15 years of ICT for Development: a reflection

Last week Computer Aid International celebrated providing its 200,000th computer to organisations working in education and development in more than 100 countries.

Computer Aid’s Founder and previous CEO Tony Roberts reflects on changes in the field of information and communication technologies for Development (ICT4D) over the last fifteen years.

In 1997 when we founded Computer Aid International, silver-haired senior managers in the London headquarters of international development agencies were sceptical of our suggestions. They thought us fanciful in seeing a role for ICT on the ground in development (despite using computers themselves at work and at home). It certainly wasn’t the way development was done back then.

Undeterred, experience on the ground told us that the level of demand for ICTs from operational development worker was significant and fast-growing. Local field staff were eager to apply ICT to enhance service delivery and empower communities.

We made mistakes though; a technology-centred approach limited the value of some initiatives. Hype and enthusiasm often proceeds the application of sound development practice in the arena of technology and development. This is equally true whether you look at Computer Aid in those early days, the telecentre movement later on, MIT’s one-laptop-per-child initiative, the bubble of mobile apps for development or some of the current activity around Open Data and transparency.

In the cycle of innovation diffusion and adoption, hype precedes substance; technology-push precedes genuine demand-pull; and technology-centred precedes people-centred development.

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A visit to some of Computer Aid’s projects in Zambia

As Computer Aid’s marketing officer, my day to day role is UK-based, however I was fortunate enough to accompany Ben Makai, our East Africa Programme Manager, on a visit to Zambia in December last year to meet some of our new and existing partners.

Zambia is an absolutely beautiful country. As I travelled in and around its capital, Lusaka, I was surprised by the sheer amount of building work and the number of shopping centres popping up around the city (I counted 6) –  apparently a result of what seems to be fairly extensive Chinese investment.

There is a huge demand for computers as well as a significant need for an improved ICT infrastructure across the country.

The organisations we visited that already have access to IT were clearly putting the technology to good use. Both teachers and pupils at all the schools we went to, spoke about the importance of learning IT and the difference PCs had made to their lessons.

At St Michael’s Early Learning Centre, Miss Pascalina Chabu, a teacher at the school, told me that “We know that in the modern world, everyone needs IT skills. All jobs expect their employees to have them so our computers are very beneficial for all the children.”

Miss Chabu had taught all the teachers at the school how to use PCs and said that “With books you can only learn so much and you are limited to the information within them. With the internet, the learning opportunities are so much greater. It’s also great for the teachers too because now that we have PCs and the internet, planning lessons is much easier. I can find information that I need for my classes and it has improved all my lessons.”
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21st Century Challenges – Digital Technology in Africa event

Computer Aid were out in force at last night’s Digital Technology in Africa event held by the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington, London. The panel consisted of Nicholas Negraponte, Erik Hersman and Herman Chinery-Hess and was chaired by Rory Cellan-Jones.

  • Having heard lots about Negraponte’s ‘One Laptop Per Child’, it was fantastic to hear about the programme from the man himself! One aspect of the programme that I hadn’t previously been aware of is that each laptop contains 100 books and each laptop contains different books from each other, so if a community is given 100 laptops, 10,000 books are made available to the whole community!
  •  Herman Chinery-Hess, founder of SOFTtribe, spoke about the need for Africa to develop its own technology solution and has developed his software to be, in his words, “tropically tolerant” – meaning that it accounts for regional issues with power, labour and politics, which technology built in the US and UK doesn’t account for.
  • It was great to hear from Erik Hersman, founder of Ushahidi who shared some very interesting insights on how technology is developing and gave examples of African entrepreneurs who are creating mobile apps and SMS services specifically designed for the continent.

There were a wide range of opinions and lots of food for thought – some of the comments that really stood out for me during their discussions were:

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