Arrow takes on the challenge of bringing technology to people with no electricity. Miranda Ingram reports…
Every so often a concept comes along that is so simple and so effective that you can’t believe it didn’t already exist.
The DigiTruck, a mobile, solar-powered unit made from an old shipping container mounted on a trailer to create a fully computer-equipped classroom, is such a game changer. It drives 21st century technology to parts of the world still governed by the cycles of day and night.
“We had been working with the Belgian charity Close the Gap (CTG) for over ten years, providing refurbished computers to schools, clinics and micro-finance operations in Africa,” says Joe Verrengia, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Arrow Electronics.
“Last year CTG came to us said that, while what we were doing together was great – since 2004 our partnership has processed over half a million computers and other devices from companies and reached more than 1.5 million new users – we were nevertheless ignoring half the continent. Of Africa’s 1.2 billion population, a staggering 600,000 are off the grid – that’s equivalent to the combined population of North America and Western Europe.”
With a global network of more than 460 locations serving over 85 countries, Arrow Electronics is a Fortune 150 company providing products, services and solutions to industrial and commercial users of electronic components and computing systems. Connecting customers to technology, Arrow works in a breadth of markets, including telecommunications, information systems, transportation, medical, industrial and consumer electronics. With 2015 sales of $23.28 billion, the company serves as a supply channel partner for over 100,000 original equipment manufacturers, contract manufacturers and commercial customers around the globe.
‘Now the challenge was to bring technology to people who had no electricity,’ says Verrengia.
Arrow engineers collaborated with the Netherlands-based Solar Energy Equipment Supplier, Greenlink, to come up with a solution. The result was a 40-foot steel cargo container, such as can be found languishing in ports all over the world, triple-insulated to protect against tropical heat and fitted with steel doors and window shutters to deter vandalism. Energy-saving technologies include LED interior lighting and a rooftop solar power system that can power the unit for two days.
Added electronics include refurbished laptops, mobile devices, and a LED flat screen monitor, a printer, two routers and two solid state drives. The entire unit is fitted to a commercial truck and trailer unit.
“Sometimes it is harder to make something very simple than something complicated,” says Verrengia. “It had to be easy to assemble and repair as well as sturdy enough to travel across difficult terrains.”
At an unveiling ceremony, the prototype DigiTruck was endorsed by Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu as well as the King of Belgium.
An orphanage in the remote village of Tuleeni, on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, was chosen for the deployment of the first DigiTruck last August. “It was an hour from a jetport used for the safari business so we could get materials there quickly and it was a well-run orphanage where the kids were ready for the truck,” says Verrengia.
Indeed, they were more than ready – within thirty minutes of entering their new classroom, children who had never seen a computer before were playing games and navigating devices. Verrengia was stunned. “We asked them about their ambitions and they talked about becoming heart surgeons, pilots, doctors and journalists. It shouldn’t have been, but it was a salutary reminder that just because these children live in poor village with no electricity doesn’t mean they don’t have the same life goals as anyone else.
“It’s an old cliche,” says Verrangia, “but these kids truly do give us more than we give them. We were all emotionally impacted at Arrow. The staff feel great about it, about where they work – you can see the motivation and inspiration in their eyes. On their own initiative – nothing to do with management – they have started fundraising to build a new playground at the orphanage and provide educational scholarships for the children to go onto further education.”
The effect on management was equally profound. It was a human moment, says Verrengia. ‘We’re in this business 24/7, but this took us out of our day-to-day and gave us a chance to see how transformative electronics can be. Perhaps some of us remembered our own first computer and understood properly the impact of all those refurbished devices we had been sending out. On both a personal and a business basis, we felt the power of what we are involved in.”
As a B2B company, says Verrengia, Arrow doesn’t sell to consumers. “We don’t have retail stores, so we don’t have the pressure from general population customers spending their dollars on our products to behave socially and responsibly. So we have a CSR program because we want to do good and make a difference. And, while some of our CSR activities at Arrow are similar to those of other companies, such as financial contributions, in-kind donations of the company's expertise, board service for executives and equipment, employee engagement opportunities and other collaborative roles, we also like to do things differently.
“Our slogan is guiding innovation forward, and these children are the innovators of the future. Yet without technology, without knowing how to use a computer, how would they escape the same subsistence-level existence as their parents and grandparents? We seek to develop innovative projects and the DigiTruck is a compelling example of how electronics can provide creative and sustainable solutions where needs are greatest. “
It also tells a great business story, of course. “If we can bring a fully functioning computer lab along muddy tracks at the tail end of the rainy season to a hillside village that is off the grid, we can certainly find solutions to our clients problems,” says Verrengia.
Today, over a hundred secondary school students are regularly using the computers in the DigiTruck’s eighteen-desk classroom, learning both about technology as well as studying online lessons in reading, math and English. Education and a career are no longer just dreams, but possibilities for the children of Tuleeni.
When the original DigiTruck moves on to a new East African destination later this year, Arrow and CTG will provide Tuleeni with a permanent computer education center, including tablets that can be charged overnight, to serve more children.
“Our relationship with Close the Gap - who own and run the truck - continues to deepen as does our relationship with the orphanage. But the emotional challenge is overwhelming,” says Verrengia. “Tanzania alone needs about 1,000 DigiTrucks and it is far from the most challenging country in Africa.
“We can build more trucks but not enough on our own. Donations are important, of course, but what I hope is that by setting the example with CTG, we have been able to demonstrate what can be achieved.”
Since Arrow sponsored the first DigiTruck, other companies have stepped in to sponsor two additional units which will be deployed this year. “If other big companies could build just one truck each we could start to see a real difference.
‘There are,” says Verrengia, “plenty of empty shipping containers in this world.”