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From Sunshine to Raspberry Pi

27/05/2016 14:36 | Updated 27 May 2016

tech-for-good

For two years, Giakonda IT has been supporting rural schools in Zambia by supplying Raspberry Pi computers, in some cases powered by solar panels. So far we have made three visits and helped nine schools.

Whilst designing a website for Discovery Student Volunteering Project at Swansea University, we were asked if we'd like to go with them to Siavonga, Zambia, and supply computers to schools which are linked with Swansea schools under the British Council Connecting Classrooms scheme. Only when we had agreed was the bombshell dropped. Some of the schools had no access to mains power!

The obvious solution for schools in Zambia was solar power.

We set up a solar panel in the back garden of Giakonda IT, connected it to a lorry battery and used it to run two Raspberry Pi computers and monitors all through a wet December in Swansea. This convinced us it could work in Zambia too!

We chose the Raspberry Pi because we needed computer equipment that did not draw much power and would run off a 12Volt battery. This tiny computer functions as well as an office PC but costs just £35 and runs off a 5 volt mobile phone charger. We also liked the fact that it was made in Wales.

It was hard to find cheap monitors that would run off 12volts so we bought small tablet screens and improvised enclosures from plywood and plastic sheeting. It looked rough and ready but it did the job.

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We set off in January 2015 aware that we were venturing into the unknown. We prided ourselves on taking specialist tools for cabling and setting up solar panels, only to find the schools did not have even a hammer or screwdriver. We soon learned to think outside the box and make use of whatever was available (hence metal frames from broken school desks doubling as housings for solar panels!)
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Classes of over fifty were normal- with desks arranged in rows facing the blackboard and windows and doors often insecure. The enthusiasm of the students for learning was amazing as was their respect for adults!

That first trip to Zambia was life-changing for us, but more importantly (I think) made a difference.

Children who had never touched a computer mouse now use the Raspberry Pi for Word Processing, spreadsheets etc. Instead of computer theory, they can get hands on experience. Their teachers are gaining confidence and can now properly address the Zambian ICT curriculum.

There were surprise benefits. We took a few cheap LED lights which were greatly appreciated in a place where it gets dark by 6pm.

We also left one Raspberry Pi running an e-learning resource called RACHEL (Rural Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning). It consists of an encyclopaedic range of resources relevant to rural communities around the world- from how to rear goats to how to teach algebra. This is a great tool for self-improvement and research which we are now supplying to all schools in the district.

Much of the literature available for schools is Western orientated but we have recently found a bank of 400 African stories for children to redress this gap.

Alongside the high spots, there are inevitably things that don't turn out according to plan. With computer equipment there is always the risk of people being afraid to use it or its being damaged through lack of knowledge.

An example of this was at St Malumba Special School where their state of the art embossing machine, for printing out Braille, had never been used because the paper feed was incorrectly set up. When we reached somewhere with internet access, it was easy to Google how to reset the printer and get a message to the school. They were delighted to get back to us to say it was at last in regular use.

We realised that we do not want to just donate equipment and walk away. There is no point prolonging a culture of dependency. Our overall plan is to empower local people to manage IT in schools for themselves.

To make the project sustainable, we are addressing these issues:
1) Training teachers, which we began to do in July 2015 with several well-attended courses.
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2) Having technical help available to the schools to deal with hardware and software issues. We've begun to train a young, female volunteer and hope to bring her to Swansea for intensive training.

We've worked closely with the District Education Board Secretary and the British Council Digital Ambassador, who is also in charge of ICT at Siavonga High School. They have identified a further 26 schools which would benefit from solar powered computer hubs.
Watch this space.........

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