The issue of what to do with the growing mountain of discarded CRT monitors is one of the major environmental challenges facing an IT industry that is struggling to improve its green credentials. Lead-filled CRTs present a particular problem in that they have been superseded by slimmer LCD alternatives — although the jury is still out on what disposal issues may be in wait when it comes to these devices — which means no-one wants them, even in developing countries such as Kenya.
Computers For Schools Kenya (CFSK) is an NGO that works with UK charities, such as Computer Aid, to take PCs that are no longer up to the rigours of Vista and other processor-intensive applications and redistribute them to schools and colleges in the developing world. The charity, which has just moved to larger premises on the outskirts of Kenya's capital city, Nairobi, has come up with a ingenious way of ensuring that CRTs can be redeployed in the same efficient way that the main PC units are dealt with by the organisation.
Nothing is wasted by CFSK. In its five-year history, the organisation has sent some 10,000 reconditioned PCs to Kenyan schools and other deserving institutions.
The answer is to embrace the trend for multimedia PCs that has seen Microsoft and others trying to position the PC as an all-in-one entertainment centre. But this being Africa – where, despite the commoditisation of PCs in the West, price is still an issue — the answer is to crack open the monitor and attach a TV card to create a cheap and reliable TV.
These CRT TVs are then sold locally to add to the charity's war chest to enable it to continue distributing PCs to the hundreds of Kenyan schools that badly need computers but don't have the budgets for the latest models from Dell or HP. CFSK has even gone one step further, adding a radio card to a desktop machine and bundling it with a CRT TV, creating a hybrid, reconditioned, multimedia desktop.
Despite its waste-not-want-not approach to computers that are no longer seen as cutting-edge, CFSK has very stringent quality standards that dictate what it will and won't take from organisations such as Computer Aid, which sources the PCs from UK businesses. Computer Aid has its own strict standards which rule out any PC below a Pentium III, or any machine that is not mostly functional, but CFSK carries out its own vetting procedures, as not all the machines it receives are up to these standards.
The organisation has recently closed relationships with two suppliers of PCs in the West whose machines weren't up to scratch. The other issue that dogs the area of computer reuse is that businesses in developed countries are worried about data left on donated machines ending up in the wrong hands overseas. But CFSK wipes all the machines that it receives using the latest eradication tools, even those PCs supplied by Computer Aid, which uses UK government-authorised wiping software.
The schools that CFSK sends the refurbished PCs to range from the top establishments in the country to the poorest community colleges. Shangilia Mtoto wa Afrika (pictured) is definitely in the latter group. According to IT teacher Wesley Omare, the majority of the children at the school, aged from seven to 15, would be on the streets if it was not for the centre. It provides a much-needed refuge, both day and night, for children from abusive or broken homes who often have no other place to turn to.
Although some critics question the importance of providing IT skills to children who may not even own shoes, Omare stressed that education, and in particular IT skills, could provide them with something even more important — a future. Basic IT skills, including how to use Microsoft Office and some basic typing training, are taught in a computer room no bigger than a store cupboard, with a few games provided to sugar the pill. "I get huge amounts of satisfaction from seeing a child learn the smallest thing — as even a small step forward, such as being able to click a mouse or open a folder, is progress for children who have nothing," said Omare.
At the other end of the scale from Shangilia, is Nairobi School — one of the highest-performing and best-funded public schools in Kenya. But wealth is relative and, although the school can afford to buy some new computers, it still relies on the donated PCs sourced by CFSK.
Two computer labs provide around 120 machines to the school's 1,000 or more students. One lab even has internet access — a rare commodity in Kenyan schools. Given the lack of infrastructure, however, internet access can only be achieved by wireless communications — in this case, 3G. Around 20 machines can be supported by one 3G connection for around £130 a month, which is still expensive by Kenyan standards but cheaper than the proprietary wireless connection the school used previously.
Such is the ubiquity of mobile technology in Kenya that mobile access is not an alternative access mechanism, as in the UK, but rather the only option available. However, prices are dropping and connections are improving, which has caused some experts to claim that African countries such as Kenya may even leapfrog more developed nations when it comes to realising the potential of wireless technology.