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A case of old style bureaucracy

Can one believe things one hears at parties? Apparently, the Settler's Hospital in Grahamstown, South Africa, which serves around a hundred thousand people, has 5 full-time doctors and 6(!) directors. I'd be very glad to revise this post when more facts come to light!

Assuming my ad hoc information is correct though, that would make the hospital an institution of the classic case of old-style colonial-bureaucratic Africa. ICT and eGovernment can reduce bureaucracy and bring democracy closer to the people. This is something a lot of us Africans are working towards!
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 1st 2007 11:37

A hectic month

What might in the Northern Hemisphere be misconstrued as a "Sommerloch" - a summer gap of month long proportions spent idling in comfortable tropical locations - has in fact been the Southern month of hard labour. That is to say, eKhaya ICT has been completing programming projects in the internet, webservices and open source/ Open Office segments at a furious rate. More about this, when we launch the websites to all of these technical projects.

Our favourite projects in rural areas have not been neglected either, you will be glad to know. I have been busy at the University of Fort Hare helping get their ecommerce portal up to speed and taking care of some Sofware Engineering for Paul Tarwireyi and trying to get Tonderai Muchenje MSc concepts straightened out. These student projects are all concerned with different aspects of ecommerce at Dwesa - a deep rural school and community network. Also, i have been in touch with Zwelenqaba and made a nother trip there - photos will follow.

The preparations for the solar computer lab project at Zwelenqaba SSS are intensifying. I am going to have to say more about that later.

Also the Non-Profit company I am trying to set up in Germany to support responsible and sustainable ICT4D is progressing slowly but surely.

On the personal front things have not been still either. The garden of our new home has been double-handedly revamped, and a whole lot of things that happen when one moves have been dealt with including DSL installation! A true relief to be online whenerver I want again! Also assisting family members with their IT woes and Xanadu - a family project - see Xanadu, Chintsa, South Africa. Hosted at Imaginet (FTP, PHP, etc.) for R19.99 per month, a real bargain.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: August 13th 2007 11:22

Article on German TV (3Sat) with Ron Wertlen

Last weekend, an OLPC TV Article, with eKhaya ICT was shown in Germany.

The following is a translation of that article:

Education by Mouse-Click

"One Laptop per Child" [is also a] project in South Africa

An upcoming problem of African countries and other developing nations, is that they are missing the connection as far as the technological development of digital information. How are computers to operate when there is no electricity and they are unaffordable to start with? Nicolas Negroponte of MIT in Boston had the idea of a visionary initiative called "One Laptop per Child": a laptop for children in developing countries, which costs around 100 US dollars, definitely not exceeding 150 US dollars.

In the Eastern Cape of South Africa, one of the poorest regions of the country, Ron Wertlen tackles pot-holed roads. He too has a great vision: The software developer, Ron, is one of 15 volunteers in South Africa for the campaign "One laptop per child".

Playful Introduction

Wertlen will demonstrate a special computer, which has been designed for children in developing countries. 722 pupils are taught by only 18 teachers here. There is neither electricity nor running water. Most textbooks are outdated. Modern learning is different to what is going on here. The learners have never in their lives seen a laptop - a sensation for them and for the education system. The keyboard and controls are specially tailored for children. Games and music programs will be used to introduce the machines, special learning software should lead to acquisition of knowledge.

Ron Wertlen shows the teachers an important feature of the children's laptops: The screen can be switched from colour to black-and-white mode, and is thus also readable in direct sunlight. Such details make the computer at all suitable for use in "Third World" situations. The Children's laptop was already presented in 2005 at the World Economic Summit in Davos. The then UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, and Internet guru Nicolas Negroponte of the famous technical university MIT in Boston presented the hundred dollar laptop for the first time. "Every technical breakthrough of the next five years, cuts the cost of the laptops," said Nicolas Negroponte, "which in turn benefits the children."

Large thirst for knowledge

The Children's laptop was designed by the company "fuseproject" in San Francisco. It belongs to the Swiss designer Yves Behar. The new wonder computer was designed to be simple, powerful and robust. How often does a designer get the job to connect the "Third World" to the computer-age? As that is what was being asked. "When you open the laptop, you see that every part has a number of functions," says Yves Behar. "Thus the radio antennas help one open the laptop, and simultaneously serve as a cover for the connectors. Another example: It can be used quite traditionally as a laptop or if one turns the screen, as an electronic book, which you can read."

In just one year, Behar and his team have created not only an impressively simple device, but also tackled fundamental problems, such as the electricity supply. "As far as the electricity supply is concerned, we have a dozen possibilities," said Behar. "One could use solar panels to load a number of laptops at once, there are also manual power supplies, such as the Power-yoyo. Using it, one can generate electricity by repeatedly pulling a cord. One minute's pulling power supplies ten minutes of usage. All this is feasible only because the OLPC [ed: called XO] consumes about ten percent of the electricity used by a normal laptop. "

At school in South Africa, the enthusiasm is not flagging. Meanwhile, the children have discovered the integrated camera and noticed that the laptops have automatically networked and that they, the children, can use them to communicate. "I want to learn what this laptop has to offer," says Yandisa Thanda. "I have seen that it has games, music and drawing programs. I want to master everything on it." At the moment the teacher still helps out. The long-term goal of the computer campaign is however that children teach themselves and grow independant. Currently, classical teaching methods are being used in the Eastern Cape. But for how much longer? When the government buys the new computer, it could be the beginning of a revolution - a revolution in education in the "Third World".

[First pass translation by translate.google.com, second pass by eKhaya ICT.]

See also the article previously mentioned in this blog below on Swiss TV (link to video).
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: November 13th 2007 02:13

Article: "Nigeria: Much scepticism about OPLC project"

In response to an article by Efem Nkanga "Nigeria: Much scepticism about OPLC project" in Balancing Acts Update number 391 from 8th February 2008.*

no link available yet online for this issue
Dear Russell,

I have been enjoying reading your news updates very much. They are usually well researched and give great insights into the African point of view.

While the latter is still true about Efem Nkanga's article, it is singularly badly researched. The title says it all! Efem Nkanga seems to have taken as much care in investigating the OLPC project and Intel's pull out from it as as he does in copy-reading important parts of his work.

Further, the real plight of the children in decaying schools - and we have plenty right here in the Eastern Cape - is that their imagination and thirst for knowledge is not heeded. While educators worry about desks and seats to sit on, children in these schools desperately need water, food and knowledge - in that order. Desks and school uniforms - while traditionally important in schools here as much as in Nigeria - are really only crucial for learning inasfar as the educators (the absolutely crucial part of the learning process) require them. In the future, thinking hardware will be much more important than these traditional trappings.

Yours sincerely,
* (Permanent link will probably soon appear under http://www.balancingact-africa.com/news/back/balancing-act_391.html)

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: February 9th 2008 02:42

Behind the scenes: eKhaya ICT and OLPC at Mndwaka


We chose Mndwaka JSS for a film shoot with OLPC, because they are a pro-active school, consistently winning the local singing contest despite the poor conditions there. The OLPC programme is a vital piece of the puzzle because sustainable development of infrastructure in rural African areas can only work if it happens hand in hand with development of the communities' knowledge.

An English translation of the show and link to the video

Photo gallery of the film shoot at Mndwaka.

Photo gallery of shots made by the learners themselves using the XO camera.

Background and explanation:

eKhaya ICT recently went on a field trip to demonstrate two older XOs (B-1) to a rural school. The request from the camera team was a rural school with the worst possible conditions and it should be a junior secondary school, as the XO is targetted at ages younger than 15 yrs (although it can be used by anyone, of course!).

It was quite difficult to decide whether to do the project at all. eKhaya ICT has tended to work with more senior schools, with Grades 9 - 12, and we knew if we asked our contacts at the junior schools, they would jump at the idea, although they didn't understand the details of the shoot. We were very careful to say that we could not promise any result, besides the exposure gained through the video. We explained that it was only a short video and that it would be shown overseas. That did not matter to the school principal, Mr. Gqokoza. He explained that they were interested in any cooperation at all with eKhaya ICT. If you are in a situation such as the one experienced by Mndwaka JSS, you will clutch at any opportunity. Mr. Gqokoza convinced us. We went ahead and did the demonstration.

We chose Mndwaka JSS, because despite the poor conditions there, they have consistently won the local school singing contest - they certainly showed us why!

Mndwaka JSS has 2 regular classrooms and about another 4 makeshift ones for 722 children. 18 teachers are responsible for the classes. Many classes take place out doors, which means that bad weather interrupts school. There is no running water and the solar system installed about 7 years ago was stolen in 2005.

