Planet Matters

* Jane Powers* on sending computers to Africa.

As you are reading this, more than 60 volunteers from Ireland are in Africa,
meeting up with hundreds of recycled Irish computers that made the journey
earlier. The computers are starting new lives in schools and colleges in
Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Uganda and Lesotho. All have been refurbished and
sent on their way by Irish charity Camara, which has also trained the
volunteers who will coach the teachers in charge of the computer labs.

Each of the computers has a newly installed operating system, open-source
software with both educational and office programs, and a full-colour,
5,000-article miniature Wikipedia. Each also comes with excellent training
manuals devised by media students from DCU, as well as an interactive CD
dealing with HIV-Aids. The content on the CD is localised: the characters
speak with appropriate accents, and look credible to people from different
regions and tribes.

Eoghan Crosby, technical director of Camara (which means “he who teaches
with experience”), says: “We believe that education will solve a lot of
problems. The PC is a great facilitator, because of what you can pack onto

Camara was founded in September 2005 by Cormac Lynch, while he was doing an
MA in development studies in UCD. By the end of 2005, the charity had sent
298 computers to Africa; in 2006 it sent 1,002; and already this year nearly
2,000 machines have made the trip. But, says Crosby, “We need more
computers: we need companies to give us their PCs. And we need more
volunteers.” Besides the volunteers who go to Africa at the end of June each
year (for which they each raise €1,500 and attend 50 hours of training),
there are about 100 who work in the warehouse in Dublin’s north docklands.

Volunteers need no previous IT experience, and present numbers include
“everybody and anybody”: people on work schemes, transition-year students,
gap-year students, engineers, teachers and retired folks.

Suitable computers – both PCs and Macs – should have the following minimum
specifications: Pentium III processor (450 Mhz), 128Mb of RAM, a 5Gb hard
drive and a CD or DVD drive. Home computers that meet these criteria are
also welcome, and can be dropped into the workshop (see below). Companies
pay a recycling fee of €20 for each computer, and individuals are asked to
donate a similar sum.

These funds help cover refurbishment and data destruction – the latter is
carried out to US Department of Defence standards. “It is theoretically
mathematically impossible to retrieve any data,” says Crosby, allaying fears
that sensitive information might go walkabout.

At present, there are fewer than 10 computers per 1,000 people in
sub-Saharan Africa (six is the average), whereas in Ireland more than 60 per
cent of households have at least one machine. We discard about 150,000 of
them every year. It makes sense to keep them out of landfill, and to give
them a second life in the process. If you don’t have an old computer, you
can help anyway – €10 will send a computer to Africa, while €250 will set up
a lab with 25 of them.

* Camara, 15 Castleforbes Road, North Wall Quay, Dublin 1; 01-681111;*
(c) 2007 The Irish Times