Development Challenge, Innovation, and Anticipated Impacts
A lack of electricity (and light to read), information and educational resources in more than 50% of Namibia’s households, crucial to the citizenship becoming literate, informed and democratised. Only 350 schools in Namibia have any form of conventional library; more than 600 schools lack electricity and communications. Looking further afield to countries like Uganda and Tanzania, this challenge is even greater.
In the absence of conventional libraries or affordable internet access, we propose a cost-effective and locally supported mix of ubiquitous technologies called ‘Light to Read’ (L2R), available ‘off-the-shelf’, comprising a (scalable) 7Ah solar lighting kit and mobile device charger, LED lights , a battery-operated wireless router reconfigured to work as a simple web-server, open information/educational content (e.g., Wikipedia, Khan Academy) on a hot-swappable USB memory stick, and a choice of affordable mobile devices which can be used to access this locally stored content, within a 30-metre radius of the router. Operational skill requirements are minimal, and the technologies are robust, cheap and easily replaced. Given the simplistic nature of ‘Light to Read’, this solution can be locally contextualised to meet diverse information content requirements such as in public waiting areas, clinics, magistrates courts, etc., where electricity and internet access may not be readily available. Working towards an attractive ‘wearable’ solution (perhaps a solar-powered school-bag or umbrella?) to charge mobile devices while walking between home and school (this is the norm in Namibia!) we see several value-adds which can make ‘Light to Read’ a marketable commodity.
It is dumbed down technology, simple to use, and rock solid. In the true spirit of Open Source and free access to information, the firmware for L2R (and instructions) is in the public domain, and simply demonstrates a concept that can be replicated using OpenWRT on almost any hardware by geek who have some Linux knowledge.
The L2R was designed to require minimal to zero support, and has a tiny hardware and energy footprint.
Given an universal expectation that the cost of mobile devices such as tablets and smart phones will decrease rapidly to a price of between US$ 15 and US$ 30 over the next 18 months, more and more households will acquire these devices. Presently it costs about US$ 1 to recharge the exhausted battery of a mobile phone at a local site with electricity in rural Namibia. Conventional wired and wireless internet solutions will remain a very costly and inadequate service for the paradigm shifts we’re seeing in the use of internet in education, e.g., the use of streaming media such as Wikimedia, Youtube, Khan Academy and TED. Providing a mix of solar light kit with charging capability and a hot-swappable USB collection of information and educational content which is locally contextualised and packaged for local consumption makes sense in both the school and home environment. Especially if the price of ‘L2R’ is kept low, at around US$ 50. The solution will allow us to do performance monitoring in a real world setting – we have identified several remote rural settings without electricity or internet, as well as a community resource centre ‘hotspot’ in north central Namibia (Eenhana) to test the present versions of ‘L2R’ and obtain information on usage and usability.
It is important to note that all government efforts to provide electricity, library resource centres and internet access to schools and communities have thus far been tediously slow and prohibitively expensive.
Context and Previous Experiences:
This concept has become a working prototype which evolved from earlier work with Raspberry (Library) Pi (see earlier blogs), and the historical influence of my SchoolNet Namibia experience –
(From a recent tweet)
We do not want to revisit the political or organisational nightmare we had with SchoolNet. L2R is sound and even has the potential of being “dropped” into communities without additional involvement or support.
Present Use of Funds
1. deployment of L2R units to households in proximity to identified schools and community resource centres e.g., Glowdom in Eenhana.
2. Fabrication overheads of making L2R a rugged and attractive device, using local (e.g., FabLab) industrial design resources and practitioners as well as the inputs of young local post-graduate engineers and fashion and textile design artists.
3. A school and community technical and training support system – a seat at a local telephonic call centre, and the deployment of young out-of-school technical volunteers/interns to identified schools and communities for at least one school term (2-3 months) during the start-up stage.
At least two attractive and rugged models of L2R which can be produced at increased scale, using a mixture of local manufacturing capacity and competitively-priced ubiqitous technologies (e.g., USB memory sticks) off the (local) shelf, to enter a potentially competitive market of increasingly affordable domestic (household) solar light kits and mobile phone chargers with the attraction of providing an alternative to costly internet-based information and educational resources.
Beneficiaries and Potential to Scale
Definition of direct beneficiary: learners and teachers at all schools without access to conventional libraries and community resource centres
Definition of indirect beneficiary: all households without electricity and internet access
What are possible avenues for scale up (e.g. public sector, international donors, private sector commercialization, or a combination) over the next 3 – 10 years, and what are our plans to get there?
We expect to scale through a hybrid of public and private sector support, in order to recover most costs (including overhead cost) through eventual sales to households attracted by the mix of basic home energy and information potential of L2R.