The enthusiasm of the school's excellent choir almost put a halt to filming. Their singing accompanied all the shots in the classroom and all the interviews. Sadly, somehow their song does not appear on the final product. Then after the interviews, the school wanted to thank us for coming and put on a show of tribal and modern dancing. Their dancing showed us that these children, these teachers and this community, has no interest in being labelled as rural and archaic - they want to move with the times and are hungry for a connection to the rest of the world. I hope the camera team will have a chance to put together the great footage they got of the learners dancing up a storm, as they promised. It would be a shame to show the teachers at Mndwaka only a 6 minute clip in German for all their trouble!

I am convinced that this connection can be made by a programme such as the OLPC using minimally invasive education to support the classical education. I am sure that such a connection will greatly benefit these rural communities and the whole world in turn. Arguments that computers cannot help where there is no water, no food, no transport and no electricity miss the point. I believe that sustainable development of infrastructure in rural African areas can only work if it happens hand in hand with development of the communities' knowledge. A balanced programme is required to help the communities build their infrastructure themselves so that they become empowered. An empowered community cannot be impoverished.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: November 13th 2007 03:50

Chat with Dave@Bulungula

Western Culture, while producing some fantastic technological, artistic and societal wonders based on a rational scientific approach, is still a culture which has not developed appropriate measures for the human instincts to posess and control. The instinct to procreate while not being reflected in the birth statistics is pandered toward in sexshops and on the internet (some might say that these are appropriate places for it). In this sense then, western culture is no better than any other culture.

In fact one might suggest that it is worse than all other cultures. Its nett effect on the world is that it consumes the majority of the resources in the world and produces by far the most greenhouse gases, and is continuing to do so. Further, it has through its "success" encouraged developing cultures (such as the Chinese) to follow in its footsteps.

Yet, there are experientially rich cultures where consumerism is unknown, and people also lead happy and fulfilled lives. Isn't it time more of this kind of life attitude makes it onto the internet? Can one even reflect such experiential content digitally? YES, of course it's time, and YES, with rich content (multimedia), one can provide a glimpse of the experiences of people in other cultures.

It might also be important to digitise information for purposes of information and preservation of the culture.

Dave plays an excellent devil's advocate suggesting that the western world is the root of all evil. Fortunately, I don't believe in good or evil, as they are very much bound to static perspectives. Rather I argue that the world is to be understood in terms of interacting complex networks which span different dimensions.

A static perspective is something that will definitely prevent you from seeing these dimensions. (See also A challenge for everyone - change your perspective)
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 21st 2007 06:36

Dell Foundation is Sole Computer Hardware Sponsor

I just heard that the Dell Foundation has increased its sponsorship of the project and will be providing all hardware for the Zwelenqaba S.S.S. solar school project! That means 35 Dell laptops with high-powered specifications enabling a vast array of applications are going to be in use in the schools involved in our project.

This is an absolutely fabulous thing. The Educators and learners are already activated and very excited about the project taking place and things are moving forward rapidly now!

Thank You very much Dell Foundation for enabling our project with hardware!
Ron Wertlen, eKhaya ICT
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 2nd 2008 08:43


I have been speaking to some of the activists on the ICT4D front in Grahamstown, Alfredo Terzoli, Peter Wentworth, Hannah Slay, Caroline Pade and Cheryl Hodgkinson. There are lots more to meet and speak to, but suddenly I am seeing things more an African and less a German way: there is time. Why? Any effort that really wants to make a difference in this field must, of necessity, work with government. And government here is "of necessity" bound up in self-agrandising politicking. Which means that things move slowly. To be fair, there are some politicians and civil servants who care.

So in the meantime, eKhaya ICT has been diversifying into 2 new sectors: health-care and online multimedia. The projects we are working on are interestingly related as they both deal with Java and online web-services, requiring technologies like XSLT, J2EE and JSP, and front-desk data entry kind of environments dealing with non-technical office workers, requiring office technology (what else but OpenOffice).

At the moment, I can't say more than that...

And while I was writing this I just arranged my first official meeting with government.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: May 16th 2007 08:22

Does Sustainability Scale? And what role does crisis play?

A second blog post on my meeting with Di Hornby, director of the Angus Gillis Foundation. One of the things Di was quite concrete about was that the Foundation will never grow larger than 5 members. Her reasoning was that all members can respond to crises in the community in a timely fashion - i.e. immediately. The thing is that crisis is an important growth element. Established structures are weakened by not being able to keep up with new demands, new methods start to emerge and a struggle ensues. (This is not unlike revolutions in scientific thinking as postulated by Tom Kuhn in the 60s.) This is an important time to assist the community and give them the confidence that the new structures can do all that the old ones did and more - confidence that the community can grow under it's own steam.

In eXtreme Programming (XP) practice, one does also not want groups that are too large, and classically each unit manages itself in day-to-day activities while aligning to an overall strategy. A software house like Google which is organised in a very decentralised manner, has many of these units, and "project leaders" switch from leading projects to programming in small teams often to ensure that the exchange of strategic and "local" knowledge takes place.

Such an informed peer-organised management style, which can also be achieved with XP management methods such as SCRUM, are surely applicable to Di's case. You need units that can react immediately, because they have the knowledge and mandate to do so. The responsibility rests on the team and there is always someone with enough experience to recognise the value of the crisis and the need of swift assistance.

Perhaps there is a way to bring such an innovative organisation style to development organisations! They certainly need it, it seems. After all, what model can development agencies be, if they themselves are bureaucratically and hierarchically organised with innovation stifling rules and processes... The lesson coming from XP is that process must be harmoniously married with the development, so that in the act of creating, innovating and developing, the very tools one uses to do the development must allow simple, intelligent documentation of the proceedings and this information must be available to all working on the project.

So does Sustainability scale? I certainly hope for the planet that it does! And on a positive sunny day like this I know it does. But first all people have to be empowered through knowledge and opportunity.

As we implement our Internet and Awareness training project - which now has a name (to be revealed later) - we will be seeing the effects that organisation has on sustainability. We will share our findings, as generously as Di did, and hope that it brings us all further.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: June 5th 2008 12:59

Dog eat dog.

The Meraka Institute is a development innovator with several innovative projects and concepts and they are very well positioned as concerns up-and-coming projects in Southern Africa. That's why I just had to stop by to visit them and chat about our ideas regarding rural marginalised areas and what one can do with ICTs to improve conditions in these areas.

In this post I want to just talk about one concern that came up, namely the fractured ICT4D landscape. This echoes strongly Jeff's comment last week on my post 27 (see my most frequently commented post), as well as comments in an email I got from Alfredo this morning.

Basically the problem is that most people guard their ideas jealously in order to prevent others from stealing them, while they are busily looking for pots of money to plunder. There are clearly limited amounts of money and one has to compete to get them. Now there are some relatively easy ideas, which have short time scales and involve a lot of "safe" lab work and few projects that really look at applications in the field - the difficult part. Also collaboration complicates projects, lowering the chances of success - because often in the background people are chasing their own research agendas. So it's really not in one's interest to work together with others, if one can avoid it. The result is a fractured landscape with 1001 pilot projects and 1001 wikis and information centres.

This is terrible from the point of view of the persons in marginalised areas living in poverty, who could use some co-operative assistance!

On the other hand, however, ICT4D is a new research field and claims are being staked out by the new miners. The field will settle and the most influential (not necessarily best, but good enough) projects will gain so much influence that they will become de-facto concentrators allowing better use of synergies and forcing more standardisation in the field.

As this process continues, eKhaya ICT will hopefully be able to play the role of intermediary and agent - as not bound to any research goals - trying out new techniques and making real headway for the people who need help the most by making and crossing bridges between research programmes, cultures and sides of the digital divide.

Obviously the competition will also start in the commercial sector, soon (I am not talking about VoIP, I am talking about innovative ICT technologies). But I think we have a head start in terms of technological know-how and quality standards. And if someone else does a better job, we'll try join them - after all the goal is to help.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: June 25th 2007 09:05

Drought in the Eastern Cape

Understanding rural impoverished circumstances is quite difficult for people who live in suburban or urban areas. A city's veins are its water and effluent systems and its nerves are the communications and power networks. Living within such an organism and being part of it, one is shielded from all sorts of practicalities of life, which is why we live in cities and which is why they are recognised as being the potential tool to support a large number of humans on the planet in an ecologically sustainable manner.

Since the beginning of our Southern Summer, we have faced water restrictions in Grahamstown and all across the Eastern Cape. We have a fairly sizeable vegetable garden, which is partially also interspersed with the ornamental plants. Water restrictions during a drought are often a death sentence for a garden. One is prohibited from watering, using automatic means such a hose-pipe. All watering must take place manually.

Fetching and carrying water is one of the main tasks performed by an isiXhosa woman, living at the Siyakhula Living Lab. These days they have it easy. The water only needs to be fetched from the nearest community borehole, which may be 500m away. Formerly water may have had to be hauled much farther distances, especially in times of drought. Based on durable plastics, there are several inventions that aim to ease this task (e.g. the water barrel that is also a tyre, and can be pushed). These inventions are struggling to find their way into rural life though and at Nkwalini, one can see women carrying water in the traditional manner - on their heads.

