Cover image courtesy of Computers 4 Africa
–by Dominic Rizzo–
This article explores several consequences of the popular movement of sending used information and communication technology (ICT) to less developed countries in Africa. One organization, Computers 4 Africa, states its purpose is to “lift Africa out of the poverty trap by equipping the next generation with the technology and support to work in a global environment.”1 Computers 4 Africa has had several positive effects through their work in Africa, and this article will look at those impacts. However, the act of donating used technology, instead of being completely charitable, has become an outlet for corporations to freely dump their electronic waste (E-waste) without the restrictive regulations that are present in first world countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. This practice can cause a strain on the environment and can be detrimental to the health of the local population. This article will also assess the effectiveness of sending high-level ICT to developing countries. It finds that due to financial disparity between donors and recipients, the difficulty of skills necessary to use such technology, and a culture rife with mistrust of first-world countries and their science, that developing countries are not be able to make full use of the donated computers. Finally, several potential solutions will be considered that could help remedy these unintended consequences including an increase in technology education and training as well as an increase in ethical recycling and the use of shared computing to combat E-waste.
Who is Computers 4 Africa?
While there are several organizations that deal with donated technology, Computers 4 Africa is the frontrunner in sending donated ICT to Africa. In the January of 2011, Computers 4 Africa began a merger with Digital Pipeline, a charity based in the UK that also dealt with the recycling and donation of used ICT. Digital Pipeline was founded by Microsoft in 2004 and is directly supported by philanthropist Bill Gates. Through this merger, Computers 4 Africa gained the vast resources and the strong infrastructure of the world’s leading technology charity. Digital Pipeline gained the in-house technology refurbishment capabilities of Computers 4 Africa and, most importantly, an established name in Africa with a record of successful ICT deployment. For this reason, despite the organizations joining under the name Digital Pipeline, the working name ‘Computers 4 Africa’ is retained for all work done in Africa.1 Due to this article’s focus, the coalition will be referred to as Computers 4 Africa.
As stated above, Computers 4 Africa aims to end the rampant poverty cycle in Africa by providing future generations with the resources and skills to integrate into the technology-driven world. Their process is simple: donate, process, refurbish and ship. Donations can be given at one of many drives across the country (mainly the UK), or an onsite pickup can be scheduled free of charge. The donated ICT is audited and its memory wiped. Working devices that meet minimum specifications are refurbished and are distributed worldwide to communities and organizations. This ICT goes to schools, hospitals and governments; anywhere and everywhere there is a need. Any technology that cannot be utilized is ethically recycled as Computers 4 Africa has a “zero percent landfill policy.”2 Ethical recycling constitutes the dismantling of technology and the separation of different components such as motherboards, optical drives, casing metals and plastics. These resources are sent to carefully vetted affiliate refineries for recycling and eventual reuse.
Successes: How Our Technology Helps
What does Computer 4 Africa’s help look like? Well, a Microsoft Corp. case study follows Naivasha Polytechnic, a vocational and commercial training school outside of Nairobi, Kenya. Naivasha Polytechnic launched its computer studies curriculum in 1995 with fewer than ten computers donated by an unnamed entity. These computers allowed students to learn little beyond basic computer operation and use. The program was also oversaturated, “with 50 students in the computer program, the 5:1 PC-to-student ratio left each student with just one hour of computer time per day. Additional students could not be accommodated.”3 Additionally, the school’s computers were soon outdated, limiting the technical skill the already small pool of students could gain. Funds would not allow the purchase of new computers, so in 2010, Naivasha Polytechnic partnered with Computers 4 Africa. Now (2014) the school trains its students on one hundred refurbished computers. While not brand new, these computers are well-endowed with processing power and memory, enabling students to gain modern technical skill that can be used in today’s technology-driven world. This partnership with Computers 4 Africa has made a profound impact on the school and its students. At Naivasha Polytechnic, enrollment in the computer program has increased by four hundred percent, and each of these students is receiving more than double the computer time they would have previously.3 Students trained in this program can earn up to one hundred percent more than their peers. Naivasha Polytechnic attributes its success to Computers 4 Africa and their high-quality computers.
