From telegraph to internet – How can entrepreneurship help bridge the digital divide?
In the middle of the 19th century, the invention of the telegraph was transforming societies: instead of sending letters by horses or ships which could take weeks or even months, messages could now be delivered within minutes. To ensure that national borders would not hold back the development, the (ITU) was founded in 1865 and is now celebrating its 150th anniversary. Since then the organisation has steadily evolved with the technology – from telegraph, over the telephone to the internet – the ITU has kept its exceptional role in connecting the world. Technological developments have brought down the costs of communications immensely in the last years taking ITU closer than ever to fulfilling its mission of “bringing the benefits of ICT to all the world’s inhabitants”.
Digital divide and the challenge to provide the same opportunities to everyone
However, the possibility of being in touch anytime and anywhere does by far not include all of us: 4.3 billion people are still not connected, and 90 per cent of them live in the developing world. In addition, the relative costs of basic internet access remain over 80 times higher in the poorest countries than in industrialised countries. As a result, almost 80 per cent of European households have internet access, while it is a staggering 11 per cent in Africa. (ITU) This phenomenon – often referred to as the digital divide – is in fact not primarily a geographical divide, but rather a divide spanning across several areas: between men and women, between young and old and also between urban and rural, to name just a few.
The digital divide is durable and lasting, in particular, as access to ICT is increasingly determining the ability of individuals, firms and nations to participate in the ever faster communicating and interdependent globalised economy. For really tackling the versatile problem of the digital divide, a considerable leverage effect could be achieved through improved ITC education. Furthermore, to see such efforts bear fruits, it is most important that such computer classes start early in the curriculum to achieve a rapid learning curve and not only target the urban population but also include rural schools.
A mobile classroom – Why not take the computers to the students?
“Maendeleo” means “progress” in the Swahili language, and progress is the mission of the Maendeleo Foundation. Its story began in the summer of 2007 when a North American computer programmer first came to Uganda. Eric Morrow wanted to use his skills to reduce the world’s technology gap, unwilling to understand why East African countries like Uganda couldn’t develop a service sector based on telecommunications like India. But most Ugandan schools lack even a dependable source of electricity, not even to speak of computers. This sparked the idea of the Mobile Solar Computer Classroom: Why not bring electricity, computers and the internet to the people?
All the equipment needed to provide lessons on computer skills fits into two modified SUV vehicles: three 85 watt solar panels, a 200mA battery, 15 laptop computers, 1 internet router, a foldable tent, 8 folding chairs and two teachers. In one day, 200 people can be trained on the road; 15 schools and more than 8,000 trainees have already been reached. “Nurturing a healthy computer-services industry in East Africa is just a question of strategic phases,” says Morrow.
The African sunshine state: Driver of innovation
Among the important factors that made the success possible, are the abundance of sunshine in Uganda and technological innovation: Western computer manufacturers had produced a new type of computer working with just a fraction of the usual power requirement – so little that ten or more computers could operate off a single solar-charged battery. Through using solar power, the Mobile Solar Computer Classroom is independent of national electricity grids. Only 15 per cent of the Ugandan population has access to electricity, and electricity supply is even less frequent and reliant in rural areas (World Development Indicators).
By relying on solar energy, the Mobile Solar Computer Classroom also introduces communities to the potentials of clean renewable energy sources and demonstrates its benefits. The foundation further explicitly raises awareness on other uses of solar energy, in particular for lamps. Using solar instead of kerosene lamps, not only reduces carbon emissions, but also indoor air pollution and accidents with fire. Most African countries have 320-plus days of sunlight, making solar energy often cheaper than traditional sources of energy.
Looking back to the telegraph and forward to solar-powered communication
17 May 2015 is not only the 150th anniversary of the ITU it is also World Telecommunication and Information Society Day. The purpose of this day is to raise awareness on the possibilities that the use of information and communication technologies can bring to societies and economies, as well as on ways to bridge the digital divide. The Mobile Solar Computer Classroom has found its very own way to connect rural Ugandans to the internet and train the urban and rural youth in computer skills, an innovative approach that has been honoured with a SEED Africa Award in 2014. Just recently they have also received a Community Grant from the Internet Society, a global cause-driven organisation that is dedicated to ensuring that the Internet grows and stays open and transparent.