Africa is a hotbed of technological innovation. The challenges it faces – of bridging the urban-rural divide, expanding infrastructure and extending education – are seen by many of the Continent’s digital pioneers as opportunities for creativity and invention. The task now is to start developing their ideas on a continental scale.
by Alasdair MacKinnon
For Asia Kamukama, innovation means a four-by-four with solar panels strapped to the roof, the boot containing all the equipment needed for a fully-functional ICT classroom. She is Executive Director of the Maendeleo Foundation, an organisation that makes computers available in parts of Uganda where there is no electricity or broadband Internet.
While infrastructure in the equatorial region is undeveloped, it does have a key advantage: plentiful, reliable sunlight. So mobile solar classrooms – an ever-more-common sight today trundling down the potholed roads of rural Africa – are overcoming a disadvantage by using the abundant resources available to them.
The solar classrooms are usually staged at local community centres or libraries – a practice which, while it ensures the ICT training offered reaches as many as possible, is mostly based on pragmatic grounds.
“Some villages have just paths and no roads for the car to reach them,” Kamukama explains.
In this way the Maendeleo Foundation has reached 37,000 people in East Africa – 80% students, but also teachers and out-of-school groups: “youth, women, farmers and local business people”.
The access they provide, however, is necessarily short-term – and as it is clearly impossible for a mobile classroom to be everywhere at once, the Foundation also tries to ensure continuing access to ICTs even when its jeeps have moved on.
“We work closely with community libraries where we conduct our ICT camps to support them acquire solar powered computer labs, so that they can continue providing computer training to their community,” says Kamukama.
For Asia Kamukama, the solar school is clearly not a stop-gap solution, but a complement to the education system and a vital technology for future development, as sustainable as the energy on which it relies.
“We would like to see the Government supporting and investing more in innovative solutions that foster sustainable development. Solar schemes, if subsidised and promoted across Africa, offer affordable power solutions to all income brackets.”
Increasingly, education providers in East Africa are weighing up the benefits of grid versus solar energy and finding that solar comes out on top. Jared Ogunde, CEO of the Scientific Advisory and Information Network in Kenya, explains the calculation:
“Installation of solar power equipment may need some substantial initial capital; however, once the installation is complete and everything is in order, there will be no additional cost except for a little maintenance after a long period of time. The [yearly] cost of fossil fuels on the other hand comes to quite substantial amounts. To add on to this, the cost of fossil fuels keeps on rising, whereas the sun will always be there for free.”
Jared Ogunde and Asia Kamukama will both give presentations at eLearning Africa 2014 in a session titled “The Solar Classroom: Alternative Energy for eLearning”. Visit the programme page for more information.