In another case, a single laptop was provided to a small unnamed clinic that serves a densely populated rural area of Kenya. Alice, who runs the clinic, primarily works with victims of HIV/AIDS, encouraging victims to identify themselves as affected and educating the surrounding populations about the risks of HIV/AIDS. The need for technology became most pressing after the donation of a microscope in 2011. While the microscope had considerable positive impacts, its data was stored on a physical spreadsheet which was difficult to read and analyze. This was remedied by the laptop supplied by Computers 4 Africa in 2012. The laptop helped clinic workers, namely Alice’s son, to interpret the data from the microscope, leading to several life-saving diagnoses. The laptop also helped in preventative medicine. In two outbreaks, one of measles and one of typhoid, Alice and her clinic were able to use the laptop to identify the origin, extent and direction of spread through pattern analysis and ultimately stop the outbreaks.4 Alice’s hard work eventually attracted support from the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) and other foreign non-government organizations.
There is no doubt that Computers 4 Africa has had positive impacts. Along with creating the anecdotes above, to date, Computers 4 Africa has sent one hundred and forty-eight shipments of refurbished ICT; resulting in assistance to thirty-six African countries, despite being active in only twenty-six.1 They have also established three new recycling centers, which help create jobs and alleviate some of the stress caused by an influx of ICT.
Can Our Technology Be Used Effectively?
The big question in the donation of refurbished ICT is stated above: Can the technology be used effectively? The answer is “not yet.” There are many problems impeding the effective use of ICT in developing countries. It turns out that introducing a relatively new technology into a third world country is more difficult than just giving access. The problems stem from a less robust infrastructure, at times not possessing the means (like electricity) to use technology reliably, and a considerably shallower resource pool, disallowing the upkeep and maintenance of technology. These problems are compounded by a distinct difference in culture, namely the ingrained mistrust of foreign “science.” These problems can be broken down into three basic categories: finance, skill and culture/environment.
The Financial Problem
On an institutional level, “the feasibility of purchasing and maintaining expensive equipment is a problem… in a developing country.”5 Half of this problem is alleviated through charitable donation; schools, hospitals and governments in developing countries no longer must pay top dollar for ICT that can keep pace with the modern world. But the upkeep of ICT, especially high-powered equipment, can be expensive. This problem stems from the disparity in infrastructures; ICT is a first-world consumer good, and prices are set there. Third-world countries cannot match the prices dictated at the technology’s origin making it difficult to acquire new and repair old technology.
On an individual level, not everyone has access to the provided education and technology. Many children must help support their family, either by working or by watching siblings and doing chores while their parents work. For these children, even free education with free computers does them no good. Again, the financial disparity stands in the way of using ICT to improve conditions in developing countries.
The Skill-Level Problem
ICT takes some familiarity and skill to use effectively, attributes that most of humanity does not possess intrinsically. The problem then is one of training, and it is a problem ill-addressed by Computers 4 Africa and similar organizations up to this point. The problem of teaching a new skill, such as ICT use, is already challenging due to the language barrier; this problem is compounded by the sheer amount of variance in available ICT; different brands, different operating systems, different software and different applications all lend to the general confusion and make training anyone that much more difficult. This is especially seen in schools where lots of computers are distributed but only basic training is given to teachers. Teachers often do not know where or even how to start their lessons, especially when everyone in the class might be working on a different type of system. “Indeed, teachers in Africa are well aware that not all donations are worthwhile.”6 Furthermore, as with all technology, new and used, there are maintenance issues that, without the proper training, could mean the end-of-life for the ICT. And remember, if a big update comes through, retraining/reteaching may be necessary.
The Cultural/Environmental Problem
ICT is relatively new in most of the developing countries. Some people in developing countries may fear science and technology or not believe in their ability to use computers at all.5 Convincing such people to make use of ICT is difficult to say the least. This cultural rejection is, at least in some part, due to the history of first-world countries and their sciences being used to the detriment of developing countries. The other issue is one of confidence and exists simply because the newness of the technology. Phones are the closest relation and are widely used; however, those who had troubles learning to operate phones may not be willing to attempt what they perceive as a more complex problem.
Sometimes, “computers arrive before there is a regular power supply.”7 In this case, the environment does not allow these ICT to be used at all, let alone effectively. This lack of development could be the result of several aspects. Oftentimes third-world countries are affected by war. This not only destabilizes the country and its infrastructure but can also displace individuals. Natural disasters can have similar results, especially when aid and resources for reconstruction are not readily available. Sometimes, people live outside the reach of a country’s provided electricity, and, in rare cases, countries have not yet reached the point in development where widespread electricity can be made available.
