Past Issues of Government Technology

Computer Center Lets Impoverished Village Take First Step Into Digital

The people of Kgautswane unite to put their land on the technology map.

by / September 26, 2000 0
The people of Kgautswane unite to put their land on the technology map.
By Cianran Ryan

Kgautswane, in South Africas Northern Province, is described as "deep rural." That means it lies beyond the reach of the national electricity and telephone grids, sufficiently remote to place it out of radar range for regional development planners.

The electricity grid passes nearby en route to more substantial towns to the north, but Kgautswane is unlikely to have electricity for several years because the state-owned electricity utility considers it a low-priority village.

Its community center comprises a dozen 20-foot steel transport containers strung together into a network of rooms and offices.

Kgautswane residents have modest expectations of life. The village and its surrounds support a population of about 60,000, most of them subsistence farmers. Like many rural villages in South Africa, a high percentage of able-bodied men and women are forced to seek work elsewhere -- in cities such as Johannesburg or Pretoria, several hundred miles away, or in Lydenburg, the nearest major town, about 50 miles distant. Children are often raised by the grandparents or extended family members who remain behind and rely on financial support from those who leave to seek work elsewhere.

The area is well-served by schools. There are some 10 primary- and seven secondary-level schools -- one of these, lying sufficiently close to the grid, has electricity. The rest rely on daylight and candles.

Given such handicaps, the people of Kgautswane have learned to be self-reliant. Several years ago, they formed the Integrated Community Building (ICB) program to conceive and implement projects aimed at community improvement. Led by Clara Masinga, the ICB has achieved some commendable successes, one of which is the Kgautswane Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Center, a seemingly modest project comprising no more than an IBM server, three workstations, two uninterruptable power supplies and a color printer/scanner.

Power is supplied from a 5,500 watt gas-fuelled generator, which runs 18 hours a day -- such is the demand for the service. There is insufficient juice from the generator to power light bulbs, so visitors are treated to the incongruous spectacle of high-tech computers being operated by candlelight after dark. Another $15,000 would allow the center to purchase a solar-power system capable of switching on electric lights.

The center is owned and run by the ICB, with generator fuel paid for by renting the computers to locals who use it to lend a professional touch to business plans or school reports. The center generates income of about $800 a month, but this will increase as new workstations are added. The total cost of the project, including training, was about $44,000. This was partly funded by the World Bank, but similar centers elsewhere in southern Africa were funded by selling naming rights to corporate sponsors.

Paul West, director of the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Technikon South Africa, one of the sponsors of the project, says the center is changing life for Kgautswane residents in other ways. "For one, levels of computer literacy have been markedly raised. Most people in Africa will never own a computer in their lifetimes. Therefore, other ways will have to be found to introduce them to the information society. This project is introducing the people of Kgautswane to the information society and bridging the digital divide.

"The center has been used more than we initially expected, and as a result there is pressure to add more PCs. The existing level of literacy in Kgautswane underlines the capacity of rural people to accept high-tech solutions and integrate them into their lifestyles."

Since the launch of the Kgautswane ICT Center in 1999, the village has become a font of entrepreneurial energy. Typed business plans pour out of the center in search of finance and partners. Teachers are issuing students with professionally presented rather than hand-written papers and committee minutes are now committed to print. Kgautswane has had a crash course in the joys of computing.

Eyes on a Prize
Such a facility would scarcely raise an eyebrow in developed countries, but it so impressed the Stockholm Challenge judges, which included Government Technology Editor Wayne Hanson, that they decided to make this joint winner in its "Equal Access" category, alongside another South African entry, the Manguzi Wireless Internet project.

West says the judges were impressed with the determination of the project coordinators to succeed against all the odds -- no power, telephones, funds or trained personnel. The voltage from the generator fluctuates wildly, making this a tricky undertaking for any supplier: "There are few computer companies willing to take on these kinds of risks," says West.

Once the telephone lines reach Kgautswane over the next few years, the center will be able to offer an Internet connection and so broaden the universe of opportunities. There is a rudimentary radio telephone link in Kgautswane, but its poor quality does not permit Internet access. Once the center has a single landline, it will be able to erect a satellite broadcast Internet connection, with outgoing requests for Internet information transmitted by landline and information returned by satellite broadcast, the same method used by the Manguzi Wireless Internet project.

West is the driving force behind the creation and maintenance of AfricaEducation.org, a large and growing resource for African students and educators intended to help them bridge the educational divide between Africa and developed countries. This facility will be available to Kgautswane residents once the telephone lines reach here.

Another resource operated by West and the Centre for Lifelong Learning is the African Digital Library which, through a tie-up with NetLibrary.com, offers African students access to a digital library of some 7,700 books. West managed to put this site together with $250,000 in corporate sponsorships, and says additional funds are needed to expand the library, which operates much like a corporeal one: Only one person can access a title online at a time and must "return" it before anyone else can read it. The online version has the advantage of a full text search capability. The purpose is not to provide students with a casual online read, but to facilitate research, says West.

Similar projects are under way in three other towns in South Africa: Pietersburg, in the north, East London on the eastern seaboard, and Nkomazi, toward the Mozambican border. These towns have the advantage of telephone links, making it possible to offer computer services along with a business center and telephones. Telephone penetration rates in South Africa, at about 15 percent, are high by African standards -- yet most people still rely on public telephones. This need has given rise to telephone shops, where banks of phones are available for public use. West says the telephone shop is a proven business concept in South Africa, which he is now expanding into a business and computer center.

"This has tremendous possibilities throughout Africa. I think we have shown how it is possible to bring computers to the most remote corners of the continent and raise levels of computer literacy," says West.