“Simply sending computers to Africa is not enough.” This is the maxim of Digital Links, a social enterprise situated in London and Johannesburg. Based on a sound partnership model with governments and international corporations such as Barclays, BUPA, Cadbury’s, DFID, DHL, Lloyd’s, Nestle UK, Reuters, RM, and DELL, Digital Links wants to set up an efficient infrastructure, provide on-going support and maintenance, as well as access to eLearning tools, connectivity, and training in several African countries. Currently, a large-scale teachers’ endowment project is taking place in Zambia, the host country of eLearning Africa 2010.
Against the backdrop of a rising e-waste problem in developing countries, a sustainable and practical approach to refurbishing computers for donation purposes is absolutely indispensable. This is what Digital Links, a social enterprise founded in 2002, is aiming for. Computers donated in the UK are reconditioned to the highest standard in accordance with UK environmental and data-protection legislation, ensuring optimal reuse possibilities and limiting the strain on world resources. Through partnerships with leading PC manufacturers, Digital Links can also provide new computers for low-income groups. This is done by offering micro-credits over the course of a year. In addition, Digital Links started several computerisation programmes across Africa. Digital learning resources and materials for teachers and learners complete the portfolio.
The most recent project is the deployment of a scheme allowing teachers in Zambia, the host country of eLearning Africa 2010, to purchase computers. The idea is to equip teachers with around 30,000 notebooks, taking varying income levels into account. This will be done in partnership with the 50×15 Foundation and Mecer, South Africa. The laptops are specifically aimed at the teacher/education market and have exceptionally low power consumption. Ten thousand public servants and teachers have already signed up for the first year of this programme, which is expected to get going in late October or early November, 2009.
[callout title=Have Computers? Need Computers?]The Digital Links story began in 2002 with entrepreneur and philanthropist Chris Mathias. In partnership with former Executive Director David Sogan, Chris began laying the foundations for an organisation that would provide access to information technology for people across the developing world. By establishing Digital Links, the founders hoped to enhance teaching, learning and business performance in disadvantaged communities and countries in order to facilitate economic and social development.[/callout]
Having distributed and installed more than 70,000 computers, thus providing the first access to IT for more than 1.5 million young people, Digital Links is now a self-supporting organisation with offices in London and partners on the African continent. The institution’s model relies heavily on the same type of partnerships on which it was built: committed corporate donors and distribution partners on the ground.
Once this programme is running, Digital Links will begin the planning of digital labs across the country. Out of an expected eligible number of 80,000 teachers countrywide, Digital Links expects to service around 60,000 teachers over the course of three years. However, this scheme has the potential (and the agreement of the government in principle) to involve more than 150,000 public servants. There has also been considerable interest in the digital lab model in Zambia. Digital Links partner Mecer is one of the three major corporate ICT distributors in Zambia. MDZ has entered into an arrangement with the Zambian government to distribute all its products to civil servants and has approached Digital Links to help deploy their large-scale computerisation programme.
Moreover, Digital Links is currently developing a proposal to continue previous work on ICT hubs in Ghana. The programme began in collaboration with the Cadbury Foundation and aimed to provide ICT facilities and training to nine teacher training colleges across the country with a full-time formal training suite and a student lab in each. Given that only 12 of Ghana’s 38 teacher training colleges have access to computers, the remaining 26 colleges have to learn the principles of ICT use and potential benefits through textbook-based lessons and theory, thus hampering the development and integration of teachers and children into the global economy. The initial programme was so successful that Digital Links was approached to help implement a similar programme to increase the effectiveness of ICT hubs in rural northern Ghana.
Aissatou Sow, Executive Director of Digital Links: “Through all of these programmes, we have learned many lessons about the challenges of implementing ICT programmes in under-resourced schools in developing countries. We have struggled with the problem of learning centres equipped with PCs but lacking people with the skills to use and maintain them properly. As such, we now work on a model that is holistic and sustainable.“ This model is often coupled with a low-interest micro-loan for initial start-up capital works in the vast majority of cases, she says.
At Digital Links, one is also sure of that in the most disadvantaged, often rural areas, funding may be needed to provide the initial capital to establish the lab and provide the first months of operating expenses. Aissatou Sow: “We do not believe that any ICT centre can be run solely on external funding. Experience has shown that in every case, some sort of sustainable financing mechanism must be put in place at the start of a programme, as it can be very difficult to do so once an alternate model has been entrenched.“