East Africa: Pastoralist's digital network wins global learning award


The pastoralist regions of East Africa have been variously described as vast, pristine swathes of land, teeming with wildlife and livestock amid nature's unspoiled beauty; or drought-prone hardship areas, marginalised by successive governments, a conflict-ridden zone. But James Nguo wants to add another adjective to this standard narrative: Tech-savvy.

Nguo is the regional director of the Arid Lands Information Network (Alin), winner of this year's international Access to Learning Award, which is working to connect people living in remote and arid regions of East Africa and promote information exchange -- in particular, traditional knowledge that otherwise goes unrecorded, such as how to collect rainwater into earth dams for irrigation, how deep the dam should be, and how to channel water into the dam by digging furrows.

"Our core business is to promote the sharing of information," says Nguo. "We create a platform where people in Marsabit, Kenya, can communicate with those in Karamoja, Uganda and, for example, share ideas like how to make salt lick for your animals from your own ingredients if you find the salt lick in the shops is too expensive."

Alin has set up 14 Maarifa Centres -- a community Internet access point and digital library that uses solar panels to generate electricity and a satellite dish to connect to the Internet -- across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

When Nguo first started his network in 2000, Internet connectivity across much of the region was practically unheard of. "There was no mobile signal, let alone internet connections in the arid areas when we started, so we teamed up with Worldspace, which is known for broadcasting satellite radio but also has a data channel to connect even the remotest areas," he says.

A typical Maarifa Centre costs anywhere between Ksh 405,000 ($4,500) and Ksh 1.5 million ($17,000) to set up, including the cost of building the room, a minimum of five computers and a satellite Internet connection. In some areas, a refurbished 20-foot shipping container houses the library, significantly bringing down the cost.

The Access to Learning award, which is administered by the Global Libraries initiative, is part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The award comprises $1 million and software donated by Microsoft, and was presented on Tuesday at the annual International Federation of Library Associations Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Nguo says Alin will use the grant to develop better technologies, and "research into what works best, so that we're not just importing and dumping technologies."

Deborah Jacobs of Global Libraries says the award was created to celebrate and support efforts to bridge the digital divide. "Libraries all over the world suffer from a lack of funding; governments often don't pay attention to them. Our goal is to narrow the gap between those who have access to information and those who don't."

Any organisation that uses technology to connect communities with information can enter the competition, and a committee of experts selects the winner. Particular emphasis is put on innovations that can be replicated on a wide scale.

Ms Jacobs says that Alin stood out this year because the organisation has been able to make major inroads in remote communities, with an emphasis on developing human capital.