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Sunday, 18 November, 2001, 18:08 GMT
Bridging the digital divide in Namibia
Windhoek, Nambia: AP
Skyline of Namibia's capital, Windhoek
By Frauke Jensen, the BBC's African Service reporter in Namibia

Namibia is a vast country with a population of less than two million. A major portion of the country's annual budget is being spent on education, but with state coffers stretched to the limit and so much to do in trying to eradicate the imbalances created during the apartheid era that ended 10 years ago, authorities are fighting an uphill battle.

Towns and villages are far apart, many do not have running water and electricity, let alone access to phone lines. There is a general lack of clinics, schools, qualified teachers, libraries and educational materials.

While there are no libraries, these children desperately need information resources

Joris Komen, SchoolNet
Namibia has 1,519 schools of which 924 presently do not have a telephone, electricity or a library.

But a ray of hope has begun shining into this bleak scenario - SchoolNet Namibia. Established in February 2000, the organisation has begun bridging the digital divide by introducing computer technology and internet access to schools in Namibia with the help of a number of local and international stakeholders.

"While there are no libraries, these children desperately need information resources," says Joris Komen, SchoolNet's executive director. "What we are trying to do is to empower the youth with internet to serve as a quick information source.

"SchoolNet has become an internet provider that serves locally relevant content through a proxy server and what is important is that this is a porn and hate free service for children."

Kids on the block

But how will communities that do not even have the money to build a classroom be able to afford a computer?

SchoolNet has begun collecting redundant computer equipment from the public and private sector, locally and internationally, and serves as an outsourcing agency to disadvantaged schools in Namibia. And it has initiated the "Kids on the Block" volunteers.

"That is an unprecedented volunteer operation in Africa," says Mr Komen. "We've created a growing organisation based exclusively on volunteer effort. Nowhere else has such an organisation been used to provide peer to peer training in information technologies."

The programme presently has some 400 youngsters aged between 17 and 24 registered as volunteers - all effectively school leavers, kids off the street that have come in for skills development in exchange for effort.

So far SchoolNet has provided computer equipment and/or internet access to over 120 mostly rural disadvantaged schools and thousands of children have now become internet savvy. Furthermore, a number of the Kids on the Block volunteers have now landed jobs in the IT industry.

Wireless solutions

While this is a great step forward, the problem remains of connecting schools across the country to the internet.

"We are now looking at various wireless communications solutions that can be applied to the different areas of the country in partnership with Telecom Namibia and other commercial internet service providers to make internet available to any school irrespective of its current infrastructure," says Mr Komen.

"Through these partnerships we are able to provide free internet to every single school in Namibia, that's about two million Namibian dollars' worth of internet service costs every year that we are cutting out of the equation."

Schools that are close enough together will use wireless Ethernet bridges to link schools to a central wired node. However, in areas where schools are far apart and the terrain is prohibitive, SchoolNet is exploring the possibility of using mobile phones or ultraphones for sending feed.

SchoolNet is also putting together low-cost models that can be replicated anywhere in Africa. To date there are 23 schoolnet-like organisations in Africa. Only the ones in Namibia, South Africa and Nigeria are home-grown, while the rest are still short-term donor projects.

UK lego shipments

SchoolNet has set itself the target of connecting every school in Namibia to the internet by the end of 2005.

Over and above that, Mr Komen and his team are trying to find other innovative ways of helping to educate Namibia's children.

Currently SchoolNet is working on getting shipments of redundant computers from the UK packaged in lego instead of bubble plastic. The lego is to be collected and donated by British schools.

"Lego is something quite ordinary for any European kid," says Mr Komen. "But in Namibia most pre-primary and primary schools do not have much in terms of toys, so we can have it distributed as an educational tool and medium for kids that otherwise have no real means to develop their lateral thinking processes."

See also:

05 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Namibia
02 Aug 01 | Africa
Timeline: Namibia
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