Page last updated at 16:36 GMT, Friday, 19 September 2008 17:36 UK

New vision for computing in Africa

Joseph, Kibera
Many African societies shun their blind as too much of a burden
Dan Simmons visits a project in Kenya that helps blind and partially sighted users compete in a jobs market that values computer skills.

In the slums of Kibera, an area of Nairobi, it is hard enough getting a job if you live here and are able-bodied.

Joseph is partially blind, but doing well, running his own business selling wool and making intricate trinkets, necklaces, and lamp shades.

But he is the exception in a country which is more likely to shun the visually-impaired than to offer any help.

After shipping more than 120,000 refurbished PCs to the developing world, Computer Aid now wants its kit to be usable by all - so, working alongside local experts, it is testing out adaptive technologies.

Software aid

Loice, a student, is completely blind but she does not need to see the screen because she can touch type faster than most and hear what she is writing thanks to a USB dongle running a commercial program from a company called Dolphin.

The dongle means Loice can carry the software with her, making almost any Windows PC accessible.

Man working with a magnified screen
Zoomtext offers more colour and magnification options
Now, for the first time she can write her essays without anyone's help.

"It makes me proud and it makes me feel independent and also competent. I'm able to compete with other people," she says.

This sort of software has been available for almost a decade, but at a high cost and only in English.

Another program aimed at those with visual disabilities is ZoomText which goes further than the basic accessibility software built in to Microsoft Windows.

This program has more colour and magnification options, making a big difference.

But Computer Aid's ambitious project is not just about teaching people, it is about getting them into jobs.

Expensive technology

Three miles across town at the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation Mary Muthuri compiles her monthly communications report for management.

She believes the help from Computer Aid was crucial to keeping her job after her vision suddenly got worse.

Mary Muthuri
Mary believes Computer Aid helped her keep her job
"No employer would want an employee in their office who can't perform for sure. You are paid for performance, for what you give to the company.

Nobody would keep you in an office where you were not performing. I was getting very frustrated and I think I would have lost my job."

But these technologies come at a high price. Computer Aid can refurbish a used PC for around $60 (39) but the adaptive software can retail for 40 times that amount.

Despite having negotiated some special rates, Tony Roberts, Computer Aid's founder, is looking for a new solution.

"When we began the project the cost per user was around $2,000. Already that's come down to around $200, but it's still way too expensive.

"In order to reach all the blind and visually impaired community we need to get that down below $20.

"We're appealing to open source programmers to come forward and work with us so that we can provide that technology at a cost that all blind and visually impaired users can afford."

So, will the open source community respond? Sourceforge is one of the ways to engage with independent programmers who might knock you up a program and let you own the rights, but usually it costs.

Dapo Ladimeji, who founded the Free Software and Open Source Foundation For Africa, believes the times are changing and charities can no longer necessarily expect programmers to do things just for the thrill.

Dapo Ladimeji, Fossfa
Dapo Ladimeji thinks open source projects need proper funding
"This is not sustainable today, it may have been in the past. The way it works is that open source people are donating their time and their energy, and this is just not a way you can do major projects. You may be able to do one, but it's not sustainable," says Mr Ladimeji.

"However, if many charities and organisations got together and properly funded these developments then you have, in effect, a public highway, everyone can use the technology for free and it spreads," he adds.

Many Africans like Windows, which they see as a sort of gold standard - partly because it is so widely used in the developed world. In the short term at least, it is Windows that will deliver the widest used solution.

Moving with the times

Safaricom, East Africa's biggest company, has its HQ in Nairobi. As well as handling 80% of Kenya's mobile phone business, it has also started to employ visually impaired people who have been trained in Nairobi as part of the Computer Aid project.

With the training that they have been provided and the tools that they have, they are able to perform just like anyone else
Winnie Mbugua, Safaricom

The USB dongles usually let Florence and Lillian play a full role in the call centre. But on the day Click visited Lillian had a problem - the software is not working properly.

We are told it is a bit buggy, and this poses a real problem.

The competition for decent jobs here is so fierce that employees know they must deliver. I could feel Lillian's very real disappointment that she could not be productive.

It is a problem many believe could be solved by an open source solution.

Software that could be adapted on the fly by any programmer would be much easier to integrate into different existing systems. And the rewards when it does work change lives.

"With the training that they have been provided and the tools that they have, they are able to perform just like anyone else," Winnie Mbugua from Safaricom says.

"Our customers are not even able to pick up that they are talking to someone who has a challenge. They give proper service to our customers," she adds.

As Kenya, like many other nations, moves into the knowledge economy their workforce will develop computer skills with the help of many charity programmes.

What Computer Aid is now concerned about is that everyone can be given the chance to move with the times.


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