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Voices from Africa – Gertjan van Stam, Macha, Zambia

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Gertjan van Stam

Among the various jobs Gertjan van Stam does is to work as the Technical Director of MIAM and as an ICT expert for Churches Health Association of Zambia and to serve as a trustee of Flying Mission in Zambia. Previously he held positions as an international business development manager and strategist at KPN, the incumbent telecom operator in the Netherlands. He also operated his own Internet innovation company. In the following open letter, he describes some of his ICT work in rural Africa.

Dear conference organisers,

Greetings, I live in Macha, rural Zambia, and we have had interesting developments during the implementation of a fully networked IT set up from the ground up in the middle of the bush. Implementation of Information and Communications Technology ‘in the bush’ is a real challenge. In 2004, we at the rural settlement of Macha in Zambia’s Southern Province met that challenge head on, not accepting that there was no Internet connection available. Of course it is all ‘out there’; just pick it off the satellite, but to actually ‘do it’ is something else!

Macha is a typical rural settlement, difficult to reach over bad roads and four out of five Zambian maps don’t even show it. Typically there is a rural hospital, a number of churches and some schools. At the outset, in 2003, there were no communication lines into Macha and only a handful of personal computers. Now, in 2006, at Macha there is a distributed (wireless) LAN with over fifty users covering a number of square kilometres and more than 100 computers connected to the network; the number is growing rapidly. Local network servers serve the community with e-mail, a multitude of interactive websites and all the network services you could wish for.

The key to this remarkable thrust has been full local, rural community participation and execution, backed up with enthusiastic mentoring through cost-based expert support and funded through local institutions, some with international backing. At Macha, all ICT implementations are being done by locals from the community, mostly young people who trained themselves in ICT network management through extensive experimenting and knowledge sharing through the Internet. For instance, Oscar Kaate from Macha previously sold hair extensions in the capital Lusaka. He has now trained himself and is leading the training of other young people from Macha and even other rural areas in Zambia.

So far, more than seven ICT experts have been trained at Macha, offering their expert network services even to organisations outside of the town. And we have even started work on a data-entry contact job for a US-based firm over the Internet, developing new jobs for more than ten local rural people for a number of months. Much more has happened in Macha that became possible with the coming of ICT. We have built an airport and a community centre with about ten different units (e.g. Internet, radio, library, etc.). The nice thing about it all is that it has been accomplished by local people from Macha who had had no previous exposure to this kind of technological development. They are building it all! We have had a number of visitors who came to observe the results and have published it at http://drupal.vanstam.net/?q=node/108.

We are not finished, of course. Implementation of ICT in the hospital, including tele-health, the linking up of schools and starting assistance for other rural areas outside Macha are now on the agenda. We would also like to help other rural settlements in the same way, which depends on the funding of a Master Plan for Rural Communications Implementation, a concept we dubbed LinkNet.

At Macha we have a ‘just do it’ mentality. Rural people have proven to be capable of taking developments in their own hands when given the unconditional opportunity. Because of the relative low salaries in rural areas, deployment of human resources is affordable. And time is available in rural areas, so we have an important factor on the road to development on our side.

Subsequently, with the coming of communications, many fruits have ripened. Quality medical research is now possible at Macha, with access to medical and research information and 24-hour connectivity in the buildings of Macha’s Medical Institute. Medical experts have been attracted to live in this rural settlement because they can communicate with family and friends. Rural schools have built international relationships through the Internet and hospital professionals communicate with experts for better diagnosis and treatment. But most of all, there is new hope and aspiration in the rural community that development of the area is possible and a good future can be available for their children.

Greetings,

Gertjan van Stam
Macha, Zambia

gertjan.vanstam@link.net.zm



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