actually a question of pens and paper and getting the kids into school," said a spokeswoman for overseas charity group ActionAid told BBC News Online.

Computer students
Low cost computers are distributed to schools and even churches

"If you go to a school in a rural area, way out in the bush, you're not going to be hooked up to electricity."

ActionAid said the technical revolution could not be ignored, but should go done hand in hand with making sure the basics, such as books, paper and pens are provided too.

However, the benefits of internet access speak for themselves, as David Sogan recounts:

"On a trip I made to the Gambia last year I was amazed to see on of the roadside carpenters was doing a roaring trade making a range of contemporary Swedish style furniture," he said.

"When I asked him where he got the idea, you've guessed it, he told me he'd seen it on the Ikea website."


SEE ALSO:
Computers help land mine victims
05 Mar 04  |  Leicestershire
Growing gulf between rich and poor
24 Sep 03  |  Business
Will the World Bank's plans work?
21 Sep 03  |  Business


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