| Apr 28, 2005


Feature article,April 28, 2005

Feature articleApril 28, 2005

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Kenyan connection keeps Computers for Schools program energized.

by Jeff Green

Its been three months since Mark Elliott returned from a trip to Kenya that was sponsored by Canadian Crossroads International, but he has had little time to think much about it since returning to his students and his work with the Land O Lakes Communications Network, The Frontenac E-Waste Recovery Centre, and the Computers for Schools program.

The trip was an opportunity to see how Computers For Schools Kenya is progressing, he recalled from his cubby at the Frontenac E-Waste Recycling Centre this week, as he was preparing to drive to Kingston to get a vanload of computers from Hotel Dieu hospital, I was able to help out with some technical problems along the way, and I got to see Tom Muzili and Efantas, whom Ive worked with for a few years.

Tom Muzili, the director of Computers for Schools Kenya, discovered Sharbot Lake when he came to Canada to see how Computers for Schools was working.

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He was visiting the huge Computers For Schools site in Hull, and he said they could never do anything like this in Kenya. So he was brought to our small shop in Sharbot Lake, and when he looked at our small shop he said, This we can do in Kenya, and weve been working with him ever since.

Technicians went from Sharbot Lake to Kenya to train Kenyans to set up refurbishing centres so that donated computers that are no longer of use for corporations can be turned into usable computers for students.

Later, Efantas came from Kenya to Sharbot Lake for three months. In Sharbot Lake, he worked in the Computers For Schools shop and soaked up as much knowledge as he could.

When Mark Elliott visited Kenya, he found Efantas in Mombasa, where he manages the Computers for Schools site in Mombasa, Kenyas second largest City.

I visited several schools, and found situations I had not expected. There was one school that didnt have any electricity, where they ran their computer lab by generator, he said.

There were other schools that held the technology in a bit too high regard.

I found beautiful computer labs, where the computers were all set up, and each component was covered with a dust cover; even the mouses were covered with dust covers. The machines had been turned on, but no one had used the software. They were afraid to break them. We told them to go ahead and use them, thats what they are for, and there are people trained to fix them if they break.

While Mark Elliott says he was very well received in Kenya, being invited into peoples homes for dinner just about every night, he did find that being a mazungu posed some problems when visiting schools with computer labs. The teachers, and the students thought I was some kind of indpector and the ended to avoid me. It was hard to get them to show me how they used the technology, which was something I wanted to see, he said.

Further exchanges between Sharbot Lake and Nairobi are planned.

Within the next year, a woman technologist from Kenya will be travelling to Sharbot Lake to spend a few months learning about wireless Internet technology for use in Kenya.

In many parts of Kenya, wireless is he only way they can go because the phone lines are too rudimentary to provide internet service, Elliot explained

The Sharbot Lake Computers for Schools site has also pioneered something called thin client technology, which has tremendous potential for Computers for Schools sites in Africa around the world, many of which are being assisted by the Sharbot Lake Computers for Schools program.

Thin Client makes use of completely outmoded Pentium 1 computers, which can be diverted from the e-waste stream. The hard drives in the old Pentium 1s are the part that normally wears out, but with thin client we dont use the hard drives. All of the computing is done by the server, which we can make using a Pentium 3 with some additional memory.

An entire shop can be made up using computers that are so outdated that they are not acceptable to schools in Ontario.

The software we use has been developed is entirely open sourced, and free, because in International sites there are no software budgets, Elliott said.

The Sharbot Lake Computers For Schools shop is a demonstration site for thin client technology.

The computers have most, if not all, of the capacity that most home or school users would need, including an Office suite that mimics Mircrosoft Office and can read files generated by Microsoft programs, such as Word and Excel. It also has a series of educational games, image and audio software.

Thin Client is not only a boon for the international aspect of the Sharbot Lake Computers for Schools project, it also provides a way to increase the diversion potential at the Frontenac E-Waste Recovery Centre.

I think we have a model here that will work for all the Computers for Schools Sites in Ontario, Elliott said, referring to the way the e-waste centre and the Computers for Schools program are working in concert.

All kinds of so-called computer junk comes in to the centre, and a large portion of the computers are diverted to the Computers for Schools program, either form thin client or as stand alone Personal Computers. The unusable machines are then stripped for parts and resalable, and whatever is left is slated for safe disposal.

In the past, Computers for Schools has been a training centre through grants from the Federal government, but funding has dried up, and it is mostly students from Sharbot Lake High School and the skeleton staff that are doing the refurbishing currently.

For the E-Waste Centre aspect of the operation, which is in the midst of a one year pilot project to find out what the economics of handling e-waste are, funding delays have been a serious problem, as it is difficult to gather information about markets and the cost of disposal without there being a crew to do the work.

A funding proposal to the Federal government has been submitted, and has been altered at the request of the Federal Department several times, but nothing has come of the application as of yet.

The Provincial Environment Minister, Leona Dombrowsky, visited the Frontenac E-Waste Centre two weeks ago, but she didnt bring any funding with her.

While the province is promoting the diversion of e-waste, and has said e-waste will no longer be accepted at landfill sites in the near future, they have also said it is a municipal responsibility.

Manufacturers of electronic products are expected to fund e-waste disposal in the not too distant future, and the information that can be gathered about the cost of proper disposal should be invaluable to government planners.

Nonetheless the Frontenac E-Waste Centre has not as of yet received any direct support from the province.

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