E-Dumping: The Scope of the Problem
Another problem with the donation of ICT to poor countries is one of E-dumping, and it is a growing problem. E-dumping is the removal of E-waste (outdated or unusable technology) by dumping it somewhere. The United States is one of the largest generators of E-waste in the world, “according to the National Safety Council, more than sixty-three million computers in the United States will become obsolete in 2005.”8 The number of computers on the verge of worthlessness has only grown since that time, in both the United States and the world, simply due to the increase in technology use. “In May 2015, a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report estimated that 60 to 90 percent of the world’s electronic waste is illegally dumped. Last year, nearly 42 million tonnes of E-waste were generated…”9 Unfortunately, developing countries, including most of Africa, are targets for the rest of the world’s E-waste. This is because the costs incurred by strict rules and regulations on recycling and disposing of E-waste ethically in first-world countries can be circumvented by sending E-waste to developing countries. The easiest way to do this is to disguise the E-waste as a ‘donation’ of ICT to aid development.
The Problems With E-dumping
Donated ICT can be broken down into three categories: working, outdated and broken/end-of-life. Some of the ICT works and can be used for positive pursuits, while some is old and outdated but can still find some use. Even broken ICT can be helpful in small amounts; it can provide work for small business that repair and sell such goods. However, the majority of exported ICT is broken or at its end-of-life, and these developing countries, in Africa and the rest of the world, do not possess the infrastructure or resources to fix the broken computers or to recycle the dead ICT. There is simply too much. The result is tons upon tons of E-waste in landfills, taking a toll on the health of the environment and the community. This is because E-waste is filled with hazardous, toxic materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium and dangerous plastics. The environment suffers when these toxic materials seep into the Earth; the sites of E-dumping often experience a decrease in soil quality, making growing crops and feeding livestock difficult. The community suffers through scavenging the valuable resources that ICT contains such as aluminum and copper. These valuable elements create an opportunity for “informal recycling, where unregulated collectors or “waste pickers” recover end-of-life electronic equipment to extract valuable components.”10 Oftentimes these scavengers are children and teenagers trying to help their families. They range throughout landfills with little to no protection, sometimes even lacking shoes. A common practice for extracting the valuable metals is to burn away the surrounding materials, consequently releasing toxins into the air. This is magnified even further when landfills containing ICT are burned to free space.
How Does Computers 4 Africa Stack Up
Computers 4 Africa is very conscious of the growing problem of E-waste and avoids it, despite the cost to their organization. After a donation, the ICT they obtain is vetted and the working, useful computers and the end-of-life computers are separated. The useless ICT is recycled ethically; Computers 4 Africa dismantles useless ICT and sends the components to vetted recyclers, outfitted to deal with specific elements, for recycling and eventual reuse. This guarantees that the technology sent will not go directly from ship to landfill and decreases the overall amount of E-waste, in both Africa and the world. Computers 4 Africa has also worked to establish recycling centers in Africa which has created jobs and helped combat the problem of E-waste that has already been dumped into these third-world countries.
Computers 4 Africa is also working on a solution for the problem presented by the lack of training in computer skills and the cultural rejection of technology due to a mistrust of the West and its science. “The ‘Digital Ambassadors’ programme was launched in Spring 2016 initially into 5 African countries…” with plans to increase this number.1 These Digital Ambassadors work to educate communities on the need for and advantages gained by ICT. They also work to bring access to these communities. Communities hosting a Digital Ambassador benefit in two ways. Firstly, they have access to an ICT professional that can help with training, repair and a host of other problems experienced. The second is that they, for a time, have the ear of the organization and can more accurately express the wants and needs of the community.
Computers 4 Africa, as an organization, does very well in avoiding some of the most pervasive problems in donating refurbished ICT including that of E-waste. However, they fail in other respects. Although they have enacted some measures to prevent the build-up of E-waste in Africa, at the end of the day Computers 4 Africa is contributing to the oversaturation of ICT and E-waste in Africa. While they do restrict their donations to working ICT, there is not enough being done to extend this technology’s working life and keep it from ending up in the dumps. Their solution is to just send more recycled ICT, increasing the overall amount of E-waste in these countries.
