Storage Hardware

Computers 4 Africa saves PCs… and lives too

Alice runs a clinic that serves a wide but densely populated rural area of western Kenya. The healthcare challenges of tending to this deprived population – and the stigma attached to some of the medical conditions she treats – have made her wary of disclosing more details of her name and location.

The challenges have also made her creative and resourceful and technology has brought these qualities out in her. It was a UK-based IT charity, Computers 4 Africa, which empowered her to greater heights of altruism. By giving a second life to computers from the developed world, they are saving human lives in the developing world.

It started in 2010 when Alice delivered her third HIV-negative baby from an HIV-positive mother.

Alice works with HIV/Aids victims and their member communities, encouraging the victims to ‘come out’ and teaching the wider population that Aids is not the end of life but that, with drugs and certain precautions, they can all live together safely. Her singlehanded devotion eventually attracted The African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) and other foreign non-government organisations (NGOs), which supported her practice.

In January 2011 the clinic sourced a microscope donated from the UK. It proved such an effective addition that the local health authority seconded a technician to operate it, and the technician brought a huge manual ledger of information. This physical spreadsheet was over two-feet wide and difficult to analyse, especially when, within weeks, 70 more records had been added. A long compendium of rows of figures and letters that relate to blood and stool tests is hard enough for an analyst to make sense of, let alone a layman.

However, the paper records did enable Alice to spot rudimentary patterns, like high malaria counts and either treat the patient herself or – when necessary – refer them to hospital.

The scope of analysis took a quantum leap forward when Computers 4 Africa supplied a laptop in 2012. This machine, that might otherwise have been polluting the earth in some landfill site in the UK, had three immediate effects.

Firstly, a patient with cancer was identified and given lifesaving surgery and chemotherapy treatment. The microscope created the data, but the laptop made it into intelligence that could be acted upon.

Secondly, Alice’s son developed a skill for spreadsheet analysis of medical data. When measles – a potentially deadly disease in Africa – broke out, the newly acquired analytical talent located the origin, extent and direction of spread. Alice and her team arrested the spread of the outbreak, through a series of precautionary measures. The throwaway laptop became the platform on which a preventative medicine policy helped to save many lives. Again, the intelligence gained made it possible to isolate victims and issue warnings to locals that helped stop people making themselves vulnerable.

Thirdly, a few months after the measles contagion, typhoid broke out. Using the experience of dealing with measles, the nurse and her son quickly stopped that outbreak too. The laptop had enabled them to save lives and stop both outbreaks faster and more cheaply than had been possible before any form of IT was available.

Preventative medicine saves infinitely more time, money and lives than fighting the outbreak of disease with drugs and treatment. Similarly, saving the life of a laptop has multiple benefits too. Helpfully, the laptop has been linked to the web, so now all medical records can be uploaded and shared with other medics in Kenya and the nurse can download records in return.

Computers 4 Africa, based in the English county of Kent east of London, is a registered charity operating as a social enterprise. It funds recycling programmes for end-of-life equipment to support children and teacher training.

“When you donate your computer to Computers 4 Africa you change people’s lives forever,” says its chief operating officer David West.

When outdoors clothing retailer Timberland upgraded its IT, Computers 4 Africa found a home for the old systems in Lower Tugela Primary School in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa.

“This is the first time I realised how important this is to others and what a difference it can make,” says Daniel Chinery, Timberland’s European regional IT manager.

Similarly, Computers 4 Africa helped Eurotunnel meet its corporate social responsibility targets and bag an IFW Environmental Award for Leadership in Sustainable Development.

The Children’s Hospital School in London’s Great Ormond Street donates its equipment to Computers 4 Africa, while the Uganda Youth Soccer Academy, the Gibbons Mwaikambo Vocational Training College in Tanzania and Helps International (HINT) in Cameroon have all benefitted.

“Computers are still a rare commodity in most of Africa and so even a used PC goes a long way in enhancing education,” says Genesis Tinshu, the CEO of HINT.

Kenya’s Peter Kamau Kanini is one beneficiary of the educational improvements. The second of five children, his mother worked tirelessly in a ballast quarry in her struggle to put her children through secondary school. The family did not always have enough food to eat.

With the help of both a sponsorship and IT equipment from Computers 4 Africa, Kanini attended AIC Naivasha Polytechnic where he completed an IT training course. Within three months, Peter had a teaching job at Branden Junior School as an IT teacher to 7-13-year-olds. Peter earns the equivalent of $81 per month.

“I am very hopeful for the future and I want to run my own business providing a variety of IT services,” he says. “I want to take full responsibility for the family so my mum does not have to do the demanding physical work of the mines,” says Kanini. “I never even imagined that, for the first time, someone can rely on me. I want to thank Computers 4 Africa for what they’ve done in my life.”

A meaningful migration – a laptop’s journey to Africa

What happens when you donate your PC to Computers 4 Africa?

Your computer is given a unique code and taken to a secure warehouse, where technicians test and refurbish it.

A skilled team can fix glitches in hardware and test functions and safety, before data is wiped. The team use Blancco software, the preferred software choice of military, police, banking and IT organisations, to meet internationally certified erasure standards.

Computers 4 Africa claims it guarantees 100% cleansing of devices from servers, PCs, hard drives, smartphones and flash drives. Once erased, the data cannot be recovered. The dispatch department then bundles computers onto sealed containers. In six weeks, a donated PC can be shipped to Africa.

Once it arrives at a port, such as Mombasa in Kenya, it can be trucked to the nearest in-country partner in nations such as Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia, Southern Sudan, north-eastern Tanzania and Somalia. IT kit is then earmarked for a local school, college or community group.

Once installed each computer will provide access to education and information for 20 students during its first year with this number increasing over the next five years.


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Nick Booth

Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology. As a journalist and analyst, his mission is to stop history repeating itself.

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