Hauling bucket after bucket of water, just to keep the vegetables alive, I had plenty of time to ponder the rural fate, which involves many such chores, that we take for granted, and to ponder the activities with which we fill the saved time -- productive work, and for some of us, TV / games / etc.). I really enjoyed that reflexive aspect of the drought. I also marvelled at how well the veggies grew, which receive the daily bath water. These recipients of daily water grew magnificently and thrived. The hand watered plants just survived. This highlighted to me the need for drip irrigation schemes such as the ones piloted by SELF in Benin.

South Africa is very vulnerable to food scarcity, because its rural population is not farming veggies, hardly at all. David Martin calls it a joke compared to what he is seeing in South Asia. We need to wake up and use our resources better. Financial and natural resources can be used in win-win ways to boost productivity. For instance linking grants to food growing schemes. If paying out the grants (delivering money) is costing so much, why not deliver what the people are buying with that money from home-grow schemes - boosting employment in rural areas? The spare money should be invested in infrastructure further boosting employment in the rural areas as well as opening new possibilities for economic activity. South Africa is a rich country -- with the potential of being a model African country. That is something I'd like to see.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 25th 2010 05:55

ECSPIRT Project First Training Session: The sun lighting up the night.

After the successful launch things at the school are settling into a routine. We want to keep an eye on what the schools are doing with the computers and to assist by training the teachers as we have the time and also to encourage them that the facilities are easy to use and beneficial to them. In other words, over time, we want to influence the routine so that the teachers bring the IT component into their teaching and into their school life.

A further aim is the search for potential champions - people who come forward and volunteer their time and services and are enthusiastic.

With this intention in mind, Ron Wertlen made a trip to the schools on the 14/8 - 16/8. He stayed over at the trading store of Pieter Venter. On this visit it became apparent that the school and community are growing aware of the possibilities and they want to cooperate with each other and make the most of the facilities. For instance:
  • Keenan who works at the trading store is repairing windows at Zwelenqaba after hours as a service to the community. He is being helped by Mcebisi, who also works at the trading store and who was born at Tafalehashi and went to school at Zwelenqaba.

  • Zukiswa Mavonyala (also Zwelenqaba alumnus) and Mcebisi approached Mr. Ziduli to find out under what conditions the community can use the laptops. They both have some computer knowledge and are very keen to complete the Open International Computer Drivers Licence course. They are both potential trainers for the community and we are considering sending them to East London to take part in a trainers' course.
Also it is clear that the routine is already becoming quite healthy:
  • All the schools have been using their computer equipment since the launch. Ron was told this in discussion with the teachers and he independantly verified this by checking logs and seeing the state of the computers.

  • Mr. Yankey has downloaded Geography lecture aids from the Internet and wants to get his students to use them easily. For this purpose, Ron setup a shared area on the server harddisk.

  • All the schools have been logging their electricity usage from the solar panels. All the solar systems are working at full capacity and Voltage levels are high.

Ron held several training workshops.

Workshop: Zwelenqaba
[ The workshop was held in the evening from 5pm till about 7.30pm. Students representing several matric classes were there. as we worked, I was aware that the brightly lit scene in front of me was a direct result of stored solar power - the sun lighting up the night.]

The main aim at Zwelenqaba, was to involve the entire matric class with the computing resource and to familiarise them with the starting and shutdown of the system. Also the learners were sensitized about the different kinds of things they can do with the computers in a Question and answer session. Different rules for the computer lab were discussed.

During the workshop, the learners learnt about the different resources on the VIKO server. The facilities that were explored were:
  • Wikipedia encyclopedia - students looked up topics that they liked
  • VIKO Video lessons - a lot of learners enjoyed these.
  • Typing tutor - several decided they would like to improve their knowledge of the keyboard.
After about an hour of VIKO exploration, several students wanted to express themselves by typing using Open Office Writer.
"There is one thing that I know: every where I go that Jesus love Has never fail me yet up to this far. If I get tired along the way He gives Me power to press on." (Sinazo Sajini)

"What is important in computer is to learn how to type faster and you must practice always when you get into the Lab. When you are able to type very faster I promise you are going to be interested in typing. After typing you can do every thing that will make you interested.

YOU KNOW WHAT? Computer work as stupid thing, that means computer need somebody to operate it , like if you send it to the wall it will hit the wall if you don't control it."(BONGA MAPHIKE)
Teacher Training workshops were held at Kwantshunqe and at Bafazi JSS. Here the teachers' technology-related problems were resolved, mainly problems accessing the network and then there were some questions about the resources available. Several teachers made contributions to the local wikipedia copy.

On Saturday morning, community training took place despite torrential rains. At about 8am my car got stuck in the muddy bog that the road reverts to when it rains. There was not a person in sight anywhere. Then the first pupil for the training course arrived - Zukiswa Mavonyela. Soon the second person Mcebisi Lukozi. I hope to be writing a lot more about these two as time goes on. We started the first chapter of the Open ICDL and discussed the relative sizes of storage media such as DVDs, USB disks and HDDs. It was a very productive session and both showed that they understood and could handle basic computer tasks. Mr. Saiti also arrived on cue at about 9.30. Mr. Saiti is an engaged member of the community who has no idea about computers at all. Zukiswa and Mcebisi practised showing him the basics of the computer.

With the end of the lesson, the clouds parted for a minute and we left the classroom in streaming sunshine. A few passers-by helped push the car out of it's predicament. The wet morning left its mark on me though - I was sick for a couple of days after with an acute flu!

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: August 24th 2008 11:57

eKhaya ICT Honours Project at Rhodes University

In addition to cooperations with the Freie Universitaet Berlin, eKhaya ICT now also has two Honours Projects at Rhodes University. The projects are on "Real e-Services for Rural Development": the idea is to piece together exisiting e-commerce and m-commerce B2C solutions which can easily be stitched together for simple use by a rural telecentre operator. The projects will be tested within the framework of the Siyakhula Living Lab, at Nkwalini. Hopefully by Siphiwo (see previous blog).
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 15th 2009 08:30

Food Matters...

On my last trip to the Siyakhula Living Lab (the extended part at Nkwalini, not Dwesa), a bunch of teachers asked me what the secret of 'you white people' is, and why they are all so rich. My first rather off the cuff answer was that we eat differently - and to illustrate the point I reached into the plastic packet next to me and produced a cucumber and a green pepper. I offered these to the teachers and suggested they try them and see how sweet and wholesome these vegetables are. They actually did "like" them, but refused to have some more - perhaps they didn't want to deprive me of my lunch!

I didn't want to leave it at that though, and also told them about my parents who arrived in South Africa with two suitcases, an education and the will to work. Everything they now have, they had to work for and they owe it to their up-bringing and the education in ex-Soviet block countries. [*]

Because food matters, we are still looking for ways to get solar powered boreholes operating at Nkwalini to water vegetable gardens that will feed the scholars. Fresh food during the day would change their lives.

[*] No-one mentioned apartheid, luckily, still an uncomfortable topic for me. I would probably have reasoned as follows: Did they gain through apartheid? In the short term, yes. Were they discriminated against by their immigrant status? Again, yes. Migrant living is difficult for people who appreciate family life, and my parents struggled. Ultimately apartheid has helped nobody, because material wealth can only do so much in a destabilised environment. And part of what we are doing at eKhaya ICT is an attempt to make good some of the wrongs that were perpetuated across hundreds of years of discrimination.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: May 21st 2009 07:42

From my diary...

[Apropos robbery and violence:] It is a very scary aspect of being here. The inequalities are terrible. It is almost as though they will continue getting worse and worse - around the globe and in the first world too - as people close a blind eye toward them. By closing a blind eye we are not doing the right thing. The right thing is to look the problem square in the eyes, to open ones eyes and to do something about it. Spreading knowledge and understanding is one way, and it is the only way. Spreading hate, fear and armaments is not the way.

For only through self-understanding will we be able to deal with our archaic biological instincts in a modern world. Archaic biological instincts armed to the teeth with modern weapons are not a pretty perspective.

Two anecdotes concerning the growing gap in income from the developed world:
  • In Berlin one is very conscious of the growing gap between rich and poor. The poor protest and let you know about it.
  • South African friends of ours are leaving London, it is becoming just too violent because of the growing gap between rich and poor.
Are we getting poorer? Or is this just our perception, because we are programmed to pay more attention to bad than to good news? (Another example of biology dictating terms to us.)

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: November 12th 2007 09:17

ICT4D and Ridiculous Ideas like 4P Computing

Wayan Vota, dreamt up the idea of 4P computing and it got onto the ICT4D article on wikipedia. It seems that to him, ICT4D works best on equipment which is low on power, high on performance, very portable and has a low cost (price) associated with ownership. These are the 4 "p"s. But they are not derived objectively. Instead Vota in his blog looks at attributes on which the OLPC and similar solutions score well and then postulated these are the right criteria for ICT4D equipment.

