Power problems could pull the plug on Malawi iPads

9th November 2012 at 00:00
Mike Russell's portable devices plan may have limited value in a country short on wi-fi and electricity

Small things can make a big difference and one such thing was the clockwork radio that brought communication, education and entertainment to even the darkest parts of Africa - which had no electricity and certainly no cellphone network.

Sadly, someone has still to invent a clockwork iPad. I can't imagine Apple will be much interested in the idea - unless it's part of a corporate social responsibility programme - for the challenge will be not so much the lack of electricity for the constant recharging of the iPad's battery as the lack of wi-fi to make it work optimally.

I was reminded of the clockwork radio when I read of the education secretary's latest wheeze of spending nearly #163;300,000 on providing iPads for Malawi pupils in rural schools.

You see, I am currently working in Botswana. It's a lovely country, blessed with a peaceful, stable government, a delightful homogeneous people not given to conflict - and a relatively strong economy based on the prudent beneficiation of its diamond reserves. It is not without problems and, as with many African countries, the availability of electricity is a constant worry. I should know, as I'm working on the building of its new power station.

Sometimes there are power cuts, but the new power station should solve that. But getting the internet remains difficult (it took me three months to have it installed). And wi-fi? Well, it's best to go to a hotel. Beyond the two main cities of Gaborone and Francistown, I doubt it exists at all.

So why on earth Mike Russell should think that providing iPads to schools in Malawi is a good use of resources is a puzzle to me. Some 93 per cent of people in Malawi do not have electricity and the wi-fi network must be pretty much non-existent. It's not as if you can just plug an iPad in and attach an internet cable - iPads need wi-fi and even where it exists, it will not be reliable on account of the power problems. The words cart and horse spring to mind, a bit like curriculum and excellence.

Mr Russell is in Malawi as I type and maybe he will find out for himself the limitations of modern technology where even the most basic facilities are required. But no doubt he'll have a good answer - or answers - as he's never short of them.

I can't help thinking that it would have been better to recruit and send out half a dozen of our jobless teachers - or more if they would accept they didn't need McCrone rates of pay in a country as poor as Malawi.

They would be far more reliable, would build up long-term, lasting relations, could pass on capacity to other teachers and, unlike the iPads, can work like clockwork.

Brian Monteith, Political commentator is a former Conservative MSP.

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