Teaching with computers

School girls in rural Uganda on April 16, 2010. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

KAMPALA, Uganda — The question never goes away. “Why do you send computers to Africa? Why don’t you send food, clothes or medicine instead?”

I’ve worked in Information and Communications Technology, providing computer labs to African schools for 10 years, in conjunction with the nonprofit organization, Computers for Africa, here in my home office in Kampala, Uganda.

As I ponder why I’m always asked this question, I realize it has roots in a common false perception: That there has been little technological progress in Africa to justify investment in computers. A brief examination of developments in the last decade, however, demonstrates that this is no longer true — many parts of Africa are putting in place the infrastructure to support widespread computer usage.

At the start of the 21st century, East African governments began to recognize the integral role technology plays in development, and formulated policies and infrastructure to introduce computer and internet access on a large scale.

Beginning in 2002, the Ugandan government introduced zero taxes on imported computers. This, in turn, increased the number of available computers, lowering their cost and enabling increased access.

Soon after, the government formed the Rural Communication Development Fund, which installed 76 internet access points across the country, reaching the majority of the population. It also put up 60 wireless communication masts, enabling telephone access to villages, thus uniting the country via cell phones.

In 2006, Ugandans created the Ministry of Information and Computer Technology to officially promote and oversee development of information technology. Its largest undertaking began the next year, with the installation of fiber optic cable and the National Data Transmission Backbone, to, among other things, interconnect 28 districts for information sharing.

Why should computers be sent to Africa when food, clothes and medicine are still needed across the continent? Join the conversation in the comment section below.

Now, as each district develops information portals on administration, education, agriculture, business and health for its own people, other districts can also access them. Eventually, this backbone will be connected to a fiber optic cable linking East African countries to Europe and Asia – resulting in faster, cheaper internet connections and phone calls.

Another obstacle we in Uganda continuously encounter is the difficulty in getting access to a stable supply of electricity. This is being addressed by the construction of one large and several small hydroelectric dams. A nearly decade-old Rural Electrification Program is extending electricity to rural areas too, which are home to 80 percent of Uganda’s population.

Our work directly complements these “top-down” governmental developments and commitment to technology. At Computers for Africa, we work at the ground level, enabling local people to take advantage of these new policies and infrastructure — because, unfortunately, there is still a dire need for quality, affordable computers. Despite the zero tax on importation of computers, new computers and even most refurbished computers remain well above what the rural population can afford on an average income of less than $2 per day.

So today, what we’re seeing is the establishment of enabling infrastructure and policies, which can only be taken advantage of by the majority of Uganda's people through a bottom-up solution. Without it, the majority of the rural population will remain locked out of information technology and will be destined to subsistence agricultural jobs where shrinking parcels of land become depleted and commodity prices continue to drop, where poverty and lack of access to education abound.

Computers for Africa has been providing quality, affordable refurbished computer labs to rural schools in Uganda for 10 years. We strongly believe in building in sustainability by qualifying beneficiaries and passing on skills to maintain and repair their hardware, ensuring that our computers don’t become e-trash a year after they’re sent over.

We also focus on one region at a time, helping 25 schools each year collaborate as they progress through our program. Neighbors come to see each other as leaders and supportive partners in technology. They keep in touch to advance academic goals as our organization brings computers and the internet into their isolated schools — schools such as those in the former warzone of northern Uganda, where thousands of students are former child soldiers. In this region, to date,  50 percent of high schools have computer labs through our program.

So, why do we send computers to Africa?

We send computers to schools in Uganda because they are the final enabling link for rural African schools to tap into local and national structures that the Kampala government has put in place. The computers enable Ugandan students to connect to an infrastructure to access a whole world of resources.