Subject: Cast-off computers are finding a second life bringing Third World
Sydney Morning Herald

Fair trade

Katie Cincotta
October 18, 2007

Live Wire

Cast-off computers are finding a second life bringing Third World communities into the digital age.

In a corrugated iron shed, a group of young East Timorese are learning how to type on a computer. Others are Googling the latest varieties of corn or the price of rice, excited by their newfound connection to that great equaliser - the World Wide Web.

It's a power to learn beyond the dusty streets of Dili on second-hand computers donated by Australians: humble Pentium 3s and 4s with hard drives smaller than an iPod; desktops that have served business and families faithfully now shelved to make way for whizzbang upgrades.

Proving the adage that one man's trash is another man's treasure, these unwanted computers are being collected, refurbished and shipped to developing nations by non-profit groups such as Computerbank, whose volunteers check that the preloved machines are working, wipe the hard drive and trade power-sucking Windows for the more lightweight Linux, and a batch of other open-source programs.

Since president Kylie Davies founded the recycling scheme in 1999, Computerbank has distributed 2500 computers to disadvantaged communities in Australia and overseas - from Congolese refugees in Shepparton to schools, orphanages and villages in Fiji, Samoa, East Timor and Ecuador.

ANZ Bank recently gave Computerbank a soon-to-beupgraded fleet of 1000 branch PCs, which are being used at schools across the South Pacific.

Ms Davies says resurrecting computers from the junk pile is a rewarding exercise as they serve a second life for communities struggling to learn, communicate and work without basic computer technology."

There's a lot of goodwill out there and people see this as a good service - an outlet to recycle a computer that somebody else might get use out of," the social worker says.

In East Timor, a church minister is educating remote communities with a laptop that came from a high- flying Melbourne businessman.

Young East Timorese farmers are using internet cafes to research agriculture, weather and produce prices using computers that probably clocked up game records for Aussie teens putting off their homework.

In Ecuador, Computerbank's internet cafe has become a thriving social meeting point, which Ms Davies says is just as important as the technology itself."

Internet cafes like the centre we set up in Ecuador provide an avenue for the community to get together, so it's more than just about providing the technology and education," she says.

Andrew Mahar, executive director of Infoxchange Australia, a community service group that has distributed more than 18,000 donated computers, agrees that moving technology into developing nations needs to stretch beyond the hardware."

We're not just putting containers together and shipping them off overseas, but having a co-ordinated activity around it like training and skills development," he says.

Mr Mahar believes empowering locals with computer skills is critical in helping to avoid the problems of "grey technology" - equipment that breaks down and can't be fixed by locals."

Broken computers, photocopiers, faxes - they become like boat anchors, just dead weight," he says."

Once they break down, that's the end of the story because they don't have the skills to repair them."

Which is why Infoxchange recently brought out six young East Timorese to Melbourne for an intensive six-month course in computers and IT.

"Those young people soaked the ideas up, they loved it," Mr Mahar says.

He says it was inspiring to see their commitment to learning skills that would help their community. "The thing that put the shivers up and down my spine was seeing these young people wanting to help their country become a strong stable economy, and part of doing that is skill development, like being able to fix a computer."

Since going back to East Timor in December, the young graduates have set up a workshop in Baucau, which has been refurbishing and repairing computers for local schools and orphanages along with training the district's local government staff. It is a shining example of Infoxchange's "teach a man to fish" philosophy of independent progress.

"They've built a non-profit business - Info Timor - that is generating enough money to keep the thing going themselves," Mr Mahar says. "People can run offices, do typing, develop language skills. They're skilled for the future. It's about how you empower communities and give them a capacity to develop economic activities that will sustain them."

Oxfam Australia's program manager in East Timor, Sieneke Martin, says the gift of technology can also help build confidence for those nations battling war and poverty.

Ms Martin lived in East Timor for four years and says an internet cafe developed in Dili from reconditioned computers supplied by Oxfam and Rotary has sustained hope in the violence-ravaged region.

"If you asked people what they wanted in a learning experience, English and computer skills was the answer that always came back," she says. "They see computer skills as a step towards employment but equally important for a small country rising out of problems, access to the web provided them a window to the world and connections that they might not have expected."

In May, Oxfam's internet cafe was looted during riots but the aid agency is now back on track, rebuilding the network with Dell Dimension 2100 computers donated from Oxfam Australia's own offices.

In Malawi, William Kamkwamba, the 19-year-old son of rural farmers growing maize, peanuts and potatoes, shows that same fighting spirit as part of the "cheetah" generation of Africans who refuse to wait for governments to deliver progress.

