Near Fort Portal, where power outages occur daily, four remote villages are harnessing solar-powered computers, wireless networks and telephones to help farmers compete in the regional economy. The computer-and-telephone system, designed by the San Francisco-based non-profit group, Inveneo, also enables villagers to surf the web, build databases, use e-mail and make phone calls over the Internet. This is a big boost considering that the nearest landline phone is two miles away.

The impact has been immediate. Computer literacy among the 3,200 residents is on the rise. The local governments also use the technology to organise records and cut back on paper files. In an e-mail message, Jane Nabwire, the information technology officer of the project said farmers used the technology to obtain market prices for their produce. "The technology has brought services to people. They can access developmental information at any time," Nabwire wrote.

Inveneo sells its technology to non-governmental organisations, which supply it to areas in need. Another non-profit organisation, the AED-Satellife Centre for Health Information and Technology in Watertown, gets financing through grants and gives the technology away.

With the help of a special wireless access point, the hand-held devices transmit information about patients from field offices to regional ministries of health. The network, much like computers from Inveneo, runs on solar and battery power and is meant to replace the paper-based record-keeping that characterised so many of these countries for years. Andrew Sideman, AED-Satellife's director of development, said this information was important because it helped doctors decide how resources were allocated.

So far in Uganda, Satellife has accomplished that goal. For years, when pregnant women gave birth, doctors had 72 hours afterward to dispatch a messenger to pick up a refrigerated dose of Nevirapine, a drug that kills HIV in newborns and is routinely administered.