This is however not necessarily the case. Portability is often seen as a negative point in development projects. Telecentres for instance would like their computers to stay where they are. Also performance is often only a factor if there is a comparison (i.e. a better machine in the lab tends to be used more heavily, but otherwise, as long as it works people don't care much). Further, the equation does not include networking and communications potential. The Internet is a very big component of ICT4D equipment which is ignored in this equation. BTW, the Internet also inculcates patience as bandwidth is often very very low in ICT4D situations.

Anyhow, 4P computing is an idea that fits well in a comparison matrix, but doesn't do the entire field merit for its complexity.

Another comparison is available from ComputerAid.org.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: May 10th 2009 10:36

Internet infrastructure for a global democratic community

Darfur is just one of the examples why the digital divide is doubly damaging to Africa. It's not just the lack of incoming information - information that could save lives - it's also the lack of an ability to share one's problem. Imagine having a life-threatening problem which you know will bring death to someone you love. You don't have the skill to save them, and your mouth has been sealed. You cannot communicate your plight by telephone. You must go to the hospital, but that is too far away. This is the kind of desperation that is common place in Africa. It's happening every day here!

And it's a downward spiral, because there is very little if any hope that the situation will improve. No matter what the people do or try, they socio-economic climate is such that they will fail. This is why China's engagement is commendable - at last infrastructure in the form of roads and power may arrive at one or two communities. At least a select few stand a chance to to break out of the spiral. Yes, China's engagement is calculated and self-serving, but we may at least hope that learning and improvement of some communities' circumstances will occur.

The internet is also infrastructure. It enables it's users (most importantly)
  • to contact persons outside their community, to share their plight in this way and perhaps to find help

  • to find others who are seeking a service, and willing to pay for it

  • to look up information in such a massive database, that the number of books required to contain it would fill all bush school libraries on the planet

  • to read today's newspapers

  • to portray themselves to the world.
The internet also carries a danger, which I'll need to talk about in another post. Because it is democratic, it also confronts us with points of view which we do not want to hear or expressions from the baser side of human nature. But this is not unlike most resources - they all carry a price. In the case of the internet, I believe the cost has already been amortized a dozen times over.

The internet should be named in lists of crucial facilities such as roads, postal service, power and water supply. The internet is the telecommunications platform of tomorrow, the sooner we start treating as such, the sooner our developing areas will be able to profit from it. Legislation which attempts to control this fact cripples a country's infrastructure and is a direct strike at the poorest.

If the internet is the worlds new democratic community, then Africans are an excluded mass whose community lies on the other side of a deep divide. We cannot fill the chasm, but we have to bridge this digital divide somehow.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 21st 2007 02:53

Meeting with the Imagineer and Alan Levin

On my recent Cape Town trip - where I was overwhelmed to be back in the traffic of a thriving globalised metropolis and confronted by totally diverse choice vectors - I was very glad to be able to link up with Alan Levin and Kurt Ackermann (a.k.a. the Imagineer). Alan is heading up an ISP outfit called Vanilla and working with Rael Lissoos on bringing really inexpensive communications to the impoverished townships in South Africa. They are doing this in a company called Dabba. I expect to hear a lot more from them. Kurt is a consultant on new economy matters, especially rebranding, startup strategy and long term business forecasts and consultancy. They both have a keen interest in ICT4D and improvement of social conditions for the poor. Kurt also has connections to the Bulungula Incubator.

What did I learn from my conversation? Here are some highlights:
  • Make it local. Successful projects are carried and work through the energy that locals put into them. This simple fact of sustainable development is also mentioned by several development agencies (a good reference for this is S. Batchelor, S. Evangelista, S.Hearn, M. Pierce, S. Sugden, M. Webb. ICT for Development Contributing to the Millennium Development Goals: Lessons Learned from Seventeen infoDev Projects. World Bank, Washington D.C., Nov. 2003). Other approaches such as automation (including software based projects) depending on machines inevitably break down after time. Only structures built on and by the people in an area can have any hope of being truly sustainable. At eKhaya ICT, we hope that long-term chaperoned use of the internet can help build sustainable projects, but we are definitely focusing on specific projects (for now).

    This echoed a conversation I had with Ann Price at Buccanneers, who has been involved with a lot of grass roots development projects in the Eastern Cape and is an acknowledged expert in the field. She maintains that a project should be started to document successful projects - be they in growing organic food for communities or education projects that have made a difference. Communities need to see what successful projects look and feel like and that they are actually run by ordinary community members in other communities.

    Technologically speaking, we did stray around the topic of P2P telecentres for rural areas. I will have to go into more detail about that later (when eKhaya ICT has the technology).

  • Don't depend on government. This was a suggestion that was not new to me. The Dwesa project which I have been involved with at the University of Fort Hare was started without governmental consultation. Since then, of course as the programme has grown and shown great promise, various departments have become interested and have even donated machinery (one computer). Indeed dealing with government and foreign NGOs can tax one's patience and it seems that Alan and Kurt's experiences have led them to espouse tactics of avoidance. In the long run, however, we need total solutions on this continent - solutions which will lead to a culture of increased responsibility and greater social awareness. That can only happen if local ward councillors, relevant government departments and other forms of elected and bureaucratic structures become involved and thus themselves more pro-active. These structures should be dependable, we should be able to count on the people we vote for to make our voices heard in government. However, when running a pragmatic and goal oriented project, I agree with Kurt and Alan that one should minimise risk where it is unacceptable and find ways to achieve goals without government if necessary - while liaising with government as progress is made to widen perspectives.

  • There is nothing like a face to face meeting to help make connections and to promote the exchange of ideas and understanding. That is a great reason to visit buzzing places like Cape Town often. The internet can help and setup such links, but only in specific cultural contexts.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: December 31st 2007 04:25

Mitdenken - "Thinking Along"

Just on my way home from a meeting in Berlin at a Strandbar (beach bar). Someone sitting behind me lost or forgot their car key under their seat. A good samaritan found the key, and then told people sitting in the vicinity (including us) that they were going to hand in the key at the bar. More than half an hour later we overheard someone talking to a next door table and gesticulating. I checked and the fellow said he was looking for his car key - which he could go pick up at the bar without further ado. Patrick Paulisch - a local entrepreneur I was having a drink with at the bar - said that this was the perfect example of "Mitdenken" (Friends of Facebook should check out Wooga's brain game ). The good samaritan had helped doubly by not only handing in the key, but imagining what would happen when the person looking for the key came by (they might never think of asking at the bar).

It is awesome to be on the road in Europe again. The people have a different way of thinking and acting here - people are used to being your peers and they see you as their peer. This is not possible in an unequal society, it takes effort on both parts in an unequal society: the ones at the bottom of the pyramid have to try to bootstrap themselves up in their imagination and then basically pretend - something that causes stress - further the ones higher up in the pyramid have to suspend a whole range of prejudice and impatient thought patterns, which also ultimately causes stress. Societies develop laborious traditions to ease such stresses, such as the caste system, which introduces easy to follow rules about how to behave to preserve the status quo. I suppose that is why it is so difficult to do development work - no matter how user-driven you want to be, ultimately you want to promote change which challenges traditions. That is an immensely difficult point which can only be solved with time, understanding and patience.

These stresses can only really be understood when you go into the field and talk to people who have nothing and who cannot imagine your life.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: August 2nd 2009 12:00

No comment

This blog has gone a little quiet recently - of course because I have been working hard. I just submitted a paper to the SATNAC conference. It's quite relevant to what eKhaya ICT is doing and will soon appear on the website ready for the perusal of 100 interested readers. For the meantime, you can just get it here on this blog.

Download this document in Adobe PDF.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 15th 2007 09:32

OLPC XO Last in Comparative Survey at Rhodes University

This may be of moderate interest to some. Constance Sibanda, a honours student at Rhodes University's Computer Science Department published a comparative study on three netbooks.

The OLPC performed the worst of all of them. The author says because it was tested with older children. In the conclusion she makes the following comments:
"Participants found the OLPC XO the least intuitive for secondary school educational purposes. They felt that this netbook is better suited for small children. None of the participants were interested in buying this netbook and the teachers did not recommend the learners buy it. Arguably, this recommendation would extend to the South African Department of Education with regards to secondary school learners. Some difficulties expressed by users were that the cursor got “stuck” and participants found it difficult to familiarise themselves with the operating system interface. The first impression of the participants when they saw the OLPC was that it was a children’s toy and they were reluctant to use it."
Exactly this final comment is what allows the Kliptown Youth Project to send children home in the dangerous township of Kliptown / Soweto with their XOs every day. Children are not molested, because no one realizes the value of the tool they are carrying.

A further criticism not enunciated quite as clearly by the Ms Sibanda is that teachers in the schools generally endorse and prefer Windows on their hardware. They feel that this is the best option. Especially power users, the ones who might help with first level support at a school, are sceptical of Linux. Furher, many teachers have completed courses, which predominantly teach on Windows and MS Office basis. Teachers do not in general want to be challenged in the ICT space. They feel their productivity is assisted by staying on their known course. Viruses, costs and alternative methods do not seem to factor into their consciousness.

