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Solar-powered Internet cafes link rural Africa to global village

A ZukaBox project in Macha village,  Zambia. zdnetasia.com
A ZukaBox project in Macha village, Zambia. zdnetasia.com 

This container being transported along a remote Zambian road holds one of three ZubaBox Internet cafes that technology charity Computer Aid International has set up in Kenya and Zambia.

The Internet cafes, the first of which was installed in early 2010, have brought Internet connectivity to communities in sub-Saharan Africa in an effort to boost IT skills, education and day-to-day communications in remote rural areas. Housed in old shipping containers, the solar-powered Internet cafes use low-power thin-client devices linked to a Pentium 4 PC, which acts as a hub and connects to the Internet via a satellite link.

The solar panels and satellite connectivity means the ZubaBox facilities can operate without the need for mains electricity or a wired Internet connection.

The first ZubaBox was installed in a mission hospital in the village of Macha, Zambia and is being used by Johns Hopkins University in Maryland to research malaria.

Located 70km from the nearest paved road, the Macha ZubaBox supports a mesh network allowing devices within 1.5km of the box to use its connection. There are plans to extend the mesh network to a 30km radius.

Macha uses a rota system, which sees schools use the ZubaBox in the morning, teachers and nurses use it for professional training in the afternoon, followed by a general session for adults.

The ZubaBox allows locals to carry out tasks that would previously require them to travel many miles to towns, such as registering births and deaths and making tax arrangements.

Many workers who previously had to travel to towns to get their wages have also benefited as a bank kiosk has been attached to the ZubaBox. Bank employees come to the kiosk each month, where they can work out what wages people are owed.

The flying doctor service Amref is also making use of the facility to establish a video link with larger hospitals to help assess patients’ conditions.

This is the most recently deployed ZubaBox, delivered to the village of Chikanta, about 60 miles from the first site in Macha.

According to Computer Aid International CEO David Barker, one of the main aims of the ZubaBox project is to close the digital divide between rural and urban areas in developing countries.

“Even if (young people) were lucky enough to progress into higher education and university, that would be no good to them in the modern world if they didn’t have these IT skills,” he told silicon.com.

The Chikanta village chief was aware of the Macha project and approached Computer Aid International to arrange the supply of a ZubaBox for his own village.

Like the Macha facility, the Chikanta ZubaBox uses a satellite link to provide Internet access to 10 thin-client devices. The Chikanta Internet cafe uses the slightly cheaper version of ZubaBox, which runs a Linux-based OS rather than Windows XP.

The Chikanta ZubaBox is used by students for research and by farmers to check the prices they should be expecting for their produce and to obtain veterinary and agricultural advice.

A number of changes have been made to the ZubaBox design as a result of the three pilot projects, including moving the control computer from the back of the ZubaBox to the entrance to allow the administrator to control the thin-client devices and be on hand to help those arriving to use the Internet cafe.

Other changes have included changing the ventilation to improve the throughput of fresh air and making sure the satellite dish is fitted correctly to avoid casting a shadow over the solar panels.

Between the shipment of the two Zambian ZubaBoxes, Computer Aid International provided a cybercafe for Computers for Schools Kenya, located in the suburb of Embakasi in Nairobi.

In place since autumn 2010, the Embakasi facility has so far been used as a showcase for the technology in Kenya and as it’s located within reach of a mobile network, is also able to use 3G connectivity.

Sponsorship is critical to make the next phase of the project a success. “The problem with the ZubaBox, as far as the locals are concerned, is it costs about £22,000 to £25,000 so you need a western organisation to actually fund it. Once it’s been funded as a capital cost then they can take it on and run it,” Barker said.

The charity is now appealing for companies to sponsor 10 more ZubaBox intenet cafes to be put in place in remote areas and disaster zones by 2012. “We’re now looking for companies to come and sponsor them so that we can actually deploy them,” Computer Aid International CEO David Barker told silicon.com.

-silicon.com