8 June 2001

Top Story

Using the internet to make a difference to education in Africa poses enormous challenges. There are high capital and continuous revenue costs as well as considerable technological challenges in wiring remote areas. This education special outlines two approaches.

Kyle Johnston describes how Namibia plans to wire all its schools by 2005. He describes a patchwork of technical solutions reflecting different circumstances.

Jason Monty from the UK’s DFID looks at how an initiative backed by the UK’s Prime Minister (Imfundo) seeks to enhance teacher training and improve education management information systems in sub-Saharan Africa. It aims to use opportunities from knowledge and resources online and targeted activities.




Schoolnet Namibia aims to install internet enabled computers into all schools in Namibia by 2005. Presently, there are over 1,500 schools in the country, of which more then 900 are "off grid", or do not have access to electricity, phone lines, libraries nor, in many cases running water. Installing a wired infrastructure is currently too expensive, so research is underway on large-scale wireless solutions. One single communications solution will not work for all "off grid" schools for a variety of reasons including regulatory issues, partial access to utilities, terrain, location of the schools, and the distance between schools. Because of this, Schoolnet is exploring different solutions.


Namibia covers an area of 824,144 square kilometres. Within this huge area, there are only 33 towns and villages, of which only seven are major towns. These are the capital, Windhoek in the central region; Swakopmund and Walvis Bay on the Atlantic coast; Tsumeb, Ondangwa and Oshakati in the north and Keetmanshoop in the south.


Because of general aridity, population concentrations are spatially disconnected with the bulk of the Namibian population concentrated in the north along the border areas. This area has the highest population density in the country of 5.6 persons per square kilometre. Other concentrations are in the central region towns and in the two coastal towns. The rest of Namibia is characterised by population densities as low as 0.6 per square kilometre [or less in the southern regions] to zero in the fully desert parts.


Schools in densely populated areas are close enough together to use wireless Ethernet bridges with high gain antennas to link schools to a central wired node. Schoolnet is currently testing WiLan Hopper Plus bridges, and has been told that with the proper antennas, ranges of up to 60 km are possible. WiLan bridges operate in either the 2.4 gHz or 5.8 gHz unlicensed frequency bands, which help avoid some regulatory issues. The testing bridges have a data transfer rate of 4.5 mpbs, and 12 mbps bridges are available. While the initial capital outlay for these bridges is high, there is no monthly operating cost and minimal maintenance requirements.


In the central and southern regions ethernet bridges are not a feasible solution because the schools tend to be too far apart and the terrain is sometimes prohibitive. Satellite connections on their own are not a valid option as the available systems only provide a receiving feed. Currently, Schoolnet is looking at using either mobile phones or Ultraphones (archaic Siemans made radio telephone) as a sending feed. Both of these sending solutions have a low speed connection. Since most of the traffic will be from the receiving feed, the difference to the end users will be almost transparent. While this setup will have a lower initial cost then the wireless bridges, there are ongoing fees to be paid to both the satellite provider and Telecom Namibia for their services. In some of the more dense areas, a cell-node setup will be used, where a central school has a satellite feed and wireless bridges link other near by schools. This will allow multiple schools to share the expense of the ongoing fees from the satellite provider and the Telecom Namibia phone bill.


The first complete Schoolnet "off grid" model system will be on display at the Spring Energy Fair, which runs from September 6 to 9 in Windhoek. The demonstration will use a modified shipping container to house a computer lab consisting of one server and five workstations. Solar panels will be mounted on the roof and sides of the container to supply the electricity. Both a satellite feed and a wireless bridge will be running to provide Internet connectivity. This will be the first public testing of our wireless models.


Kyle Johnston works for Schoolnet Namibia





The Imfundo: Partnership for IT in Education was announced by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair in March 2000. Based within the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), the initiative is a new public-private partnership dedicated to using information communication technologies (ICTs) to enhance teacher training and improve education management information systems in sub-Saharan Africa.


Imfundo believes that ICTs ­ both new and old - have the potential to aid the effort to enhance education in sub-Saharan Africa. Radio and television are already used to supplement learning in some countries. Satellite and the internet can potentially extend the reach of information from anywhere in the world even in remote areas.


Imfundo has recently launched the inception report of our initial findings. This summarises the work of the initial Imfundo team during the first eight months of the initiative. To view the report please visit our website where you can either download the report in PDF format or view it on our website.


We have three main work streams, which play a major role in achieving our objectives: The ResourceBank, the KnowledgeBank and our Activities.


The ResourceBank


The ResouceBank is a collection of resource commitments from a diverse range of partners. Organisations willing to give resources to education sector reform sign up to a memorandum of understanding and agree to our ethical guidelines. To date we have over 21 partners from the private sector, civil society, academic institutions and government.


For a complete listing of our partners please visit :


We have recently published our ResourceBank Prospectus, which is targeted at all potential partners and includes further details on the ResourceBank. We are actively seeking partners so if you feel you may be able to contribute to our ResourceBank then visit: where you can download the Prospectus.


The KnowledgeBank


Our KnowledgeBank is designed to share information about the use, application and potential of ICT for enhancing education across Africa. We currently have 17 papers online, which are aimed at tackling some of the key issues surrounding ICTs in education in sub-Saharan Africa.


We are keen to build up the KnowledgeBank to provide a wealth of material of relevance not only to government officials, but also to teachers and practitioners throughout Africa.


By the end of August 2001, we aim to have a new feature on the KnowledgeBank that will enable users to find links to a range of other resources and information concerning ICT, education and development in Africa.




Along with our current major activities in The Gambia and Rwanda, details of which can be found at the Imfundo team is currently exploring possible activities in Ghana, South Africa and Malawi. Other recent activities include:


- 1000 DFID computers to Africa Discussions initiated by Imfundo between our partner Computer Aid and DFID's IT department mean that 1000 of DFID's computers are being reconditioned by Computer Aid and will be sent to NGOs working with educational and community organisations in Africa.


- Our two advisers, Bas Kotterink and Janet Jenkins have recently helped train staff from the World Bank and other Agencies Thanks to our partner The Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, both Janet and Bas were invited to contribute to a training session on post-primary education in Africa for staff from the World Bank and other Agencies held at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex on 26th June.


To keep updated on the work of Imfundo we would encourage you visit our regularly updated website. You can also sign up to our monthly newsletter details of which can be found by visiting:


Jason Monty works for Imfundo, DFID.