Anyone who knows the sugar interface, knows that it is revolutionary. As a Mac user, I am used to different ways of thinking and new productivity tools. The sugar interface is however a real challenge, and as such it often does not meet with the approval of the school directors. This observation, which is founded in my experience with about a dozen schools serving disadvantaged populations, is linked to the idea that many modern methodologies (like OBE -- Outcomes Based Education) can only thrive if there is a critical mass of knowledge already present in the population using the method. Otherwise they fail. Going into any situation, you have to play to the strengths of the group you are dealing with, before you challenge them. This is something that is difficult to do using boilerplate (i.e. templates, or prefabricated, mass production methods).

Can the promise of modern education, based on innovative insight, logical reasoning and freedom of thought, be realised in Africa?

(Read the entire thesis: http://www.cs.ru.ac.za/research/g09s2432/)
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 3rd 2010 07:52

Open Letter to SchoolTool and Janastu

Open letter to two worthy projects with similar software goals:

The IDRC reports: "Janastu, Bangalore, proposed open source school management software to allow teachers and other staff to better administer schools, as well as create a community for discussion among educators".
"... is a project to develop a common global school administration infrastructure that is freely available under an Open Source license."
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Janastu and SchoolTool
Date: Thu, 03 Apr 2008 11:43:28 +0200
From: Ronald Wertlen
Organization: eKhaya ICT
To: school- a t -janastu.org, schooltool- a t -schooltool.org

Dear Janastu and SchoolTool!

I have been following the SchoolTool project for a while now, and was
surprised to find another group attempting to do something very similar,
in a field (non-profit, school education, etc.) in which cooperation and
collaboration are the only way to win.

It is quite peculiar to note that both projects are English AND using
Python! That said I don't know how (in)compatible Django and Zope are
as these seem to be the frameworks being used. The legacy of the Pantoto
platform will surely be a problem if that is involved on the Janastu side.

If you are unaware of each other - which I can hardly imagine, I hope to
get some collaboration going with this mail!! It would be fantastic to
grow a great project (and not get into petty company rivalries or
technical flamewars)!

Aside: We hope to get a SchoolTool project going with 20 rural schools -
but are still waiting for funding (a collaboration with the Nelson
Mandela Institute). So once that comes through we may be hearing more
from each other.

Best regards, from the Eastern Cape of South Africa,
Ron Wertlen

Ronald Wertlen
+27 79 4354681 (mobile)
+27 46 6229567 (land)
*We build bridges across the digital divide*

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 3rd 2008 10:53

Participation in Local Government through ICT

I am currently working on a study into the Potential to Utilize Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to Promote Inclusion, Public Participation and Accountability in Local Governance in South Africa.

Dear Reader, please take this survey:

  • What has your municipality done for you today? (Are you aware of the things your municipality is doing for you?)
  • Do you know the name of your ward councillor? (YES/ NO)
  • Does your municipality respond to your queries (written or telephonic), if you have any? (YES/NO)
  • If you could easily find out what your municipality is planning for the next 5 years, would you bother to read the documentation? (YES/NO)
  • Would you be more likely to read the plan, if your neighbourhood has its own section in the plan? (YES/NO)
  • Would you be more likely to read a summary of say 5 pages? Or 1 page? (YES/NO)
  • Would you like to be mayor for a day? (YES/NO)
  • Do you think that you can help your municipality function better? (YES/NO)
  • Would you like to be able to send SMS to your councillor and actually get a response? (YES/NO)
  • If you use Twitter, would you follow your municipality? (YES/NO)

Your local government needs you, please respond.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: February 17th 2011 07:14

President Zuma on ICT for Africa at the AU

In a very telegraphic style, Jacob Zuma pointed out that ICT's are a potential vehicle toward unlocking the potential of Africa and bringing its countries together for our mutual benefit.

The following are all really truisms in any netizens mind, however they are not generally accepted, so to hear this from Zuma is quite a thing:
  • Technology is shaping the future of the world, challenging geographical boundaries and revolutionising economic, social and political activity.

  • Information technology has the capacity to improve living standards for millions of people on the continent.

  • At the same time, it has the potential to reverse existing inequality and marginalisation. For Africa, information and communication technology is not simply about science.

  • Nor should it merely be viewed as another economic sector, like agriculture or mining.
Zuma is a populist - he has his fingers on the pulse of what the people want. In this speech, he has clearly been influenced by the younger set and is projecting a forward thinking South Africa as a guiding light for the continent. This really makes it clear that the people love technology and communicating. (E.g. the favourite feature of awareNet so far is the chat function.) This does represent a shift of power on the continent as hierarchies are replaced by networks. And markets. Control of the media is not as effective, when people are allowed to communicate p2p / f2f in a free manner.

Every metre of fibre laid, strengthens and extends the rope-ladder which is going to hoist the African people out of impoverishment.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 20th 2010 06:08

Progress Report - June 2007

This is just a brief blog, to say that despite our recent diversification, our core business of bridging the digital divide is looking healthier and healthier. After a very successful German interlude, setting up potential contacts and used technology supplies there in the form of a non-profit organisation, I have now made contact with three very interesting and helpful projects:
  • LearnThings in Johannesburg / a great training programme based on HTML, Flash and Javascript, they have been in Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, etc. and also have a strong presence in the UK,
  • OLPC - South Africa / this is a very big and very exciting project, owing to the nature of the community behind it, we'll most likely be working together in the Eastern Cape on our schools project,
  • and Rael Lissoos / a man with his hands on all the latest wireless technology, a track record of installation in rural areas and township areas and maker of the VIKO box - a server based education platform offering Video In - Knowledge Out capabilities. http://www.viko.co.za/

It seems ever more feasible to create a business dealing in software for bridging the digital divide...
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: June 19th 2007 10:21

Project charged up and ready to go!

It looks like the solar school computer lab is set to do great things. The solar installation is practically finished, the batteries are charged, the laptops are ready and school holidays end on the 13th of July. A lot of hard work over the last couple of weeks is finally bearing fruit.


Our training programme, mentioned in the last blog posts concerning, has a name - it is the Eastern Cape Schools' Participatory Internet Research and Training Project... ECSPIRT! And it's all about producing a new rank of ecspirts, sorry experts. We have secured funding from SELF and Rhodes University now for the project and are waiting to hear if some other funders would like to add a little to the project. So we are set to begin training a new group of software product managers in August!!
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: July 2nd 2008 09:46

Putting some back

Well things have been very busy at eKhaya ICT. This morning at about 1am I submitted a major revision of the wikipedia article for ICT4D. What was there was just a bit stunted, so I had to do something about it. However, writing an encyclopedia article is really quite tough. I suppose it becomes easier with time, but it is quite different to writing a paper. What you see here represents quite an investment of time and patience... Deep respect to all the Wikipedians who have built that amazing facility.

In the intervening 2 weeks since I last blogged, I have gotten the people on board to start a new German/International non-profit organisation that should support grass-roots ICT4D with the specific aim of introducing Web2.0 technologies to help put Africa on the Internet.

I also spoke to the Free University of Berlin. I am quite hopeful that we will be able to expand the research component which is present thanks to the University of Fort Hare.

So telegrammatically, that's kind of what has been going on. I can't give away too much right now though, so if all this sounds very interesting to you, perhaps you want to email me. eKhaya Contact
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: June 18th 2007 09:48

Road to Baleni

Building a road is good thing, people earn money as unskilled labour is employed locally. Once the road is usable (even partially) the lives of those along the road are made much simpler, they become mobile, they have access to goods from outside and their goods can reach the outside world.

If we create an online selling system for rural crafters, lack of access to roads will hamper delivery of products, because there is an additional barrier to delivery. The goods have to be delivered to a place that has a postal service available. Also rains can cause delays. So many practical problems (not just the roads!) face us - but no reason to give up.

Travelling with Bob brought all this home to me. We were at schools that could not reliably say when matric exams were to be written because December gets a lot of rain. Clinics, that regularly had shortages of medical supplies, not to mention no vaccines (no electricity there either).

On our travels we also were informed about the N2 toll road that is being planned. The N2 toll road seems like something that is being made with a distasteful disregard to the ordinary people of the region. People living in places like Qumbu and Mount Frere on the current N2, as well as inhabitants of areas the road will cross might feel like they are living in an empire not unlike the roman one. A road with enormous visual impact suitably adapted to the tastes of the emperors, fenced in and tolled thus unusable on a daily basis because of cost: this is a disregard of the poor people and shows SA less as a republic (thing of the people) and more as an empire.

