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Schools turn into ICT dumpsites

By | August 8th 2009
By | August 8th 2009

By Wachira Kigotho

Secondary schools are likely to become graveyards of obsolete computers and other digital hardware dumped by local and foreign non-governmental organisations.

The issue is that the country is slowly becoming a major consumer of electronic waste from Europe and US. E-waste is basically obsolete electrical and electronic equipment that have ceased to be of any value to their owners. It comprises IT and telecommunications equipment, household appliances, electrical and electronic tools, medical equipment, monitoring and control instruments, automatic dispensers, toys and sports equipment.

However, the main concern is the mass import of early generation personal computers and their peripherals such as servers, monitors and cathode ray tube screens. Although, new regulations in the European Union prohibit e-waste being dumped in developing countries, there is a flow of end-of-life computers.

Refurbished computers

According to PC Pro Magazine, a leading international publication on digital equipment, obsolete computers are refurbished and then sent legally to schools in Sub-Saharan Africa, where they are used to teach IT skills to students. Several foreign non-governmental organisations — including Digital Links, Computers for African Schools, Computer Aid, Computers 4 Africa and Scotland-based Computers for Africa — collect and refurbish obsolete computers and send them to secondary schools in Africa. But whereas the charitable gesture is commendable, some of those computers have very short life span. According to Consumers International, a lobby group whose agenda is to expose unethical behaviour, most of the obsolete computers are almost useless.

Nevertheless, there are many benefits for exporting old computers to Africa. The move reduces the cost of efficiently disposing obsolete computers at their point of origin. And over the years, those donations have become powerful public relations tools. Donors are seen as having great commitment to schoolchildren in Sub-Saharan Africa

Subsequently, Project Digital 10 2010, is in the process of achieving its objective of providing 400,000 recycled computers to schools in Sub-Saharan Africa by next year.

Started three years ago, the programme sourced computers through EU regulations that sought to reduce the mountain of e-waste generated from homes and companies.

Instead of ending up in landfills in European cities, obsolete computers are now getting a new lease of life and an opportunity to have new graveyards in schools in Africa. In Kenya, such digital hardware graveyards are likely to increase because few secondary schools can afford good computers with longer life span. The Ministry of Education attributes the problem to poverty. According to Glen Farrell, a computer education expert at the Commonwealth of Learning, very few secondary schools have sufficient tools for teachers and students.

"Even in schools that do have computers, student-computer ratio is 150:1," says Farrell.

Relevant curriculum

Commenting on Kenya’s ICT education programme, Farrell said many secondary schools are heavily dependent on early generation computers, many of them donated by foreign non-governmental organisations and old stock from the private sector and parents. Although ministry officials are upbeat about the planned connectivity of education institutions, Kenya’s ICT education is almost in shambles. According to a World Bank report, Survey of ICT and Education in Africa, there are very little digital learning materials that are relevant to the local curriculum.

So far the Kenya Institute of Education, which is mandated to prepare syllabi and publish materials has not developed digital curriculum content. Very little has been done towards in-servicing of teachers and many schools have no computer literate teachers. "Constraint in those areas is the lack of skilled personnel available to support such systems," says the World Bank report that recently surveyed the status of digital education in Africa.

But whereas the issue of training and planning could be readily rectified, it is alarming to know that many secondary schools have started accumulating stocks of obsolete computers and peripherals that are beyond repair. Enormous storage of such obsolete electronics will soon or later pose serious health risks to students and teachers.

According to a situational analysis of e-waste management and generation with special emphasis on personal computers in Uganda by Microsoft and the United Nations Industrial and Development Organisation, when e-waste is disposed of or recycled without any controls, there are predictable negative impacts on the environment and human health. The report entitled E-Waste Assessment in Uganda, noted most toxins from e-waste if not disposed efficiently can cause brain damage, allergic reactions and cancer.

Decaying hardware

Unfortunately, some schools already have many computers that cannot be recycled and teachers are not aware of the threats posed by the decaying hardware. Some of these stocks are stored in leaky buildings or sheds. In many instances, the Ministry of Education has no record of schools with computers beyond repair.

Scanning the entire ICT Policy in the country, there is no mention of how obsolete computers should be disposed, especially those in public institutions. There are also no guidelines on quality and age-limit of computers that should be donated to schools.

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