95,000 computers have been installed in 5,000 schools across Africa
95,000 computers have been installed in 5,000 schools across Africa

Refurbed computers boost African education

14 September 2017

The Ethiopian government has asked social enterprise Camara Education to install 31,500 refurbished computers in its primary and secondary schools by the end of March 2019.

Although Camara – the word means “one who teaches with experience” in the Bantu dialect of West Africa – has been supplying IT to schools on the continent since 2005, this is the first time it has received an order directly from an African government.

Established by Cormac Lynch, a former investment banker, Camara operates on the premise that providing digital education for the young is one of the most effective ways to fight poverty in Africa. John Brown, chairman of Camara UK, says: “In just over a decade, we have installed 95,000 refurbished computers in 5,000 African schools, trained around 25,000 teachers to use them. In total, we estimate that we have helped 2.5m students achieve digital literacy so when they leave school they can produce documents, create spreadsheets and use computers to research.”

Several British and Irish companies give the computers to Camara – notable donors include Penguin Books, Google and Virgin Atlantic. “The issue seems simple to us: why would companies let their computers, which may be surplus to their requirements but are still in good working order, go to waste in landfill when they could do some good?” asks Brown.

Camara’s business is based on a cradle to grave approach. “We collect the computers, refurbish them, ship them to one of our hubs in Africa – we have them in Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Tanzania and Zambia – sell them at a heavily subsidised price, install them, train teachers to use them, maintain them and then recycle them as e-waste,” says Brown.

The computers are not sold to generate revenue – although the money does contribute to running costs – but because, from his knowledge and experience of similar projects in Africa, 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. Before they are installed in African schools, the hard drives are erased, a new operating system (usually Linux) and new 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 before the machines are tested and certified. Camara’s local staff install them in schools in Africa and train teachers to use them. 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 – even within one country. Anna Norman, general manager of Camara Learning, says: “In Ethiopia, you will probably find computers in one in 10 schools in the capital, Addis Adaba, but they will be much scarcer in rural areas, where 80% of the schools are.” The evidence from Camara’s projects suggests that having computers in classrooms encourages students to spend more time in school.

Of the countries Camara operates in, Kenya probably has the most digitally literate education system with computers in 10-15% of schools. Keen to build on that, Camara has formed a strategic partnership with the Department for International Development (DFID) and three companies – Avanti, sQuid and Whizz – to deliver e-learning to 25,675 marginalised girls in primary schools across Kenya. Computer giant Dell is also supporting Camara’s work in Kenya.

Asked whether African governments should not be investing in digital education themselves, Brown says: “Some of them are, some aren’t and some can’t afford to. The hardware can be prohibitively expensive and the challenges in terms of infrastructure and maintenance should not be underestimated. The question for us is: can we help? And we can.”

Helping 2.5m students use computers in 12 years is impressive but Brown and his colleagues at Camara are determined to scale up their efforts. “The goal is to improve the quality of education for another 3m students by 2020,” he says. “To do that we need more computers, sponsorship and volunteers to help us refurbish the computers in Dulwich.”

Camara offers a free collection service for companies that donate 50 or more computers. Smaller donations can be delivered to its warehouse in Dulwich. Software firm Salesforce is one of the companies that regularly supplies volunteers. The social enterprise is also looking for companies to sponsor the computers when they are installed in Africa.

If you want to help, visit http://camara.org/gb/, email londoninfo@camara.org or call +44 (0)20 8670 1225.

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