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Page last updated at 14:28 GMT, Friday, 7 January 2011

Zambia pushes towards connected future

By Dan Simmons
BBC Click

People on computers in a Zambian internet cafe
The internet has opened up worldwide communication for Zambian people

Africa may not be the first place you think of when talking about the digital revolution but many Zambian villages are looking to change all that.

The village of Macha is a long way from anywhere, the nearest town is almost 50 miles away.

But for the past few years it has harboured a surprising dream - to pioneer the spread of the internet to the 80% of Zambians who don't live in cities.

And this is good news for Zambians like Fred Mweetwa who has lived and worked on his family's farm since he was born.

One of his cattle was ill and the vet was hundreds of miles away. While the village has had a mobile signal for a couple of years, there is now another way.

"With Skype I just contacted [a vet]. He was able to respond within a few minutes and I was able to give my animal the right drug," he says.

Every chief in Zambia wants [the internet]
Chief Chikanta

"After seeing that it is doable, even with other farmers we are now hoping to organise a group which will be connected to Skype and the veterinary offices in [the local town of] Mazabuka."

And in the past year, Mr Mweetwa has got the local radio station back up and running - giving the locals something local to listen to.

Technology showcase

It is a chance to preserve African culture. Local bands use the studios to record songs that are then uploaded to the web to share.

So how did Macha become Zambia's technology showcase?

A Christian mission set up here a long time ago provided support. A malaria research centre followed and, in 2003, a satellite data connection was installed.

But what has made the difference is the way that the link has been shared - showing ordinary Zambians how the internet can help them.

The signal is bounced to the hospital where prescriptions can now be ordered online, the schools have it for studying and so does the nursing training college.

With new treatments and practices developing every year, the internet is a much more useful tool than the library.

Zambian women walking past a satellite dish
Satellite access to the internet is more expensive than many other methods

And it is not just the institutions that are connected. The water tower is the village's highest point and is used to relay a signal across wifi hotspots then connected up to create a network.

There is now wifi in the restaurant, across many homes and at the cybercafé.

A teacher training college has been set up to focus on computing and children from the age of four are given weekly lessons - starting from scratch.

But there is another lesson being taught - that nothing in life is free. When the generous foreign donors leave, this village wants to be able to pay for itself.

'Successful project'

Six months ago a voucher system began. While some have stopped logging on altogether, those who have seen the benefits pay $30 (£19) a month or buy scratch cards for about $2 (£1.30) per hour. Everyone needs a voucher - even the training college.

The 500KB satellite connection costs $1,000 (£648) a month to run.

And it has not been without its technical glitches - the mesh network had to be reconfigured so the system could be policed. But one expert believes charging is crucial for success.

"It is possibly the most successful project I have come across during my research over the past few years," says Ugo Vallauri, of Computer Aid International.

"Everywhere I visited across Africa, I noticed that the moment the donor funding at the base of most of these projects was running out, the projects would be dead the day after.

Fred Mweetwa on his farm
Fred Mweetwa can now use Skype to contact the people he needs to talk to

"It is simply impossible to come up to such high costs for one single community unless, as is happening here in Macha, things are introduced in a slow but steady way - little by little the costs are shared across the community."

And since the internet's arrival, things are certainly different.

From the way the village makes bricks, to planting Jatropha - a bio-fuel crop - that is hoped will power diesel generators for places with no electricity, the arrival of technology has led to significant changes.

Even a Zambian bank is moving into town. When these teller stations open it will save teachers a 100-mile round-trip to collect their wages.

But can this unique experiment be used to connect other outlying villages? Ones that didn't get the head start that Macha did.

Solar-powered internet

Around 50 minutes drive away, across vast areas of farms and scrubland, lies Chikanta.

While there is clean water and food, there is no mains electricity, radio station or local newspaper and if you wanted to make a call you would need to walk a mile to the nearest hill to get a weak signal.

Six months ago, the British Charity Computer Aid installed Zambia's first solar-powered internet hub.

The panels on the roof feed power to the PC inside. To keep power consumption down, the other 10 screens in the hub are virtual desktops - sharing the computing power of the PC and the 128kbps sat link.

Fred Mweetwa on the radio
Radio has brought technology together with the traditions of African music

It is proving popular with the locals who use it to study and to catch up with their favourite football teams.

Chief of the area Chief Chikanta believes it has transformed his village.

"We were unable to reach the world, outside Chikanta, outside the district even outside Zambia," he says.

"Since the internet came we are able now to connect to any part of the world and in Zambia through these machines here.

"We have our teachers who are now able to communicate with agricultural officers. Government officers who come to work here will be reporting directly from here to district headquarters which we were not able to do before.

"Every chief in Zambia wants this."

The chief wants a network to cover the local clinic, schools and shops and while access is still free, it is all smiles.

But at some point, users will have to pay for the $800 (£518) a month satellite link. That is almost three cows - the same as the dowry a husband pays for his wife on their wedding day.

It is hoped the Macha blueprint that has already been rolled out to seven villages will help connect hundreds more.

But whether this will work for the rest of the country will depend on whether ordinary Zambians think the web is worth it.



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