The "Save the wild coast campaign" is doing good work publicising the matter, please read e.g.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 15th 2007 01:39

Rural Access to ICTs Crucial for DoE

On the 31st of January 2008, I met with the Eastern Cape Department of Education ICT coordinator, Nygel Jones. What I presumed would be a meeting with just Nygel, grew into a largish gathering as the DoE showed up with 9 participants. The meeting generated such great interest because it is about improving rural access to ICTs. The Eastern Cape Province has a very large number of rural schools. At the same time, they have been mandated to educate all teachers regarding ICT integration in their regular teaching within 2 years. But what use is that at a school which is in a marginalised rural area? And how can such a school operate despite all the infrastructural problems (not to mention ESKOM load shedding). These are the same problems that are being pondered by the Nelson Madela Institute at the University of Fort Hare (more about that in another post) and in fact the rest of Africa.

What came out of the DoE meeting is that all assistance, research and experimentation on the issue is most welcome. The DoE wants to fulfill its mandates by being actively involved in third party projects. This participation ranges from checking of curriculum to ensure standards compliance and relevant suggestions in this regard to feasibility assessment/evaluation of the project after the fact to determine how reproducible our model will in fact be. What the DoE does not seem to have understood though - and why third parties are necessary in such a process - is that the model is not sustainable unless the communities involved carry a major part of the costs. In fact, the ICT projects must also supply the revenues to the communities so that they themselves can pay for the infrastructure improvements. This means that although the DoE is instrumental in getting the facilities into schools, the larger value of these facilities must be realised and made available to the communities. Such models require integral support through techology, including software. These are just the kinds of models we are busy creating together with the University of Fort Hare and Rhodes University.

Currently we are intensifying efforts to get the code in place and the models out in the field. According to our project schedule (Roadmap) we are currently on time for an H2/2008 launch.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 13th 2008 09:38

SAFIPA and mini-Marshall plans.

SAFIPA - South Africa Finland Knowledge Partnership on ICT Programme

SAFIPA is the sister programme of COFISA - a part of the Finnish South african cCooperation Framework on innovation in South Africa. I think this is a kind of mini-Marshall plan and brilliant. The developed world is helping the developing world come online, which benefits everyone. And that is a reward in itself. In a knowledge based world everyone benefits. This is a huge difference to the imperialistically based models that we have seen previously and perhaps the way of the future. It is definitely the way to a better future.

eKhaya ICT and Rhodes University recently attended a workshop on making a proposal for the programme in East London. eKhaya ICT is definitely looking at shaping a better future, through knowledge.

This links to an article in the Weekly Guardian about Cuba and a new Latin-American rennaissance (despite falling oil costs). Latin America seems to be putting faith in a new kind of socialism, based on education, poverty reduction, controlled nationalisation of resources. African citizens, citizens of arguably the richest region in the world, could take note of these changes and demand some of them from their governments. If only they knew.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: February 23rd 2009 09:18

SiLLMU - Organisational Chart

A previous blog explains what SiLLMU (Siyakhula Living Lab Management Unit) is about and a bit about the background.


The picture above explains how the SiLLMU will ultimately restructure the parties taking part in the LL. Some Acronyms and Abbreviations: ENoLL (European Network of Living Labs), LLiSA (Living Labs of South Africa), SLL (Siyakhula Living Lab), RU (Rhodes University), UFH (University of Fort Hare).

Bottom are projects, Left are political organisations, and top are stakeholders in the Living Lab, which is depicted in the centre.

The Siyakhula Living Lab is currently well positioned to develop more excellent research and piloting on ICT's in rural areas. I am very excited about the future, especially concerning recent developments around a software factory in Grahamstown involving eKhaya ICT...
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: September 6th 2009 06:50

Siphiwo Msindwana

Siphiwo Msindwana is a born and bred inhabitant of Nkwalini, he worked for many years in the interim in Johannesburg. A softly spoken intelligent guy, Siphiwo has been training community members in typing and computer operations at the Zweenqaba school as part of the ECSPIRT project's community component. An amazing volunteer, Siphiwo is the embodiment of an entrepreneur. I just hope that we will soon be able to get funding to change his status to actual entrepreneur.

L-R: N.N, Mvelile Ngonyama, Ron Wertlen, Siphiwo Msindwana
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: February 25th 2009 09:01

Solar Computer Lab Opening in Rural Area 1st of August.

This is a press release I wrote in a hurry to publicise our opening. It seems like the turnout will be quite good, despite the late efforts at publicizing it. Nosimo Balindlela is not coming, she just stepped down as Premier of the EC.

The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) unveils a new concept lab: a 25 computer laptop laboratory with local video streaming server, wireless mesh network connecting 3 neighbouring schools, peripherals and Internet access, powered by pure solar energy. The laboratory is installed at Zwelenqaba Senior Secondary School in an impoverished remote rural area in South Africa and is being launched on the 1st of August 2008. The project was made possible by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, with additional support from other sponsors including JPMorgan Chase, Dell South Africa Development Fund, Dabba Telecommunication, Learnthings and eKhaya ICT.

Near Nelson Mandela's birthplace of Qunu, an Apartheid legacy still rules everyday life. Families of migrant mine workers lived in rural isolation while the men of the families dug out the precious ore which helped build the country. Today, 14 years after Apartheid, roads are slowly being rebuilt, and grid electricity is slowly being extended to vital hospitals, clinics and schools. Mr. Mandela's 90th birthday proclamation that "poverty has gripped our people", really applies here. What is more, South Africa is experiencing a shortage of electricity as its parastatal power company is failing to meet unprecedented demand. Following rolling brown outs ("load shedding") earlier in the year, the country's power supply is balancing on a thin edge.

The South African Department of education has set itself ambitious goals to have all school leaving learners computer literate by 2012. These goals cannot be met unless the necessary infrastructure is provided to schools. SELF's solar computer laboratory is one way to provide schools with much needed infrastructure, without burdening the electricity grid further. Also it is a model which can easily be applied in the rest of Africa, where grid electricity is almost unknown. SELF decided to use laptops in the laboratory, for several reasons: they have low power consumption, can be safely stored overnight and can be used in classrooms that don't have electricity and thus integrated into any curriculum lessons anywhere in the school. The brand new laptops were donated by the Dell South Africa Development Fund and are equipped with wireless technology, which allows the laptops to access a wireless mesh network. The mesh network shares resources among the three schools that are involved in the project: Zwelenqaba Senior Secondary School, Bafazi Junior Secondary School (JSS) and Kwa'Ntshunqe JSS. The resources shared on the network are multimedia learning tools on a server and Internet access points. Plans exist to extend the network to join other nearby school networks. Resources on the Video-In Knowledge-Out (VIKO) server donated by Dabba Telecommunications include 1500 hours of video tuition and several interactive lessons.

Learnthings has donated digital curriculum content that will enable teachers to teach more effectively by providing stimulating material for learners. This material is part of a corpus developed for the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) e-Schools project. Learnthings has provided and is in the process of providing training for teachers on how to effectively integrate Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), into their teaching. Further a programme for cultural exchange and remote training via Internet is being developed together with the learners at the school by eKhaya ICT. The ultimate goal of this effort, the Eastern Cape Schools Participatory Internet Training (ECSPIRT) programme, is the inclusion of rural learners and communities in the digital society. Cooperation with the Nelson Mandela Institute (responsible for Bafazi JSS) and the Department of Education as well as Rhodes University and the University of Fort Hare are also being started to maximise use of the laboratory through teacher training and technical support. An innovative programme by the Universities is being tested to improve sustainability of the ICT infrastructure in rural areas. All of these activities link into SELF's Solar Integrated Development (SID) Model, which is being developed to help make remote communities self sufficient for all their needs.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: July 27th 2008 09:51

Sometu - the future of education in an Information Society


It was very interesting to see this question on the Sometu Network and even more interesting to see the wide array of future looking answers from Finns, who are without doubt among the best educated people in the world - especially in Maths Science and Technology (Science, Engineering and Technology, if you prefer) subjects. The view of independent learning, based on free information flows is something that is so alien to the situation we are faced with at the Eastern Cape schools we work with (Nkwalini, Dwesa, etc.). Just picturing the poor learners at Mndwaka JSS or Zwelenqaba SSS - left alone with technology tools to make their own way through is quite sadenning - because the Finnish trust in their familial and social contexts to such an extent that they can challenge their children to be more independent in learning, developing and playing. Our learners are still struggling to learn to read and write.

Nevertheless, I do believe that we have to start thinking this way and that the the first place to bring these thoughts in are the teachers. Many are open to new ideas (as long as they don't mean more work). They need to be comfortable with the concepts and to facilitate. E.g. at our project, the teachers use computer club learners to help give technology based classes on subjects like Geography. This leaves the Teacher to talk about the subject and learners who have difficulties with mice etc. are shown by other learners. This passing on of responsibility is the first step toward self-motivated and driven learning with the assistance of technology.

