Computer Aid International's ZubaBox project moves into its next phase...
This container being transported along a remote Zambian road holds one of three ZubaBox internet cafés 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 cafés 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.
Shown above are local men carrying the satellite dish that provides the ZubaBox's internet connectivity.
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, pictured left, 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 café uses the slightly cheaper version of ZubaBox, which runs a Linux-based OS rather than Windows XP.
Users of the Chikanta ZubaBox get to grips with the technology they now have access to. 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 café.
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 cybercafé 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 cafés 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.
One of the groups using the Embakasi ZubaBox is the Meru technical training college, whose students are pictured above.
The ZubaBox will soon move to a more rural location in northeast Kenya where its satellite and solar power will be more useful than in Nairobi. The new locations will be connected to planned Amref medical centres in the region.
In May 2010, silicon.com went to Computer Aid International's HQ in North London to look at the second internet café, above, just before it was shipped to Nairobi.
Back then, the internet café didn't have an official name but a Twitter appeal at the beginning of 2011 saw the facility christened the ZubaBox. Zuba means sun in Nyanja, a language spoken in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Southern Zambia - appropriate for a solar-powered technology.
Computer Aid International has been collecting and refurbishing unwanted computers from businesses and public sector organisations and sending them to be used in developing countries since 1997, and has shipped more than 185,000 PCs to more than 100 countries across Africa and Latin America.
However, there is still more to do, according to Barker. "We are still very much in need of computers and donated equipment. There are thousands and thousands of computers in this country going straight into recycling which, if they came to us, we could really be doing something good with," he told silicon.com.
For more information about how your company could sponsor one of the 10 new ZubaBox facilities or donate unwanted computer equipment to Computer Aid International contact firstname.lastname@example.org.