Africa connected to the Internet via Switzerland
Based in Geneva and working in Uganda,
the association, Uconnect, proposes an ethical and responsible solution for
Internet, a universal tool? Sadly, this is not the case, for access to information and communications technologies (ICTs) remains for the most part the privilege of those in the developed countries. Out of this digital divide - for which the South pay a heavy price – a number of organizations have been born, which fight tirelessly to try to bridge this gap. And so Uconnect, by refurbishing second-hand computer equipment and shipping it to Uganda, brings not only a "responsible solution for recycling", but also allows dozens Ugandan schools to be connected to the Internet and at the same time stimulate various economic projects in a spirit of sustainable development. So explain the co-founder of Uconnect, Daniel Stern, his spokeswoman, Caroline Wieland, and of their "webmaster and systems administrator,” Jed Stern.
The aims of Uconnect could be summed up in three words: education and sustainable development. Daniel Stern explained that, although information technology generally and Internet in particular are obviously tremendous tools for education and development in themselves, they may also stimulate the creation of social initiatives and economic infrastructures. Wishful thinking? "It’s a reality!”, assures Daniel Stern, who, since 1996, spends several months each year in Uganda. "We are selling the recycled computers for $175, a price that is affordable to most schools, and should be considered as a better investment than other purchases meant to enhance a school’s ability to educate. And schools also need to make provision for payment of recurring fees, such as server maintenance and Internet, and in doing so they will have entered the realm of social entrepreneurship. “Do they indeed learn how to do this?! Absolutely! One of the means frequently used by schools is to open their computer labs to the community after school hours: parents and other users pay a modest fee of around half a dollar an hour, and so the villagers can come to take advantage of these technologies! This solution not only reduces a local digital divide [between students and their parents], but also provides an income for schools after they have recovered their original investment in the purchase of computing equipment. In other words, he summarizes, "school staff that had not thought about doing this before will suddenly find that they have created a small business, and are learning the basic principles of management and operations”.
Wieland reminds us, “In Switzerland companies must regularly upgrade their
computer systems in order to stay competitive. And this creates a potential for
ecological problems, because the computing equipment being replaced – though
still in good working condition – represents a hazardous waste for the
environment. By recycling those computers and giving them to the people [in the
developing world] who need them we give the computers a second life”. In answer
to the question, about how do people from rural villages appreciate the value of
the Internet, we say that they must first see it demonstrated. And we believe
that by Uconnect [Schools Project] assisting schools in setting up
[schools-based telecentres] people in rural areas of Uganda will be able to
grasp the benefits that the Internet offers them more quickly. Uconnect
sometimes demonstrate ICTs from a renovated Saurer 2DM ex-Swiss military truck
[installed with a server and twelve workstations’.
Uconnect goes back to 1996 when they brought their first container of [mostly 386] recycled computers to Uganda that were configured to connect to the Internet [running Windows 95]. At the Uconnect [education ministry headquarters] demonstration schools computer lab students and teachers may attend a one-week Network Training Workshop (NTW) during which local volunteers instruct them in networking basics. NTW trainees learn how to install their schools’ computer labs local area networks (LANs) themselves, providing staff and students with a profound sense of ownership and confidence in maintaining and troubleshooting their LAN. The team of a dozen local volunteers also provide training in systems administration. “We require that school staff also successfully complete a [Telecentre Management Training Workshop] before they can take delivery of their schools’ servers”, says Daniel. “We need to know that certain technical conditions have been met”, adds Jed Stern. “Most of the schools receiving computing equipment from Uconnect are in rural areas. There may be problems with reliable electricity or Internet connectivity, and we are always experimenting with new solutions to such problems. These challenges offer opportunities for innovation”, says Jed, who is preparing to depart for Uganda shortly to assist in clearing containers of computers shipped from Geneva in early April.
The Uconnect team appreciate that the success of the schools project owes much to the efforts of its partners. Uganda’s Ministry of Education and Sports is an important partner, providing the project with office space for their training workshops, as are international and local partners, including several Swiss banks, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, MTN Uganda, Advanced Interactive, Teleglobe and MSC. “Furthermore”, adds Jed, “Thanks to sponsorship by several companies, all the software installed on the schools’ servers and workstations is properly licensed, and this sets a good sample to teachers, students, administrators and officials in a country where software piracy is rampant”.
The fruit of these partnerships is that during the last year several hundred computers have been distributed to some sixty primary and secondary schools in Uganda, with the total soon growing to 1400 computers with the arrival of the last shipment. Uconnect is now motivated more than ever and continues to welcome other partnerships.
You may like to know that Uconnect will have a stand at the Sustainable Development Days exhibit to be held this year [at Plainpalais] in Geneva on 12 and 13 May.