Solar powered internet service in rural Zambia

18 October, 2010, Danstan Kaunda

cyber café would provide the Internet access to schoolchildren

A UK-based charitable organization called Computer Aid has established a solar powered communication center in rural Zambia. It is part of the organisation’s efforts to increase information technology access in remote areas of developing countries.

The cyber café would provide the Internet access to school children and the nearby local communities in Macha, southern Zambia.[frax09alpha]

Macha area – more than 70km from the nearest tarmac road – is one of the pilot project in the country. The area is not served by the national power utility ZESCO, more than 45 years since Zambia gained independence.

“The organisation’s primary concern when devising the scheme was to provide as many computers using as little energy as possible,” said CI East Africa Programme Manager Ben Makai in a statement made available to The Citizen newspaper of Dar es Salaam recently.

Computer Aid CEO and founder Tony Roberts said in the statement that access to the Internet had improved the lives of Macha villagers.

“This is a farming area, and many farmers have been able to optimise their produce by switching from growing maize to sunflowers as a result of researching what grows best under the area’s particular conditions,” he said in the statement.

The area is attracting funding for research and 700 jobs have been created within IT and related industries.

Computer Aid has already shipped more than 160,000 refurbished computers to developing countries to enhance people’s lives and potential through effective use of information technology.

But Macha is already way ahead of many agricultural areas in sub-Saharan Africa because it benefits from more than 100 Wi-Fi Hotspots via a network established by Zambian telecommunications specialist LinkNet. The Hotspots are routed from a satellite on the local hospital’s roof.

The Macha café is a standard 20-foot shipping container, which is normally used to transport refurbished computers, according to the statement. The container houses a network of 11 clients with flat-screen monitors running off a 200W Pentium 4 PC. Four solar panels on the roof provide about 12 hours’ worth of electricity when fully charged. If used properly, the panels can last up to 20 years.

A small piece of extra hardware from desktop virtualisation firm NComputing was added to the Pentium to enable the thin-client technology and to keep each system’s power requirement down to just 350W. The overall cost of the container was about £23,000.

Computer Aid’s chief researcher, Ugo Vallauri, worked with Kenyatta University in Nairobi and the National University for Science and Technology in Zimbabwe, among others, to come up with the best solution.

“We tested a number of methods, and this was the most practical. Although netbooks worked well because they require so little energy to power, they are so small that we thought making them secure would be a problem,” Vallauri was quoted as saying in the statement.

With help from LinkNet, Computer Aid has equipped the cyber café to receive internet access via either a cellular or GSM signal, Wi-Fi or satellite.

Mr Makai said Computer Aid is hoping to set up several more cyber cafés in sub-Saharan Africa this year, and is looking to establish partnerships with development organisations, governments, schools and universities to expand the initiative so that even more communities across the region can benefit from affordable low-energy internet and IT access.

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