It was hard to squeeze into the classroom. Dozens of students clustered around computers, checking news on their favourite football teams in the World Cup tournament. Hardly remarkable: some 30 million people were watching the games worldwide.
What is different is that Bugulumbya is in rural Uganda, which for years has remained fairly untouched by advances in world technology. But the school made headlines in July 2005 when it became the very first institution to receive computers under the electronic-school (or “e-school”) initiative of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).
“We are experiencing the world from our classroom,” beamed a 17-year old student, Munhana Paul Rogers. During breaks and after school, students closely monitored the latest news and scores. Though most of his favourite teams from Africa were knocked out of the competition early, Paul says there is a lot to be happy about.
“Since Bugulumbya received computers, we see a big difference in the way we learn. When you have the Internet, it’s like you have another five teachers in the classroom. It helps us find information we need on anything. International football matches, how to protect yourself from HIV/AIDS — it’s all there,” Paul told Africa Renewal.
African governments recognize the pivotal role information and communications technologies (ICTs) play in accelerating economic growth and social development. The Internet, telephones, computers, radios and televisions have the potential to foster regional integration, as promoted by NEPAD.
Students like Paul are the focus of the e-schools initiative. Its purpose is to provide every student with at least basic skills and the means to use ICTs to better his or her life, get better-paying jobs and help develop the continent.
“We have many intelligent students here in rural Uganda, and many parts of Africa, who might not get the chance to get into top universities simply because they are poor,” commented John Busima, the headmaster of Bugulumbya. “But if we give them useful skills, through initiatives like this by NEPAD, they will create not only their own livelihood, but also help their countries to develop.”
Bugulumbya, like many rural schools in Africa, had no electricity, Mr. Busima noted. NEPAD officials, the Ugandan government and a consortium led by the Hewlett-Packard (HP) computer company provided the school with computers, furniture, electricity and all the equipment necessary to create an e-school. The community — teachers, students and parents — banded together to plaster and paint the buildings. Within weeks, the school was fixed up.
“Our school does not look the same,” the headmaster said. “We are a three-hour drive from the country’s capital, Kampala. We had no hope of being connected to the [electricity] grid. But now we have a generator to run the computers, we have DSL, television, the Internet. We feel equal to the rest of Uganda, and indeed the world.”
Web-surfing might seem like a luxury for a continent struggling with poverty, disease and other basic needs. But experts at a recent NEPAD-sponsored conference in Nairobi, Kenya, warned that development will be seriously hindered if Africa fails to bridge the ICT gap that separates the continent from developed countries. Despite improvements, only 2.5 per cent of Africa’s 800 million people have Internet access, compared with 17.8 per cent in the rest of the world, the experts noted.
Bugulumbya was the first of 120 schools to receive computers and Internet services during the first phase of the e-schools project. According to the e-Africa Commission, which coordinates all NEPAD communications technology activities, this first phase is a one-year demonstration stage in 20 African countries. Each country will choose six schools to try out the programme. Some 150,000 African teachers and students, the commission says, will benefit from the new computers and Internet access, and, in some cases, phones, fax machines, radio and television. Teachers are being trained to prepare and present material in the most interesting ways to their pupils.
‘We cannot afford to do less’
“This initiative is necessary because everywhere else in the world, this is what governments are doing,” says Henry Chasia, the commission’s deputy executive chairperson. “In Africa, we cannot afford to do less because to do so is to tamper recklessly with our future.” The demonstration phase, he adds, will help governments determine the type of equipment and training they will need. It also will highlight the best ways to overcome any difficulties.
Bugulumbya is already providing lessons. The biggest challenge, Mr. Busima said, is fixing the computers when they break down. Some teachers and students received training, but, notes the headmaster, the school needs a full-time technician with a solid background in computers.
The school is also waiting for all the computers promised in July 2005. “So far we have received only 12 of the 48 computers promised,” he said. “We have 300 students and things will be much better if we get the rest.”
Countries participating in the first phase were selected from those that joined NEPAD’s voluntary African Peer Review Mechanism, which allows participating African countries to monitor and evaluate each other’s political and economic management. Thirteen private companies will initially supply the necessary equipment and training to students and teachers. Governments will then take over the administration.
NEPAD promoters hope that with enough money, up to 600,000 institutions — and ultimately all African primary and secondary schools — will be transformed into e-schools.
Access to information and communications technologies can empower everyone, from businesses to communities, Olivier Suinat, managing director of HP Africa, told Africa Renewal. “It has every potential of transforming Africa. For this reason, HP is proud to head up a consortium on behalf of the NEPAD e-schools initiative.”
Bugulumbya, he added, is an excellent example of what NEPAD and its partners can do to encourage students to learn. With the Internet, geography need no longer isolate rural schools from the rest of the world.
New Partnership for Africa’s Development
The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) was adopted as the continent’s main development framework at a July 2001 summit meeting of African heads of state. According to NEPAD, attainment of Africa’s long-term development goals is anchored in the determination of African peoples “to extricate themselves and the continent from the malaise of underdevelopment and exclusion in a globalizing world.” It calls for a new relationship between Africa and the international community, in which the non-African partners seek to complement Africa’s own efforts. The United Nations, Group of Eight industrialized nations and various donor countries have pledged to do so.
For Africa to develop, argues NEPAD, three conditions must prevail:
- peace, security, democracy and good political governance
- improved economic and corporate governance
- regional cooperation and integration.
NEPAD further identifies several priority sectors requiring special attention and action:
- physical infrastructure, especially roads, railways and power systems linking neighbouring countries
- information and communications technology
- human development, focusing on health, education and skills development
- promoting the diversification of production and exports.
Many of the required resources will initially need to come from outside the continent, although African governments are redoubling efforts to mobilize more domestic resources. “Africa,” states NEPAD, “recognizes that it holds the key to its own development.”