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Redundant computers make good in Africa

Techknowledgy now has responsibility for providing and teaching 20,000 African children about IT. Kevin Berry talks to the charity's founder, Andy Mark about its work

Andy Mark scours the UK for redundant computers and then sends them out to Africa. Some people assume that he means schools are sending him their dusty, old BBC machines, but that is far from the reality of his charity's work.

Andy heads an organisation called Techknowledgy which is dedicated to empowering African youngsters. He and his colleagues get van loads of recently-redundant machines from banks or building societies and the like. Rarely are they more than two years old and Windows 95 is the norm.

Five years ago, electronics engineer Andy found himself wondering why so many UK companies were putting hundreds of potentially useful computers into skips. The waste seemed that much more appalling when he thought of children in developing countries, but he could not find an organisation devoted to sending computers to the Third World.

"Everyone thought it should be happening so I went ahead and set up a charity myself," Andy explains. "But I must say I couldn't have done it without my team of helpers, both here and in Africa.

"We teach the youngsters in Africa how to use the PCs and gain the maximum benefit from them," he says. "In fact, we do the whole thing - we provide the PCs, teach IT, build or refurbish classrooms and provide the necessary security and air-conditioning. We train and employ IT teachers and we maintain and replenish the computer equipment in Africa."

Techknowledgy is responsible for the IT education of over 20,000 African children, and last year the charity shipped over 1,000 second-user computers for use in African classrooms. UK companies can sponsor Techknowledgy's work if they want to do more than donate computers and UK schools hae helped with fund raising.

The charity's workers scour the districts where they are installing machines to find local people with some IT skills, however basic, and then train them up. Some UK companies are sending out their own technicians to help with the training.

"We work in school, universities and technology training colleges," says Andy. "We currently support programmes in Ghana, Gambia and Tanzania. In addition we are working with schools in the UK, twinning them with African counterparts in projects that will give the schools an opportunity to communicate through email."

Techknowledgy has had problems with shipping, but its people have overcome them. They now have the expertise to deal with red tape and they are building trust with local officials. "Africans are still very suspicious of western motives," explains Andy, "it's a legacy of colonialism."

Andy talks fondly of dusty school halls being turned into air-conditioned computer laboratories; 40 children working with 40 computers. "Of course there are problems with power supplies," Andy explains, "but we fit the computers with uninterrupted power supply devices. When the electricity goes off the children just carry on with their lessons."

Techknowledgy is certainly succeeding in its aim of narrowing the skills gap. Andy should feel proud, but right now he's more concerned with persuading a particularly large UK company to part with a its old PCs.

Techknowledgy * Next Technology and Tier One are distributing second-hand computers in East Africa for Aids awareness and English literacy training. This year the companies plan to distribute 4,000 computers to East Africa for use by over 200 local secondary schools. In five years, the partnership is aiming to distribute over 12,000 computers.

Tier One Jonathan Rose, Tel: 0161 777 1000

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