Recycled PCs Bridge Digital Divide

For green disposal of electronic gear, companies may consider recycling computers in the developing world. Here's a look at two nonprofits

With the long-awaited WEEE Directive rolling into full effect later this year - forcing all businesses to address the ways in which they dispose of electrical equipment - companies are being reminded of the option to recycle PCs in the developing world.

Last week met up with two charities: one UK-based, Computer Aid International; and one Kenya-based, Computers For Schools Kenya, to see first-hand how this process works.

Speaking at the unveiling of one shipment of computers, Tony Roberts, CEO and founder of Computer Aid International, told businesses must consider donating PCs to charities in the developing world.

Roberts said: "We have a duty to ensure other countries can get the benefits of technology which we take for granted."

For companies in the UK this can mean seeking out a charity such as Computer Aid and ensuring PCs can be put to good use, rather than simply chucking them in a skip to end up in landfill. This is still the end-of-life scenario for millions of PCs worldwide each year, according to Roberts. Last month the Green Party also slammed the landfill effect of PC upgrade cycles.

Computer Aid wipes all hard drives to ensure they do not ship with any sensitive data donors may have left on them, and also fully services all kit which meets its Pentium II minimum requirement to ensure it will prove useful in the developing world.

The kit then ships to countries such as Kenya which is currently the focus of much of the work of Computer Aid.

There the monitors, PCs and servers are handed over to partner charity Computers For Schools Kenya (CFSK), based in the grounds of Starehe Boys' Centre, a school in the heart of Nairobi. The kit is checked, software such as Windows 2000 and Office 2000 is installed and then the systems are forwarded on to the next school in line to receive a fully equipped computer suite.

Edwin Martins, a Peace Corps volunteer now working for CFSK, said the charity will work with schools to ensure teachers are trained, classroom space is set aside and an electricity supply is in place so computers are not wasted. To date more than 2,000 teachers have been trained in IT, according to Tom Musili, executive director of CFSK. The charity will regularly service and maintain the 7,000 computers they have placed in more than 300 schools all over Kenya.

CFSK also works with schools to establish up-to-date curriculum, replacing often long-outdated text books with far more relevant and challenging course materials. The widespread adoption of thin client computing as well as cached web pages on a server within the network means they can get the most out of lower spec machines as well as provide an experience of 'nearly live' internet access to PCs in many parts of the country that don't have direct net access. The networked environment also allows students to share files and use email to communicate with one another.

Speaking at Ndururumo secondary school in Nyahururu, a seven-hour drive into the highlands north of Nairobi, one pupil told delegates from the UK that Kenyans must understand technology and be able to use computers if they are to avoid being left behind by galloping Western economies.

She said: "Technology is at the heart of everything in business now and we must know how to use computers in order to bring jobs and money to our country. Hopefully when we leave school we will be as advanced as children in many other countries."

Other pupils at Ndururumo reiterated their understanding of how fundamental a part of business it is now to understand email, the internet and basic productivity tools.

One pupil said previously many of them had thought a computer was "a television connected to a piano" but knew little of what practical uses it might have. Now they are confident using apps such as word processors and spreadsheet software as well as accessing the internet and using email.

Adan Mohammed, managing director of Barclays Bank in Kenya, said it is vital companies do not waste resources that could be beneficial to African schools in closing the digital divide.

Barclays Bank has already donated 1,000 PCs to CFSK for that very reason, said Mohammed, and he urged other companies to follow suit.

CSFK's Martins denied critics' suggestions that donating PCs is simply a way to pass the buck and burden of recycling onto the developing world, reiterating the useful life the machines have before their real end-of-life scenario is played out. Even then, he said, countries such as Kenya are far better equipped to extract value from supposedly obsolete kit. (You can find out more in our photo story, here.)