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Last Updated: Friday, 15 July 2005, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
New life in Africa for old PCs
Dan Simmons
By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click Online

Computers donated from the developed world are both fuelling and feeding an appetite for computers in Africa where a new machine could cost more than a year's wages.

Masai pupil
Thousands of African children are learning computer skills

The Masai Mara seems like the middle of nowhere; great expanses of land spread out in all directions.

The Masai are famous the world over for their exuberant dancing, but now you are just as likely to find them sat in front of a PC monitor.

Five months ago Kilgoris Secondary School was one of the first within 100km to get computers.

For the Masai schoolchildren that was the first time they ever used a PC.

This equipment is simply too expensive for most school budgets, and while a Kenyan minister officially opened this computer lab, his government did not provide the computers.

The story of how thousands of Africans are learning technology skills starts at a lock-up warehouse in North London.

It is the home of Computer Aid International, which gives old PCs a new life in developing nations.

The man behind the project receives more than 2,000 computers a month, many of which might otherwise have been thrown away.

We've reached the point where we've got more computers than we have organisations to distribute them to.
Tony Roberts, head of Computer Aid International

"We get donations of literally hundreds of computers at a time from universities, large corporations, right the way through to individual donations of a single machine that someone's brought from their home," said Tony Roberts, head of Computer Aid International.

High spec

"All of those computers are extensively tested, cleaned and professionally refurbished here in the workshop.

"We select only the highest specification machines that we know are going to be working for another three or four years, and those are the machines that we provide to organisations overseas.

"We've reached the point where we've got more computers than we have organisations to distribute them to, so our priority is to identify new organisations in developing countries that can receive and distribute high volumes of computers.

Computer warehouse
Most donated computers are given to educational establishments
"But importantly, alongside that they need to be providing training and technical support, to make sure every computer that we send is made productive use of."

At any one time up to 1,000 computers in the Computer Aid warehouse have been refurbished and are ready to go.

Many go to Latin America and Eastern Europe, but the vast majority - eight out of 10 - are sent to Africa.

Since Computer Aid started, more than 40,000 second-hand computers have been sent to African nations.

One of Africa's two main distribution centres is in Nairobi. Here, they are checked over again and operating systems are installed.

African charities then take on a supervisory role, promising to maintain the PCs and teach others how to use them.

Many end up in outlying areas like Kilgoris in Kenya, thanks to a special school charity.

'Big achievement'

"When schools receive computers I wish you could be there to see," said Tom Musili, from Computers For Schools Kenya.

"The students are very happy and even the community comes to witness. It's a big achievement for a school, and if it's a school in one area you might find a migration of students from other schools without computers.

"It's easier to get a job with knowledge of computers"
Kilgoris Secondary School pupil Elizabeth Momanyi

"So it has been received with very high enthusiasm."

After-school computer lessons and clubs, which use the newly arrived PCs, are proving popular.

"The computers really have improved the education technology because we no longer write in class, we come and put our notes into computers," said Sammy Okombe, a pupil at Kilgoris Secondary School.

"It has reduced the time in class that is consumed with writing."

Fellow pupil Elizabeth Momanyi said: "In terms of employment it has also improved a lot. After you finish High School it's easier to get a job with knowledge of computers."

Tight security

On the outskirts of the Nairobi lies Kibera, Africa's biggest slum that is home to 800,000 people.

One in three Nairobi residents lives in Kibera

Some families go without food here to get their children into one of a handful of schools.

It is not safe to house computers on the school site, so each Saturday a class leaves to walk to a security-patrolled classroom.

On the way it is clear that even in the poorest areas people want to learn these skills.

Adverts for computer courses are dotted around Nairobi, and in the slums too.

The donated computers, which might well have been thrown away back in England, remain in the wrapping in which they were delivered, treated like the precious commodities they have now become.

Pupils learn office software, such as Microsoft Word and Excel.

At Nairobi's YMCA anyone can enrol for cut-price lessons on these imported second-hand computers.

It is one of the few places where the computers have an internet connection.

After four months of visiting the YMCA, Josephine Anyango got a job teaching others the skills she had learnt. She also found a little sideline too.

"I've made letterheads, prospectuses, business cards, wedding cards," she said.

Despite the high adult literacy rate in Kenya, unemployment here is high, so after the sacrifices have been made to get through school, competition for jobs is fierce.

It has left many believing they can get a vital edge by pinning their hopes on these new skills.

With many African governments unable to provide the technology their countries need, it is often left to charities to bring technology to the people.

It is a piecemeal approach, but for the lucky few it is a valuable insight into Africa's future.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

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