Putting old PCs to good use
How IT equipment donated by UK businesses is helping rural African communities develop economically
Macha Works is an African charity that aims to stem the gradual desertion of rural communities in Zambia by building the infrastructure they need to support economic growth.
Information, and the IT equipment required to deliver it, is a vital component of that infrastructure, says the charity’s chief executive, Fred Mweetwa. “Without information, we believe that it’s very difficult to develop rural areas,” he says. “People need information for agriculture, health, culture and heritage.”
Macha Works recently delivered that information to the community of Chikanta, with the help of UK charity Computer Aid International, by rolling out something called a ZubaBox.
A ZubaBox is a shipping container fitted with solar panels, monitors and a single server running multiple virtual desktops, using technology from a company called NComputing. Connecting to the Internet via a WiMax mobile broadband connection, the ZubaBox serves as an Internet cafeÌ for locations that others communications networks cannot reach.
Each ZubaBox costs £17,000 to make and another £5,000 to ship to Zambia, and is generally paid for by a corporate sponsor. To keep costs down, Computer Aid International builds the ZubaBoxes using IT equipment that has been donated by UK organisations.
One such organisation is the Royal Mail, which donated 3,000 machines last year alone. As the postal carrier’s head of change, Adrian Parker, explains, Royal Mail could get its outsourced IT provider to dispose of its computer equipment for free, but instead it chooses to donate to Computer Aid International at cost.
“Donating to Computer Aid costs us money because we pay our outsourcer the residual value of the assets to enable us to donate them to charity,” Parker explains. “If we gave away nothing, it would cost us nothing.”
Meeting CSR Goals
Clearly, the organisation sees tangible value in working with Computer Aid International. For one thing, it is in accordance with Royal Mail’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy. A second reason is that Computer Aid International wipes the data from the equipment, in a manner that meets US military standards.
The issue of data persisting on supposedly recycled equipment came to public prominence in 2008, when environmental charity Greenpeace claimed to have found a PC at an illegal dump in Ghana that contained confidential NHS patient records. Computer Aid International has campaigned for a crackdown on fraudulent organisations that offer to dispose of old PCs ethically, only to dump them illegally in toxic sites in China and West Africa.
“There’s a nice warm feeling that our machines won’t end up in landfill somewhere,” Parker explains. “That gives us the ability to have some positive communications within the business, about the fact that the equipment that people are using on a day-to-day basis goes on to help people get on the technology ladder.”
He adds that, while it does cost the organisation money, the process of donating the equipment is simple. “For anyone who might think it’s an onerous process, it’s not,” he says. “It’s really easy.”