Banker makes it his business to give computers to African schools
20 July 2008
By David Clerkin

Cormac Lynch is on a mission to stock African schools with computers that Irish businesses no longer need.

The former investment banker with Goldman Sachs and UBS has already shipped almost 10,000 machines to schools in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Lesotho – but plans to increase this to 25,000 a year by 2012.

Since setting up the charity Camara (a west African word for someone who teaches with experience) nearly three years ago, Lynch has laid the groundwork for hundreds of schools to be equipped with computer labs by getting his hands on machines that were otherwise destined for waste depots.

”It’s a reuse, rather than a recycle, policy,” said Lynch, who made the change from investment banking to third world development work after returning from a stint as chief executive of NIKoil, a Russian banking subsidiary of oil giant Lukoil. He decided that a switch to a similar job closer to home ”wasn’t an appealing career choice”.

”I said I’d take a few years off and try and atone for my sins as an investment banker.” It was while conducting research towards a master’s qualification in overseas development that he paid a visit to Ethiopia and saw how few schools and even teacher training colleges were equipped with PC facilities.

”I idly made a promise that I’d start collecting PCs for them. I didn’t know a huge amount about computers, so I got a lot of volunteers who did.”

Over the past three years, Lynch has gone from a one-man band storing used PCs in the front room of his house to an organisation with over 300 volunteers and six full-time staff, operating from a warehouse in Dublin’s Digital Hub.

”I always had an interest in education. I felt that was the key for getting Africa from where it is, for Africans themselves to break out. That was the fundamental driver of me doing something in Africa.”

Camara targets businesses that are upgrading their computer stock, taking older machines that are surplus to requirements and using specialist software to erase all the existing information contained in them.

”We operate to US Department of Defense standards. If it’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for us,” Lynch said, adding that it was important to be able to guarantee businesses donating PCs that there was no risk of sensitive data being retained.

While some of the country’s top banks and accounting firms have already supplied Camara with surplus computers, Lynch’s next major targets are Irish subsidiaries of US multinationals. But he remains keen to deal with smaller businesses and will collect on site from companies supplying at least 25 machines. Camara also accepts deliveries of smaller batches at its bases in Dublin, Belfast and Tralee.

In order to qualify for reuse, Lynch said each machine must use Windows 2000 or more recent operating systems.

Camara’s engineers will replace their existing software with free, open source software packages aimed at improving computer skills and containing encyclopedia and other information resources, including HIV and Aids awareness programmes.

Earlier this month, Lynch shipped his most recent batch of computers accompanied by 75 volunteers, who were responsible for raising the funds needed to cover their costs and who will train local teachers in using the machines.

”We’re committed to keeping our costs as low as possible”, said Lynch.

The organisation is primarily funded by Irish government aid and fees charged to companies for disposing of their PCs.

With over one million computers expected to be replaced by Irish business over the next five years, Lynch is confident of meeting his target of equipping 1,000 schools with new computer labs every year. ”At that level, you’re really beginning to make a difference.”