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