Macha, a sparsely populated region in southern Zambia, is about as far from London as one can get. This region, smaller than the US state of Delaware, has no commercial industries or agriculture. Its people, who live in smaller villages, live off of subsistence farming, consisting mostly of maize and peanuts. But thanks to Computer Aid International, an NGO based in the UK, Macha has received the first of the non-profit’s solar powered internet cafés, opening its people’s eyes to a much wider world–one that London’s citizens take for granted.
Computer Aid already has an impressive track record of service: the organization has sent thousands of refurbished computers to Africa, and has offered cost-effective and innovative IT solutions in Zambia and Kenya. The Macha lab is impressive for several regions: it’s a retrofitted shipping container, powered by solar panels, and includes hardware that minimizes the facility’s power requirements.
According to Tony Roberts, Computer Aid’s CEO, the lab offers new advantages to Macha’s residents. If there’s a local emergency, connectivity allows communication at a short notice. Rural hospitals can send their employees there for updated online training. Students can complete their research, while local leaders can quickly provide needed services to their constituents. For farmers, more economic opportunities are now possible–growers have learned that they can grow sunflowers, which, in much of Macha, actually grow better than maize.
Computer Aid’s work also reveals proof that solar and other renewable energy technologies have a bright future in Africa. Much of the continent lacks any power grid infrastructure that fossil fuels require, so solar can actually be more cost-competitive. Computer Aid’s labs, which cost anywhere to UK£15,000 to £25,000, can literally be dropped off in the middle of no where, using a variety of wireless technologies that allow for uninterrupted access. The solar panels, which should last up to 20 years, can recharge from the average 12 hours of sunlight in which Macha basks daily, and they also include cell phone recharging stations, a difficult task to accomplish in Africa due to a lack of reliable electricity.
Currently Computer Aid works with other NGOs and private companies for funding the labs, the potential results of which could build much optimism throughout Africa at so many levels: good paying IT jobs, of which 700 already exist in Macha; a better quality of life thanks to the knowledge of what crops are needed, beyond simply growing what’s needed for daily meals; and providing basic information that so many people in Macha had lacked. Most importantly, solar outfits like these can fuel a clean source of electricity, so necessary for economic development, which allows anything from the ability for students to study at night to budding entrepreneurs sorting out new ventures possible by microfinance. For too long, developed nations have given financial aid to African nations, frequently seeing only dubious results: more projects like this, which are handy, not a handout, are the way to go for empowering Africans.