How many people do we expect to reach, in Namibia and globally?
With the immediate local and global attention provided by a TEDx presentation on L2R, there is a good probability that the innovation will have far greater reach than we initially anticipated. Our partner World Possible (RACHEL) has expressed interest in adopting the L2R model for deployment in several countries; Uganda (with the help of Daniel Stern) and Ghana as a start, but also further afield. In Namibia itself, our strong partnership with the broadcast media – AfricaOne Television – will ensure considerable marketing opportunities for L2R. We are also in the process of producing Kickstarter and Indeigogo crowdsourced fund-raisers for L2R.
What are the characteristics of our target beneficiaries or customers (e.g. income groups or other demographics)?
typically low income rural and informal urban settlements without electricity or other basic service infrastructure. But any home or school lacking a comprehensive collection of educational resources could become a benificiary.
Cost-Effectiveness and Competitive Landscape
What are existing common practices or competing solutions that seek to address the same development challenge as our solution in the area we intend to operate and scale?
The Ministry of Education masterplan for ICT development in education, called Tech/Na! driven by middle-management decision-makers with very large budgets and inflated ‘public’ tender processes (see my tweet above) combined with unwieldy bureaucracy – diversely funded directly by government, or with international grants and loans from agencies such as World Bank and more recently, MCA and ADB. While there are other large scale plans to provide medium- and long-term electrification to rural communities, these will unlikely be affordable to low-income households, who will continue to use firewood and parafin for cooking, heating and light.
Advantages of the Innovation:
What makes our innovation more appealing than alternatives to beneficiaries and public and/or private sector stakeholders who could invest in scale-up?
Affordability and innovative use of renewable energy and communciation technology at both institutional and domestic levels.
Why does our solution have the potential to yield greater impact per dollar than alternate ways of achieving the same development impacts?
The alternative solution is high speed broadband internet access at home and school, or the rapid deployment of conventional library resources. Both options pre-suppose the local availability of grid-based electricity in home and school.
How do we measure progress towards social impacts?
Aside from supply-demand trends, there are several open online education content services which can provide demographic usage information; e.g., Khan Academy, Wikimedia Foundation, without risk to user privacy.
How do we measure whether our solution has the potential to yield greater impact per dollar than alternative ways of achieving the same development impacts?
By tracking usage, demand and cost of diversified USB content packaging and comparison with conventional content distribution and usage by line-function ministries. We expect to identify and rank critical processes/client requirements and specific, quantifiable outputs of work in deploying L2R to our prospective school and household clients, and establish some basic targets against which results can be scored, such as warranty returns, call centre queries and technical problem resolution. We will also determine the most practical metrics to serve as financial management indicators.
Lessons (to be) Learned:
How will we generate relevant lessons throughout implementation? How will our evaluation inform scaling strategy?
We will likely trigger specific activities and revisions relating to issues concerning technical robustness, performance and content. We will transparently report on project outcomes as mandated by any prospective funding partners, with the intention to encourage improvement, effectiveness and appropriate levels of support when L2R scales up. Our prospective clientbase can be expected to diversify and our view is to adjust the range of L2R models (and content!) to accommodate the demands of different demographies, information sectors and languages, locally and internationally.
The Netday Association is a registered Section 21 Not for Profit in Namibia which promotes free/libre and open source software, hardware, content and open access, as well as renewable energy sector development, to support inclusive life-long education in Namibia. Operating as NetDay Namibia, we expect to add value to these sectors through the creative support of local research, development innovations, industry, expertise and activities in Namibia.
The Project Team includes Madryn Cosburn, co-director of Netday, who provides technical oversight of L2R and Joris Komen, providing administrative, financial and human resources oversight. Our Partners presently include FabLab Namibia is one of many educational outreach components of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, researching digital fabrication and computation. A Fab Lab is a technical prototyping platform for innovation and invention, providing stimulus for local entrepreneurship. A Fab Lab is also a platform for learning and innovation: a place to play, to create, to learn, to mentor, to invent. FabLab is a knowledge sharing network that spans 30 countries and 24 time zones. We’re really excited to be working with this bright, young and innovative group of Namibians! OneAfrica Television is an independent satellite and digital television broadcaster in Namibia. It provides us, gratis, with a large, nation-wide audience to market L2R. World Possible brings us RACHEL ! Originally founded by Cisco employees, this organisation is a small non-profit based in San Francisco, CA which focuses on improving education in developing nations through the use of technology. Like us, they believe that access to knowledge is a fundamental human right. Through World Possible’s RACHEL server, we are able to provide communities with packaged offline copies of good open source education materials. This enables communities with access to computers and other devices, but no access to internet, an avenue by which they can have an extensive library of educational and reference materials in a pseudo-internet experience.