Old computers find new life in Kenya

At the Computer for Schools Kenya (CFSK) warehouse in Nairobi, Michael Ochieng switched on the radio, then turned and smiled as the presenter announced a song in Gikuyu, one of the local languages.

"Hii iko sawa sasa," or "This one is OK now," Ochieng said, pointing at a refurbished computer.

Ochieng and his colleagues outfit the PCs with TV cards, allowing them to be used as stereos or televisions in addition to desktops.

"It is satisfying to a technician when you work on something that was considered as waste and it starts to work, even with better functions," said Ochieng, one of six technicians at the CFSK facility.

In another corner of the building, Mohamed Ali explained the refurbishment process.

"The computer must first meet our quality criteria before the technician can start working on it," he said.

Most of the computers at the warehouse have been provided by international agencies like Computer Aid, but local companies such as Total and Barclays also donate computers, said Ali.

"We receive many computers, but they must all be tested to ensure they are in working condition," he said. "It does not matter which country they came from."

Many refurbished units are supplied to schools throughout Kenya at minimal cost, said CFSK CEO Tom Musili. The revamped machines allow schools to incorporate DVDs, television and radio into lessons.

The computers are sold to households, especially middle- and lower-income families that may not be able to afford new computers with high specs, Musili said.

Gladys Muhunyo bought a refurbished unit for her sons and is happy with the results. The boys use the computer to do homework and play games.

"The computer is in their bedroom; they can do as much as they want with it, disassemble and reassemble it," Muhunyo said.

The availability of affordable computers has bridged the digital divide, Musili said, as children from low-income areas can now use computers in schools and at home.

Our Lady of Fatima, which sits in the heart of the Korogocho slums, about 10 kilometers from the city center, shows how the project has aided education. The 25 PCs the school received from CFSK are making a difference to the children.

With challenges like the AIDS epidemic and commercial sex work facing the children, Our Lady of Fatima can use online platforms to provide lessons and raise awareness among the students, who then spread the message to their peers outside school.

Musili said the computers are changing the way lessons are delivered, and online content can be obtained from resources like NEPAD e-learning Web sites.

The refurbishing warehouse is also providing learning opportunities to youth interested in software development and hardware maintenance. Students train at the CFSK laboratory, where they are able to demonstrate their skills practically.

"You will be amazed what the local youth can do with computers, both software and hardware," Musili said. "They may not have gone to computer engineering schools, but they are innovative, and that is what Kenya needs."

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.