We are very hopeful.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: June 9th 2009 09:42

Speech from Solar Computer Lab Opening

Ron Wertlen held a speech as the solar computer lab project coordinator at the official launch ceremony on the 1st of August 2008. The following conveys the sense of the speech:
"Good day dignitaries and guests, ladies and gentlemen of the community, educators and learners. I am very glad to see you all here! Thank you indeed for coming. We have looked forward to this day together for quite some time.

I will keep the speech short, because this should be a festive occasion and not one of long-winded speeches.

There is an important thing I wish to impress on all of you learners, as you begin to work with the computers that have been brought to your schools. Words that are spoken are like the dust outside on the street [1]. They are ephemeral and blown about by the slightest breeze and can be a nuisance. You cannot build a house with dust. If you however gather that dust and form it into a brick [2], and make several bricks then you can build yourself a house. You can trade bricks and you can help your neighbour build his house by giving him some bricks. The written word is like a brick. You can use it to build a roof over your heads. So remember this when you use the computer - write down your thoughts and share them with others. It will make you a richer person.

Secondly, another important thing: When you work at the laptops, remember to sit up straight. Don't sit at the computer all bent and crooked - you will end up looking like me, and you might get back pains.

Thirdly, the prizes for the drawing competition are being handed over aftewards at the outdoor party. Please all come over.

Thank you very much and enjoy the day!"
Check out photos of the Launch...

  1. Tafalehashi at the end of Winter is a very very dusty place. The dust permeates everything and there is no escaping it.

  2. Most of the housing in the area is built with mud bricks. The finest dust that blows around turns into the slickest and best mud when wettened. Just add straw, place in a brck form and cure in the sun.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: September 9th 2008 08:48

Successful Launch of Solar Computer Lab


Yesterday the school launched it's solar computer lab with visitors from the Department of Education at Elliotdale (local), Idutywa (cluster), and East London/Zwelitsha (province), Nelson Mandela Institute, Telecom Techniques , Roshcon, Dell Development Fund SA, Dabba Telecomm, SELF and eKhaya ICT - a very good turnout indeed.

Image at top: Mr. Mamane holding a business economics class - introducing how word processing works.


Guest of honour Robert "Bob" Freling is given a certficate of appreciation at the event. It was a day on which no one left empty-handed. And heart-felt thanks to everyone involved from me! It was a fantastic day.

And a great vote of thanks to SELF for doing this self-less work (not to mention the other sponsors).

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: August 2nd 2008 05:03

Sustainability is key

Di Hornby is someone who has been helping people in impoverished areas for many many years. As Director of the Centre for Social Development at Rhodes University (now under Cathy Gush), her activities were focused more closely to Grahamstown and Grahamstown East in particular. The Raglan Road Multi-Purpose Centre, which is now by all indications flourishing (a new library is being built, the centre sees hundreds of young children using the facilities in particular the BingBee kiosk and adult computer literacy classes are booked out) was a particularly successful intervention, in which ICTs also played a role. Since then Di has moved her efforts further out into the bush. North of Grahamstown at Kwandwe game reserve several communities are prospering owing to her efforts and those of the Kwandwe funded foundation she leads: the Angus Gillis Foundation. There is one thing Di does not compromise on, and that is, that communities must do the work themselves. The foundation is there to make things happen easier, to provide advice and an arm to lean on. As she puts it, "we are here to walk next to you, not infront of you. We don't lead the way. And as your strides become more and more confident and your progress faster, so we will gradually fall behind. Then you'll find one day that you do not needs us any more. But until that day we are prepared to walk beside you as long as it takes." This is Di's metaphor for the spirit of sustainability. No hand outs.

The standard method is this: a community must propose and implement improvements itself for an entire year, before it receives any great financial support. The foundation helps by organising and advising and generally supporting (holding hands). A community working group is established among the poorest individuals. They are taught how to save and how to collectively pool money and resources and to implement projects to further their aims. Within the first few weeks, a champion or two are identified. This is one of the main points at which the facilitators actually actively participate in the processes going on, since they suggest the role of the champion and also nominate the champions, providing reasons why these people should take leadership roles and asking everyone to support the motion. The rest of the time, the community is making its own decisions and prioritising tasks as it wishes. With an active community and an engaged leader - most of these participants are women by the way! - after a year there are usually results the community can be proud of and some sort of momentum is built up. If not, which may also happen for a variety of reasons, the programme is discontinued.The next phase is to match the savings of the group with foundation money Rand for Rand, to enable larger projects, safe in the knowledge that the group is established, can deal with crises and has a positive track record in completing projects.

The way Di talks and thinks is quite clearly outcomes based. After I had explained to her the SELF solar computer lab project we are working on, and the training programme we are initiating - about which I had some misgivings, because it involves rewarding teachers for extra-mural work, which they are actually meant to do within their job description, Di immediately proposed a possible solution. Payment is restricted to bonuses, and involves making the learners independant. So after an intial phase of additional teacher work, training, etc. the computer lab can actually be run by the learners who should be self-organised. The exact nature of how this can work may be explored in another blog post. This is a neat solution to the problem, which promotes win-win-win situations! Everyone wins, and one avoids the trap of demotivating people because funds eventually run out. Instead the value of the activity itself is promoted, which makes it much more sustainable and this will hopefully have short- and long-term benefits for all the learners in the programme!

It was a very exciting meeting - it highlighted many of the problem areas in our project of which I was aware and proposed solutions to the problems. Thank you Di!
[Ron Wertlen, eKhaya ICT]

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: May 24th 2008 08:02

The Hawthorn Effect

Showing people you care, lifts morale and makes them work harder and better. It doesn’t really matter whether your long-term intervention is ICT’s health or whatever. The argumentation doesn’t quite hold for short-term relief, as when water is delivered to the thirsty.

This is something that Amartya Sen in his Development as Freedom skirts around. He is an economist, and he is used to writing to audiences which pooh-pooh such soft thinking. But reading between the lines, reading meaning into the examples he uses (often from his native India) one senses the importance of humanity, caring and interest in the actual recipients (not the machines) as highlights.

Fortunately this effect has been given a name – The Hawthorn Effect – and described in scientific terms. Finally a piece of hard science, that even economists can bite into. The cynic will say that marketers and managers can also bite into it – great motivate people to do more work for the same price. But Mr. Cynic, consider this: are the people happier than before? Probably, productive people are happy, intrinsically motivated people are happy. It’s not about the money, it’s about the feeling you take home at the end of the day. Try it out Mr. Cynic…

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 22nd 2011 08:00

The Kliptown Youth Project

As an East Cape person, visiting Johannesburg is something I like to avoid like the plague. I ask my relatives who live there why they are still there. Especially after they have recounted the latest displeasures of living in Johannesburg. The displeasures range from drug using youth scenes, to muggings, to traffic congestion. All the more worrying it is to get in a car and head to Soweto - a good thing to liven up a conference!


A good thing that Neo is on the end of line - guiding a nervous Soweto-first-timer to Freedom Square in Kliptown. The place that the Freedom Charter was signed at on the 26th of June 1955. Now it is a huge brick edifice - a freedom mall apparently - taxis and traffic mill with music blaring... Just down a side-road here is Neo's place.

From there we head of West accross the railway tracks to the Kliptown Youth Project. This is a really squalid township scene, and I would not go in here without Neo. And definitely not at night. In the rural areas, people tend to smile more, and the poverty is somehow easier to bear. But just half an hour walk from this desperately poor place, sports cars and limousines worth millions of rands each (Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, etc.) ferry impatient business people around. They don't make the traffic jams move any faster.



The Kliptown Youth Project is about hands, minds and hearts. It is about winning the youth over to hope! By occupying the minds and hands with useful activites the hearts of these youth are filled with hope, confidence and a will to achieve more. A group of youth are in the yard kicking a ball around. Another couple are stting in the office working on their CVs. During school, there are 100 children with OLPC laptops creating digital artefacts in a classroom which is also used for remedial work. Teachers come to give after hours assistance to learners - mainly matrics to help them go further. They have a great role model in Thulani Madondo. Quietly confident, he has travelled far afield to gain experience and he knows that there is something important about what he is doing here at KYP. It is a real pleasure to speak to him and I hope to go on a Kliptown tour with him one day soon.

The great thing about KYP is that the momentum of this project comes from the participants. What a lesson this is to other projects, that aim for the same hands, minds and hearts effect but bring in impetus from outside (see my next blog post about Andrew Summer's project at St Matthews school near Keiskammahoek).

This is a very worthy project for the OLPC and it is great to see them using the technology so ably.


