Independent Appeal: Connecting the middle of nowhere

Thanks to the work of Computer Aid, the Zambian village of Macha has a gateway to the rest of the world

If nowhere really has a middle, then it can't be far from Macha. This southern Zambian village is about 50 miles from the nearest town and two hours' drive from the nearest paved road. Nonetheless, 130,000 people live within a 20-mile radius.

Macha is rural Africa, the place where some two-thirds of the billion people on the continent actually live. Africa's rural reality rarely includes access to electricity, transport, roads or healthcare – and much the same could be said of Macha until recently.

So it's a surprising place to find shipping containers. And an even more surprising place to find the largest wireless internet network in rural Africa.

The two things are connected. The shipping containers were dispatched to Macha by the the UK charity Computer Aid, which collects and refurbishes used IT equipment and redistributes it in the developing world. It is one of three charities for which we are raising funds in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal, which closes at the end of this week.

Wireless routers similar to those in many UK homes work just as well in the Zambian bush. "The community first gained an internet connection from the hospital satellite dish," says Tony Roberts, CEO and founder of Computer Aid. "They have since learned how to used plain wireless routers to bounce the signal around the village to create the largest wireless network in rural Africa."

The key to success in Macha has been the charity's local partner, LinkNet, which has put community members in charge of developing their own ideas and approaches. As a result of this co-operation, around 200 PCs and 400 wireless routers now form a "mesh network" connecting the hospital, malaria research centre, nurse training centre, schools, community centre and homes. All of which leaves one question: Does rural Zambia need the internet, and if so, why?

If anyone can answer that it's Fred Mweetwa, a farmer who has become a spokesman for the community – as well as one of its leading entrepreneurs and host of his own radio programme. He works closely with LinkNet to encourage people to make use of the new technology.

This was an area where farmers had previously not grown much more than maize to feed their families, he explains. But the internet taught them that the soil and climate is suitable for sunflowers. It has moved them from being merely subsistence farmers to producers of a cash crop.

"Many people have been motivated to plant sunflowers in areas where they never were planted," Mr Mweetwa adds. Sunflowers, thanks to the internet, have leapt in popularity to become the area's second biggest cash crop, helping to pay school fees for hundreds of children.

Despite poor rains, Mr Mweetwa's harvest from 25 kilos of seeds, for example, was 1,750 kilos in 2007, providing jobs for 10 local people and leaving him enough seed to barter for maize and four sheep and still have animal feed left over. Mr Mweetwa also works as a preacher, talking up the entrepreneurial spirit at local churches. "As a farmer, the internet has changed my way of life because people can do wonders, miracles through the internet," he says. "Our economy as a rural area has greatly improved."

Young people are even moving into the area to chase opportunities, with at least 1,000 new jobs created. Nurses are using IT to train and access medical resources, and most adults have re-engaged with education through online eLearning courses.

The area has also played a long-term role in malaria research, in a partnership with Johns Hopkins University in the US. In fact, LinkNet was born out of that research, which brought a Dutch tropical medicine researcher, Dr Janneke van Dijk, to the area in 2001. She and her husband, Gertjan van Stam, saw an opportunity after the arrival of mobile phones six years ago to bring the internet to the community, with a satellite dish at the hospital in 2004.

Mr van Stam, encouraged by early enthusiasm from the community, helped set up LinkNet. People like Mr Mweetwa, he says, "are the local heroes. People here have ideas, and when they search on the internet they can get the training and start to do the entrepreneurial stuff."

Dr van Dijk says the three-step approach of getting wired, finding local talent to take the lead, and building local initiatives is increasingly seen as a model for development. Macha gets 1,000 visitors a year, including community representatives from all over the country and researchers from Zimbabwe and South Africa. The Zambian government now plans to replicate the "Macha miracle" at 100 other sites nationwide. Chief Chikanta, the traditional leader of an adjoining area which is about to receive a shipment of PCs from Computer Aid, believes the Macha model is a good one. "LinkNet lets the outside world know what life is like in Macha, and brings that world to people here," he says.

As for the malaria that brought the outside world to Macha, that is almost completely defeated, with infections down 90 per cent and no children suffering from the disease in hospital over the holidays this year.

"She has worked herself out of a job," Mr van Stam jokes of his wife. "Now that there's no malaria, almost, there's nothing to clinically study, but they are looking at HIV and TB."

As for the shipping containers, they have been refitted with computer booths and inviting wooden doors to create some of Africa's first rural internet cafes.

Donate Now

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor