Fighting heat, dust and the digital divide: unusual ideas from Nigeria
GOA, INDIA, 28 August 2005
Kafanchan in northern Nigeria is an unlikely place for a digital renaissance. But a television program prominently telectast found people there not only "eager to join the information age, use computers and get on-line"… but planning to do so in a rather unorthodox manner.
APC member the Fantsuam Foundation’s Solo Computer project in Nigeria has been incorporated into a documentary filmed by Television for the Environment (TVE). This forms part of the Hands On series, and has been showing on BBC News24 and BBC World in August 2005.
Fantsuam Foundation is working on a revolutionary alternative computer, tailor made for the so-called "developing" world, that uses solar power.
John Dada <johndada at fantsuam.com> told APC.org in a cyber-interview, " Fantsuam Foundation had been involved in importation of refurbished PCs (personal computers) for civil society organizations in Nigeria. We soon realized that these PCs were as vulnerable to heat, dust and unreliable power supply as the brand new ones. We found a UK-based design team that was working on a system that addressed these three ‘rural tropical’ issues."
Now, the plan — and the dream — is to develop this idea into a ‘cottage industry’ that can serve a local population of users. "It is our way of bringing cutting edge technology to rural Nigeria, and promoting rural ICT entrepreneurship and associated downstream employment opportunities," says Dada.
"The BBC coverage helped to highlight one of our key programs — appropriate ICT for under-served rural population in Nigeria. As advocates of the First Mile of connectivity, Fantsuam Foundation found this program a welcome complement to our efforts," he added.
This film reported how the Fantsuam Foundation started as a micro-finance project with only 25 clients, turned out to be a huge success and administration became a problem.
Fantsuam Foundation’s John Dada is quoted saying: "Well, when you hit two thousand clients, the paperwork just got out of hand. We began to computerise our micro-finance records, then we began to use spreadsheets."
Then the folks around said asking, what is this machine that you are using? "We say it is a computer, they said can we learn to use it? I said of course, so we opened a class for them and it’s never stopped since then," Dada told the camera. As the televised programme reported, classrooms are full five days a week and in the new internet café you can surf the web and send e-mails.
Dust, heat… and costly software
The new computer Solo computer is being developing it in partnership with a group of software designers based in Britain.
As Norman Didam explained: "We have so much problems. Every day we have different complaints from customers. Floppy and hard drives use spinning discs that get clogged up by dust and crash in high temperatures. People here can’t afford licensed software so they rely on pirated versions which means constant system crashes. The result is lost data and endless repair bills."
The Solo computer is designed to get around these troubles and Fansuam is now field-testing the latest prototype. It looks very tiny, just like a single card from the mother board of a normal PC.
It comes with all the same ports and connectors as a PC. The most obvious difference is the wooden case. There are no moving parts to fail, the hard drive is replaced by a flash card and most important of all it’s been specially engineered to work with very little power so all it needs to run is a solar panel. A typical PC’s power consumption 300 watts, whereas a Solo’s is just 8.5 watts.
It runs on a GNU/Linux Free Software operating system, a system started by geeks in the West who want freedom to be an essential part of computing, and in the bargain threw up very useful lines of code that makes for stable — if a little difficult to get started on — computing.
As Ochuko Onoberhie is quoted saying in the televised programme: "The advantage of [GNU]Linux is that it is free. You can download it off the internet, and install. Again it’s a virus-free environment, very user-friendly. It runs applications for spreadsheet, word processing you have PDF (portable document file) viewers for doing PDF files so it’s wonderful. It can serve the purpose that any computer would actually do for you."
The Fantsuam Foundation expects to soon produce Solo computers for the general market. They’re already giving workshops and demonstrations to potential users of the new system. One problem though is the price tag: it cost around US $1200, far out of reach of anyone here.
But John Dada argues that might not be a high price for a machine that lasts for 12 to 15 years. He argues that costs will be saved, as there is no expensive maintenance bills or software upgrades, he says. But
coming up with the initial investment is not easy.
Says John Dada: "We’re not looking to litter every home with a computer, no. We’re looking to have communities having a few computers which members of the community can have access to. That way they can then be in touch with the rest of the country the rest of the world."
In this new way of working, schools, clinics, businesses — in fact, any institution with a Solo computer — could be a hub for the community to come together. Instead of having their own computer, users would have their own flash memory card to store their information and plug into Solo whenever they need to access it.
Says Dada: "In five, ten years time my hope is that each village in Nigeria — I’m not asking for too much — each village in Nigeria can have one Solo. If one village has one Solo the whole of Nigeria will be networked. To me
that would be moving into the 21st century for Nigeria."