Millions of PCs are decommissioned every year in the UK, but one company is finding a useful home for them in Kenyan schools. Simon Birch reports
Thursday April 7, 2005
In one of Nairobi's notorious slums, Aquinas Secondary School for Boys is an unlikely location for a pioneering IT education project. Aquinas is one of 120 schools benefiting from the donation of computers and training from Computers For Schools Kenya (CFSK), a Nairobi-based charity helping to produce a new generation of computer-savvy young Kenyans.
This month, Aquinas became one of five pilot schools that have gone online thanks to a wireless internet connection. "School children who don't have IT knowledge are at a disadvantage," believes head teacher George Muthee. "Many of our pupils come from severely disadvantaged backgrounds, but by being able to offer IT classes, students stand a much better chance of getting a job or going to college."
Despite having no mains electricity at home, student Peter Chada is aware of the importance of an IT education. "Everything is becoming computerised and if you're going for a professional or office job the first thing an employer asks you is whether you are computer literate," says the 18-year-old, who aims to become a computer engineer.
A skilled and computer literate workforce is now widely recognised as being a key factor in Africa's ability to boost its productivity and attract investment.
"Information communication technology has been identified by the UN as a driving force for development," says Tom Musili, executive director of CFSK, which launched in 2002 and now has a staff of more than 30.
"The Kenyan government, industry and civil society all recognise that for Kenya to remain competitive in today's knowledge-based economy, more must be done and done urgently to increase access to ICT skills training."
However, with a vast number of Kenyans unable to afford to finish secondary school education, access to school computers and ICT skills is still restricted to the lucky few.
"Most Kenyan schools lack even the most basic ICT resources because of the cost. The result is that the vast majority of Kenyan schoolchildren leave school without having seen a computer," says Musili.
Certainly George Muthee recognises how lucky his school has been in receiving 20 PCs and the ICT training that he and ICT teacher Charles Nganga got from CFSK.
"When I first heard of them, I ran very fast to ensure Aquinas was at the front of the queue," says a beaming Muthee. "It was a golden opportunity for us. We would never have been able to buy 20 PCs."
CFSK has embarked upon an ambitious programme of rolling out PCs to Kenya's schools. "Our vision is quite simple," says Musili. "By 2009, we aim to place almost 15,000 PCs in nearly 600 schools, provide the necessary training and support, as well as boost internet usage and access."
Crucial to this vision are the supporters from within Kenya and overseas who help fund the program.
One of its most important partners is UK-based Computer Aid International (CAI), which supplies CFSK with most of its computers.
An estimated 3m PCs are decommissioned every year in the UK by thousands of companies who upgrade and change IT systems. However, many are in good working order. Since 1998, CAI has placed 45,000 computers in the developing world.
"End-of-life PCs are worthless to most companies but invaluable to schoolchildren," says Tony Roberts, director of CAI. "Companies see getting rid of old kit as one big headache. We can take care of their headaches while ensuring the PCs go to good causes."
Roberts rejects criticism that with so much poverty in Africa, priority should be given to basic educational resources such as books and desks.
"Computers are no longer an optional extra. Without appropriate vocational training and skills development, young people will remain locked into a cycle of poverty and marginalisation," he says.
"Governments in Africa are not trying to decide if they should invest in ICTs, they're focused on determining how much they can invest and how soon. It's a matter of great urgency.
"Unless developing economies such as Kenya are enabled to break out of the cycle of poverty they will always remain dependent upon aid," argues Roberts.
"This endless cycle will only be broken by rich countries providing aid that will impact directly and positively on people's livelihoods by developing marketable skills and increased options for better jobs."
Back at Aquinas, Charles Nganga winds up another double period of ICT. "While many of our pupils come from poor and disadvantaged families, we work hard at instilling in the boys the idea that they can achieve anything if they work hard at school," says Nganga. "The continuing success of CFSK is a crucial part of this process."
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