When he was just 14, the resourceful young Malawian used books, a computer and the internet to build a windmill cobbled together from scrap objects including an old bicycle and plastic piping, a structure that now powers his family's home.

Mr Kamkwamba says technology has been a window to a new way of life, giving him the tools he needed to create electricity in his family's village.

"Technology has helped me a lot. It's easy to find answers using books and the computer," he says.

Mr Kamkwamba received a standing ovation when he told his story recently at the TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conference in Tanzania, an annual conference that brings together innovative thinkers in all areas.

"The TED community was moved by his initiative and entrepreneurship to improve the life of his family in rural Malawi despite many obstacles," TED's partnership director Tom Rielly says.

Since launching his blog ( in mid-June, the young inventor has received global attention with more than 100,000 page views in his first month, and he's using a donated computer and support from US mentors, including Mr Rielly, to further his inventions.

But the modest young Malawian says the public exposure isn't as exciting as the windmill itself.

"Right now the windmill produces 30 watts. My family is able to use that power for many things, like to watch TV," Mr Kamkwamba says from the country's capital of Lilongwe where he studies English, maths, science and US history.

"The computer helped me extend on my plan," he says. "After researching on the internet, I am changing the blades to increase the speed."

Back in Mr Kamkwamba's home village, six other houses are now enjoying the newfound benefits of electricity, thanks to solar panels supplied by TED and installed by Mr Kamkwamba.

"Now six houses have electricity in my village through my invention. It makes me very proud," he says.

And the development doesn't stop there. Next up for the young man who has put Malawi on the tech map is a much-needed irrigation system for local crops.

"Very soon I will be using the windmill to pump water," he says.

For this proud "cheetah", the winds of change are only just beginning to blow.

Research firm IDC predicts that 257.5 million PCs will be sold this year, most of which will be headed for "mature markets" already awash in desktops and laptops. But the focus is gradually shifting to "emerging markets" in the developing nations, especially for portable PCs, which the research firm says will make up half of this year's computer shipments.

The imbalance is tilting thanks to enterprises such as the One Laptop Per Child project, which aims to give every child in the Third World a new $100 laptop.

With capital from tech giants including Google, Intel, Notel and AMD, the ambitious project by MIT Media Lab's Nicholas Negroponte has produced a nifty low-power, water-resistant children's laptop that will be sold to governments of the developing world.

Designed to withstand rugged conditions, the distinctive green laptop has "rabbit ear" aerials for the in-built wireless network, which lets users connect to each other and to the internet. As light as a lunch box and the size of a textbook, the XO operates a customised Linux interface called Sugar and can be hand-powered with a crank, pedal or a pull-cord.

Computerbank's Kylie Davies was impressed with the prototype she saw at a recent Linux conference, which she says is an exciting tech step forward for the 99 per cent of children in developing countries who leave school without ever having touched a computer.

"It's very cute and light, and even with the sun on it you can still see the screen, which is important as children are often learning outside," she says.

More than 3000 of the laptops have been distributed for testing in countries including Argentina, Nigeria, Rwanda and Pakistan, with a full roll-out of the final version expected to begin this month.

Turning your tech trash into treasure

If you would like your old computer to go to good use, drop it off at Computerbank's offices in West Melbourne (483 Victoria Street) or visit its website ( for more details. Pick-up can be arranged for businesses with more than five computers to donate.

Computerbank accepts Pentium 3 and 4 desktops and laptops, and monitors that are 17 inch or higher that come with a working computer. The PCs are disassembled, tested and loaded with Linux and open-source programs to go to needy locals or Third World communities.

In order to prevent your old data from being accessed, it's important to wipe your hard drive clean so that you don't give away any personal data. But simply deleting files or formatting a hard drive won't erase all your data. Software such as WipeDrive can do the job, although Computerbank co-ordinator Kylie Davies says they also delete the hard drives to give them a fresh start, preventing any access to personal records or passwords. "We remove the hard drives and they get wiped with three-pass wiping, which is industry standard," she says.

Ms Davies says Linux and open-source software helps keep software costs down for poorer communities that may not be able to afford Windows.

"We use Linux partly because of the philosophy of open source, which is about sharing and giving people open access to information," she says.

Infoxchange Australia accepts donated computers through its Green PC operation, which refurbishes old computers and sells or donates them to disadvantaged communities.

The organisation takes a minimum of Pentium 3, 800 MHz CPU and 17-inch monitors, which you can drop off at Green PC, 375 Johnston Street, Abbotsford, from Monday to Friday between 8.30am and 5pm.

The One Laptop Per Child Project also accepts financial donations via its website


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