Independent Appeal: Processing power gets a new start in Africa

Rave reviews for the latest version of Windows were not just good for Microsoft – for people helped by Computer Aid, the consequences could be life-changing

One item that may feature on a lot of Christmas lists this year is the latest Microsoft operating system, Windows 7. If you upgrade to it you may also decide to treat yourself to a new computer while you are at it. If so, I know a man who would be very happy to take your old machine off your hands.

Tony Roberts is not a man with a huge number of shares in Microsoft. Rather he is the chief executive of Computer Aid International, which collects many of the computers the rest of us throw away and refurbishes them for schools and charities in the developing world.

If the advent of Windows 7 produces a wide-scale consumerist or corporate upgrade frenzy, he will welcome the influx of discarded machines to the large warehouse which is the charity's headquarters just off London's North Circular road. There, pallets of computer equipment deemed "past it" by UK businesses and individuals are stacked 20ft high, while teams of volunteers take deliveries of new machines and test their reliability in the adjoining workshop.

"The logic we live off," says Roberts, the founder of the charity which is one of the three being supported by The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year, "is that if a corporation feels the need to upgrade their computers, the machines they're getting rid of are still useful for some people."

As if to demonstrate this, the staff in the charity's office, tasked with matching foreign demand with British supply, are all using computers that are over a decade old. "We've recently raised the minimum specification for the machines we send out to Pentium 4," explains Roberts, "and we make sure that everything we ship is better than the machines we're actually using." The warehouse acts as a gigantic filtering system; many machines received by the charity simply don't work, while others aren't quite up to the minimum spec; the ones that can be refurbished using Computer Aid's stash of spare hard disks and memory sticks are upgraded in the workshop, while the rest (around 20 per cent of the total they receive) are recycled – to the highest environmental specifications, naturally.

"This goes some way towards battling the accusation that's often levelled at us that we're just transferring Europe's waste to Africa," says Roberts. "We're effectively doubling the life of the computers that make it through our system – and by doing so we're fulfilling the needs of many children and teachers out there." But the rate at which computers arrive at the door of Computer Aid International isn't always predictable. With businesses providing the vast majority of donations, the rate at which companies decide to upgrade their systems that has a direct effect on Computer Aid's work.

"Most people, and indeed businesses, rarely use anything like 100 per cent of the capacity of their computers," says Roberts. "We generally only upgrade because we fancy additional bells and whistles. So it's rarely technology that drives the upgrade process; yes, the millennium bug issue had the effect of making everyone upgrade, but businesses are more concerned with the fact that their computers are depreciated as an asset for tax purposes over a three-year period – so they tend to just replace them every three years, regardless."

However, the effect of the recession slowed the number of computers donated to Computer Aid to a trickle, and this situation was exacerbated by a stubborn worldwide reluctance to move on from the Windows XP operating system because of the well-publicised faults of its successor, Windows Vista. The recipients of Computer Aid's computers are certainly keen on receiving as high-spec a machine as possible. "Every time I have meetings with local organisations," says Roberts, "they always want two things: firstly faster machines, and secondly lower shipping costs. We can't help them with the second one," he laughs, "but each shipment we make is invariably of better quality than the last."

Laptops are much sought after, but there are always battery issues (by the time laptops reach Computer Aid, their batteries typically last less than 30 minutes before giving up the ghost) and laptop computers wherever they are in the world, typically have half the life of a desktop machine.

So Computer Aid aren't always able to solve all the local computing needs; for example, if a machine was needed to design a newsletter using desktop-publishing software, that may be something that they'd have to purchase a higher-powered computer for. But the majority of students and teachers will be using computers for the first time – simple word-processing, spreadsheet work and browsing the internet – for which Pentium 4s are more than sufficient. However, Roberts has had occasional surprises on his travels which show an increasing tech-savvyness.

"On my last visit to Zimbabwe," he says, "I saw an entire lab of 87 Computer Aid computers running Ubuntu [a free, open-source operating system]. Ten years ago, no one really used open-source software of this kind, because despite the philosophical reasons for doing so it was often impractical. But it seems that those problems may be disappearing."

It would be an exciting development for cash-strapped local organisations to install free operating systems on their computers, and thus escape the clutches of the world's big software companies. Roberts has high hopes for next year. He's particularly looking forward to the day when chunky, old TV-style CRT monitors are finally deemed too low-spec to send abroad; not only are the dead CRTs that arrive at Computer Aid classed as hazardous waste, but the newer flat-screen monitors are less than a fifth of the weight of a CRT, thus drastically cutting the shipping costs of complete systems.

But the charity's main drive is to get as many computers sent abroad as possible. So as companies break into their new budgets in January and April he's hoping to see a rush of Windows 7-related upgrades, and a substantial number of new (or, rather, old) machines arriving at the warehouse.

"We take less than a week to refurbish a machine," says Roberts, "so it's perfectly possible that an old Pentium IV being chucked out by a British business could be sitting on a desk in Africa and being used by a child within six weeks."

The imminent upgrade to Windows 7 might boost the flow of machines to Africa and elsewhere. "Businesses certainly planned to upgrade their machines ready for Vista," says Roberts, "but they didn't – and as of this moment they've put off upgrading for a long time. They can't put it off for ever, and we sense that a tidal wave must come sooner rather than later."

This tidal wave will, Roberts hopes, be encouraged by the release of Windows 7, Microsoft's latest operating system that has received fulsome praise for it stability – praise noticeably absent for Vista – and has already been responsible for stimulating the market for new computers. Advance orders for the new software broke records at Amazon in the autumn when it became the highest-grossing pre-order in the company's history, surpassing even sales of the seventh Harry Potter book.

The work of Computer Aid International might boost that further, by assuaging consumer guilt with the knowledge that your computer upgrade could benefit someone who almost certainly needs the machine more than you do.

Donate now

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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

SThree: Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 - £30000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking fo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before