Why companies including Penguin and Google are taking a circular approach to computers
In the Bantu language, Camara means “one who teaches with experience”. That philosophy drives social enterprise Camara Education, which has been commissioned by the Ethiopian government to install 31,500 refurbished computers in its primary and secondary schools by the end of March 2019. Camara has been supplying IT to schools in Africa since 2005, but this is the first time it has received an order from a government.
Former investment banker Cormac Lynch set up Camara in the belief that providing schools with technology is one of the best ways to fight poverty in Africa. John Brown, chairman of Camara UK, says: “We have installed 95,000 refurbished computers in 5,000 African schools and trained around 25,000 teachers to use them. We have helped more than 2.5m students achieve digital literacy.”
Several leading British and Irish companies – notably Penguin Books, Google and Virgin Atlantic – give their computers to Camara, which takes a cradle-to-grave approach to its work. “We collect the computers, refurbish them, ship them to one of our hubs in Africa, then sell them at a heavily subsidised price, install them, maintain them and recycle them as e-waste,” says Brown.
The computers are sold, not to generate revenue – although the money contributes to running costs – but because, based on his experience of similar projects, Brown believes that people are more likely to use equipment they are prepared to pay for.
Camara refurbishes the computers at a warehouse in Dulwich, southeast London. Before they are installed in African schools, the hard drives are erased, and a new operating system (usually Linux) and software (including a free text program, some computer games to help pupils learn maths and English, and a version of Wikipedia pupils can access without using the internet) are loaded. Then the machines are tested and certified. Camara’s local African staff work with teachers to install them in schools. When the computers are no longer useful, Camara manages the e-waste through local partnerships with accredited organisations.
The degree of computerisation in African schools varies considerably – even within one country. Anna Norman, general manager of Camara Education, says: “In Ethiopia, there are probably computers in one in 10 schools in the capital, Addis Ababa, but they will be much scarcer in rural areas, where 80% of the schools are.”
Of the countries it supplies to, Kenya probably has the most digitally literate education system, with computers in 10%-15% of schools. Keen to build on that, Camara has partnered with the Department for International Development and three firms – Avanti, sQuid and Whizz – to deliver e-learning to more than 25,000 marginalised girls in primary schools.
Now, efforts are being scaled up. “The goal is to improve the quality of education for another 3m students by 2020,” says Brown. “We need more computers, sponsorship and volunteers to help us refurbish the computers.” Camara offers a free collection service for donations of 50 or more computers; others can be delivered to its London warehouse. It is also looking for firms to sponsor computers when they are installed in Africa.
“I want to be him”, said 12-year-old Kenyan schoolgirl Patience Kamuche, pointing at a picture on Wikipedia of a neurosurgeon. She might never have known such an occupation existed if she hadn’t had access to a computer at school since she was five.
Patience is living proof that using technology encourages students to spend more time in school. After his visit to her school in Mombasa, Camara CEO John Fitzsimons said: “The important thing about opening up your world in this way is not about the availability of information, it’s the level of ambition. By thinking big, you can unlock potential and help Kenya become the country it aspires to be.”