They also fall prey to assumptions: they often assume a person or community has access to electricity; they assume a people or culture will want the technological advancements they offer; they assume students can and will come learn this foreign elective; they assume that a teacher with minimal training will be able teach students. Only recently did they institute any type of training for receivers of their technology.
Further Solutions to Existing Problems
The solution proposed more than any other is simply one of increased education. Whether it be on basic operation of computers, how to teach a computer class, or the dangers of E-waste, there is a consensus that an uplifting of developing countries through ICT can only be achieved with increased education. Schools, hospitals, and governments would then be able to use ICT more effectively. Teachers would be able to more effectively teach students, and those students would go on to push their country higher and higher on the global technology scale.
Another promising solution, practiced by an American organization called N Computing, is one of shared computing. Computers can execute many processes at the same time, and this function is often underutilized in a personal computer. N Computing works to provide interfaces that allow ten, twenty, even thirty children to use a computer in tandem.11 This is achieved by dynamically allocating an increased number of computer processes to fully utilize the hardware of the specified device. This has been proposed and is being designed as a solution to the world’s E-waste problem as a whole. When applied to the problems above, this solution seems ideal. The cost and potential E-waste is vastly decreased due to a single computer being fully utilized, as opposed to thirty computers being underutilized. In a classroom setting, the whole class is using the same system, with the same applications; making the teachers’ job much, much easier. Shared computing could provide tangible improvements to the existing structure of donating ICT.
Computers 4 Africa does some good. While they do a good job avoiding the most pervasive problems in their business, they are not completely free of them. Their work against E-waste is admirable but not enough. The Digital Ambassadors are an idea that should have begun with Computers 4 Africa’s conception, yet only a fifth of countries being provided with technology are receiving stable support. Computers 4 Africa also makes assumptions concerning the need of their donations and their effectiveness. Computers 4 Africa has not yet succeeded in their purpose of uplifting developing African countries to function on a global scale through technology, and they are not close. This is not for a lack of effort on their part. Computers 4 Africa is moving in the right direction, but they still have a colossal task ahead of them.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
- West, David. “Home.” Computers 4 Africa, 2015, computers4africa.org.uk/.
- East, Mark. “Digital Pipeline | Computer Refurbishment for Reuse.” Digital Pipeline | IT Recycling | IT Reuse | Charity | United Kingdom, 2018, digitalpipeline.org/.
- Microsoft Corporation. “Kenyan School Boosts Enrollment 400 Percent, Doubles Instruction Time, with Refurbished PCs.” Microsoft Case Study: Promoting Computer Literacy, Microsoft Corporation, July 2014, mcgawmarketing.com/msdccn/campaigns/windows/MS_Refurbished_PC/_pdf/North_Africa_Kenya.pdf.
- Booth, Nick. “Computers 4 Africa Saves PCs… and Lives Too.” IDG Connect, IDG Connect, 25 June 2015, idgconnect.com/abstract/10073/computers-africa-saves-pcs-lives.
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- Pantić, Marija. “Open Education Resources and Developing Countries: One Critical View.” Infotheca, vol. 17, no. 1, 1 Nov. 2017, pp. 52–66., doi:10.18485/infotheca.2017.17.1.3.
- Flynn, Laurie J. “Poor Nations Are Littered With Old PC’s, Report Says.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Oct. 2005, nytimes.com/2005/10/24/technology/poor-nations-are-littered-with-old-pcs-report-says.html
- Spaull, Jon. “World’s Biggest e-Dump, or Vital Supplies for Ghana?” Net, SciDev.Net, 5 Oct. 2015, www.scidev.net/global/digital-divide/multimedia/electronic-waste-dump-supplies-ghana.html.
- Cumps, Bjorn; Vanden Eynde, Olivier; and Viaene, Stijn, “Impact Of E-Waste On The Operating Model Of A “Close The Digital Divide” Organisation” (2013). ECIS 2013 Completed Research. 71.
- James, Jeffrey. “Low-Cost Computers for Education in Developing Countries.” Social Indicators Research, vol. 103, no. 3, 2010, pp. 399–408., doi:10.1007/s11205-010-9708-2.
- Unwin, Tim. “ICT & Education in Africa: Partnership, Practice & Knowledge Sharing.” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 31, no. 99, Mar. 2004, pp. 150–160. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4006949.
- Puckett, Jim. Lots of Trash, Very Little Treasure. Lagos, Nigeria.