By now Neo has taken another 150 OLPCs to an installation in Natal at a rural school (Esibonisweni Primary School). I see some photos of the school and it looks quite well off compared to the schools we are working at. I am sure that they will also make good use of the laptops under Neo's tutelage. And what a good export product for KYP. Performing OLPC training and installs. I hope that all goes well with that and that the DoE and Municipality finally pay this project the attention it deserves.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: October 20th 2008 09:05

The Smithsonian at Mdantsane, Eastern Cape

I fairly recently had meeting with Dr. Claudia Beck Reinhardt of the Eastern Cape Socio-Economic Consultative Council. She is a dynamic woman with a very strong vision. She sees the best possible facilities being installed in - of all places - the most neglected areas. In fact, she wants to set up something like the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. in Mdantsane (the township of East London / Buffalo City). The idea is to create a centre for touch and feel science learning - with thematically arranged rooms. For instance, in a planetarium, you might be able to see and feel the movement of the planets around the sun, learn about acceleration and velocity, differential equations with custom crafted learning aids. In the the biology lab, you might be astonished by the inner workings of an ant colony or a bee hive. In the morning teachers book the rooms for their classes and learners travel from their school to the Centre to receive special education by dedicated science teacher specialists working at the centre. In the afternoon the centre is open to the public, free of charge. It provides a wonderful alternative to the mundane reality outside and teaches at the same time. A large part of the idea is heightening awareness of the importance of Maths and Science in every day life.

Good luck with the project Claudia!! We hope it flies, and we hope to provide some great communication software for the computer lab!
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 29th 2008 11:26

Village Scribe Association Founded!

On the evening of the 3rd of December at "Huis van Rooi" in St-Agatha-Rode, Belgium, the Village Scribe Association was founded. The official registration will follow in January. The association has its home in Boortmeerbeek in Belgium.

Founding honorary members are:
  • Christoph Flügge, The Hague, Lawyer, Judge in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)

  • Prof. Robert Tolksdorf, Berlin, IT Specialist, Professor for Computer Science and Head of the Group on Networked Informationsystems, Free University of Berlin

  • Dr. Antonino Gulli', Pisa, IT Specialist, CTO Ask.com Europe and UK
Founding members are:
  • Ronald Wertlen, Grahamstown, IT Specialist, CEO of eKhaya ICT, Centre of Excellence (CoE) Coordinator at the Computer Science Department, Rhodes University

  • Dr. Anna Wertlen, Grahamstown, Biologist, COO of eKhaya ICT

  • Amanda McPhail, Boortmeerbeek (Belgium), Biologist, Research Database Specialist

  • Dr. Jan Baekelandt, Boortmeerbeek (Belgium), Gynaecologic Oncologic Surgeon
We are looking forward to increased cooperation between the cultures of Europe and Africa with the founding of the association.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: December 8th 2008 10:57

Vulnerability and Empowerment

Recently, the following exchange occurred on the Dwesa mailing list of Rhodes University. I got permission to reprint it here, from Mario Marais and Caroline Khene. It was in response to a news article on CSIR training programmes in marginalised rural areas targeted at cyber-security (which I take to mean specifically security in a networked computer environment).
What I always wonder when I read these stories is: have there been any reported cases of rural marginalised/disadvantaged computer users being defrauded by cyber-criminals or mobbed by facebook users, etc.?

Not sure about that Ron! I'm not involved in this project, but what we have encountered is lots of PCs at schools that are crippled by viruses. What has your experience been?

I agree with Mario. They are in fact the most vulnerable, given they are not as informed about risks on the Internet. When we were in Dwesa, the youth were always downloading stuff from the Internet. Also, who knows who they'll meet online. Furthermore, the new services being introduced, e-government, e-business etc, obviously involves the circulation of private/sensitive information. There are a number of ethical aspects when it comes to ICT4D.

I agree with Mario too.

@Mario: Viruses appear on computers almost immediately when we install
them anywhere. Even without Internet (which is restricted to only a few
computers at Nkwalini labs), almost all computers are infected because
of music and video sharing and outdated [Virus] scanners.

I also agree with any form of training and time spent in the community.
This is essential.

@Caroline: I agree that there are strong ethical aspects in ICTD. And
one thing we must encourage is empowerment and playing to strengths of
the rural people! So I do not agree that people in the rural areas are
the most vulnerable (especially as they are for the most part unbanked,
offline, have limited English knowledge and in general very very
cautious around technology). I would even go so far as to say that this
perspective promotes disempowerment of the rural people who do have a
culture and are in many instances proud and capable within their social

@Ron. Yes you do make an important point. But perhaps you may have misunderstood me. I am referring to people who use the Internet or have
access to it via various projects or mobile phones. Informing them about risks in using the Internet or mobile services in fact empowers them. If we assume we all have a culture and are capable in our contexts, why then do we still need to inform each other about information security issues. Everyone, whether rural or not, needs to be informed. We are all vulnerable, but our advantage is that we are more informed (or not).

Good points, yes, security should be part of any curriculum, and because it hasn't been in many cases, some people are more vulnerable than others - to paraphrase you, Caroline.
I think Caroline was quite kind to me in this debate. Of course, our aim is to get rural and uninformed people into the Internet more, so to argue that the rural people are not vulnerable because they are offline is to argue against our own work in ICTD!

The main point I was trying to make though, is once again the idea that everyone has strengths that development can and should play towards in order to activate the person who is the object of the development. There can be an uneasy relationship between development worker and target of the development work. The way out of this uneasiness is through "informed consent" -- an ethical consideration that research must be initiated in an open manner and results kept transparent. Such ethical considerations are fortunately anchored in the Rhodes University Ethical Standard, which applies to our work.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: September 26th 2010 11:53

We are working on a Living Lab

I met with Patrizia Hongisto who is senior researcher at the Center for Knowledge and Innovation Research at the Helsinki School of Economics - which is very active in the European Living Lab network. When I told her what we are doing, she immediately exclaimed that it is a living lab! The idea is that the innovation is embedded in the whole project and the whole project is alive (ordinary people taking part etc.). One develops ideas, but also offers services to industry to come and test their ideas in the lab (at a price). In this instance, eKhaya ICT and the Village Scribe organisation are making use of the lab to test their products in a way that empowers the people, because they directly share in the results!

That's a nice way to look at things. I hope it works out that way.

PS. I am very impressed with how COFISA and the Living Lab concept are working out at Dwesa, intermediating between industry and the University/community interests. It looks like our project and Dwesa will be connected before the year is over.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: June 19th 2008 08:43

Why did we start eKhaya ICT?!

Some people just shake their head when they hear what we are trying to do. I know what they mean I sometimes catch myself thinking similar thoughts: how can this work at all? Poor persons living in so-called developing rural regions don't have enough to eat, clean water to drink, western medical facilities - what will Web 2.0 bring them? Is it any use at all in an area that does not have any infrastructure?

The answer to all these questions lies in the following argument:

Poor persons living in such regions do not form a homogenous mass - people can be very different no matter what their culture is! As such, there are members of those societies that can very well benefit from the introduction of new technologies.

Further, recall that new technologies are in themselves an indispensible form of infrastructure. We have set ourselves a mission, because we believe that bringing Web 2.0 and internet to such regions will help the people there. Why do we think this is a realistic goal? Because there are a lot of other organisations out there trying to bring power, connectivity and other forms of technology to such areas. Often these groups are in developed regions far from the areas they intend to help. We are at home here in Africa and enjoy an advantage through this fact.

People who don't understand what we are doing, also often have another problem which cannot be countered logically. They believe cultures other than theirs are inferior and do not even deserve a try. In truth however, all cultures have evolved and are remarkably efficient at dealing with their environment and also resisting fast pased changes. We have a lot to learn from them and their unique perspective and history! In turn, we want to help them realise that their environment has changed. They live next door to the global village, and are free to come and go as they please.

I am very excited by what we are going to learn!
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 26th 2007 02:19

"BEE failure": BEE was a quick win, now the hard work starts

To expect the BEE programme to succeed within the space of one generation, and without a strategic plan for broad based empowerment - not only in an economic sense - is plain silliness. The so-called "failure of BEE" which is currently in the news originates from a KPMG audit of large companies BEE scores this last week. This failure proves that economic empowerment alone is not enough to allow broad inclusion in South African business.

While the idea of BEE as a rectifier of legacy Apartheid imbalance is fundamentally correct. However, the devil is always in the detail. Thus the first version of BEE did not do enough and now apparently also the version 2.0 Broad-Based BEE is failing. Working on the ground and in schools in impoversihed areas, we see the reason for this. Everyone wants a "quick win". In IT business we speak of "quick wins" when we want to implement a speedy interim solution with a very visible effect. It's an interim solution because the infrastructure required to make the solution work sustainably has to catch up, or the quickly written code does not comply with standards. Quick wins are very important, because they keep managers off your neck (they have something to show) and the development team has gained confidence.

In the same way, the BEE song has kept the public appeased for a while and the developers of South African society have had some time to go forward with deep changes. These changes are coming along too slowly. Especially in the Eastern Cape and in the Eastern Cape education department we have seen very few, very slow advancements. Infrastructure and educational quality is sadly lacking. And without education only a very brittle broad base can be developed, if any at all.

With a strong and educated broad base, programs like the BBBEE and BEE will truly have the chance to achieve what they set out to do. Balance Apartheid injustice.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: September 7th 2008 01:12

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