How Linux is changing lives in Zambia
11th Mar 2012 | 10:00
Helping a small village to connect and communicate
Make do and mend
Elton Munguya is the 28-year-old unit director of a moderately large residential and business ISP and network service provider.
His organisation counts many important institutions among its customers: the local bank, a hospital, several primary and secondary schools, the offices of the water administration board, a college and a bunch of cyber cafes.
The network has around 100 major nodes and access points (the exact number varies) and covers a geographical area of approximately 20km2.
Elton's role includes managing the roll-out of similar installations at other sites around the country. Like many young IT professionals, Munguya is laid-back, likeable and helpful to a fault. He's just bought his first car and he plans to get married early this year.
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Nothing unusual so far, you might think. Except that Elton works for LinkNet Zambia. His 'patch' is a small rural village called Macha in the south of the country. The nearest tarmacked road is more than 15km away, and it's a 45-minute drive to get to the closest town, Choma.
Up until Chinese construction workers built the road to Choma a couple of years ago, the drive was an uncomfortable three-hour journey in a well-equipped 4x4. During the summer months, when it rains, the track into Macha itself is quickly rutted and virtually impassable by car.
The local bank and cyber cafes are built into old shipping containers, originally used to transport donations of used computers from overseas. Rather than dump the containers unceremoniously in the bush, wily technicians turned them into secure, dry shared computing spaces.
Packing crates become shelving, and giant antennae are stuck on the roof to connect these sites with the satellite uplink at MachaWorks, the parent organisation of LinkNet.
The wireless networking is done using standard Wi-Fi kit. An omni-directional high-gain antenna on top of a water tower blankets a 3km radius at the heart of Macha with network signal, while beyond that directional antennas extend the range point to point.
Wireless is preferred since it's easier to deploy and less vulnerable to damage from lightning. Plus second-hand 802.11g routers are easy to get hold of.
And the whole project is powered almost exclusively by Linux. There's even an Ubuntu Campus for the small technology training college, named in honour of a certain popular distribution and the ideal behind the name.
Most of us have used Linux to revitalise an old computer. Elton and the team at MachaWorks are doing the same thing: but instead of setting up a media server for the lounge or to complete Folding@Home tasks, they're evolving a way of working that's widely regarded as a role model for international development.
"The obvious reason we use Linux and open source wherever we can is that it's free; we can't afford software like Windows," Munguya explains. "But it's also faster than Windows on the PCs we use in our tests, and we find it easier to maintain; we don't have to worry so much about viruses when people use the PCs online."
Reliability is important. For a European customer, getting software support from an overseas call centre belonging to one of the big proprietary development houses might feel like a trial by telephone. Sending technicians out to a cybercafe that's 35km deeper in the bush because a customer opened the wrong email attachment is more than just costly and time consuming - it might not happen for weeks.
Munguya's story is quite extraordinary. The second of three brothers born in Mukinge in the north western province of Zambia, his father - a local pastor - died when he was just two. Despite being a single parent in a poor community where the main economic activity is subsistence farming, his mother made sure he and his brothers finished secondary school, after which he moved to the capital, Lusaka, for a couple of years to train in accountancy.
Unable to find a job in the city, he moved back to Mukinge at the end of 2006, just before LinkNet chose the village as its first site for expansion beyond its Macha base.
MachaWorks itself was founded in 2001 by Gertjan van Stam, a Dutch engineer whose wife took a job researching malaria medicines at Macha hospital. The philosophy behind the organisation has been to train and employ local people wherever possible, to the extent that van Stam himself is the only foreign-born employee and takes little part in the decision-making processes.
What van Stam has, however, is an exceptional eye for talent and getting the right people to work with him. Elton was recruited as a potential administrator for the Mukinge network, and trained at the LinkNet Technology Information Academy (LITA) on Ubuntu Campus. Once he arrived at Macha, however, he decided he wanted to stay and help at the heart of the organisation.
MachaWorks isn't primarily about taking technology into poor, rural areas - there are many ICT4D (ICT for Development) projects that have failed because they put that mission first. Rather, it bills itself as a community-led, grassroots development NGO, which now has eight projects underway around Zambia.
LinkNet is only a part of what it does, and it takes a 'holistic' approach to development. MachaWorks has been responsible for building schools, medical centres and helping people from incredibly poor backgrounds to organise and find solutions to developmental problems for themselves.
Information and technology is at the heart of its work, however. The core philosophy is ground-up development - giving people the tools and the training to help themselves - that means establishing radio stations, TV channels and cyber cafes so that rural farms gain access to information, communication and collaboration.
At Macha, the community radio station and MachaTV are Linux-powered, too. Audacity is used for editing broadcast clips and interviews with local residents, health workers and officials, while magazine articles for TV shows are edited in OpenShot.
In a country with low literacy rates, where the AIDS/HIV epidemic has reduced life expectancy to 39, dissemination of information - on condom use, how to take medicines and so on - can literally be the difference between life and death. Because televisions and electricity are fairly scarce around Macha, one of the most effective ways to reach viewers is via YouTube (www.youtube.com/machabroadcasting) on a LinkNet workstation.
"With people who've used computers before," says Munguya, "we can train them to use Ubuntu to produce broadcast material in about a month. For those people who've never seen a computer, it can take up to a year."
The first thing that MachaWorks does with any new site, then, is install a satellite internet connection and a shipping container cyber cafe. Mobile network coverage is expanding rapidly throughout Africa, but the areas that LinkNet works in still tend to be off-grid for voice services, let alone GPRS or data.
The cyber cafes get used for all kinds of things: distance learning, organising transport to take crops across the country and buying cheap cars and other equipment online.
Standing outside one of LinkNet's more remote installations, in Chikanta, Munguya explains how knowledge can be transformative.
"Before the internet, buyers of crop surpluses would take advantage of people's ignorance," he says, "by paying far below the market price for a bag of grain. Now, farmers have learned to check prices online, and they don't get ripped off."
One of the most important benefits is research: several farms are introducing cash crops, such as peanuts and soya, alongside their maize staples in order to raise money. MachaWorks has experimented with growing the oil-rich plant Jatropha for fuels, in order to try to reduce its reliance on donors.
Another key aim is to create relatively high-tech jobs that encourage young people to stay in the villages rather than move to Lusaka. "There are more IT apprenticeships available here in Macha now than in the urban areas," Munguya says.
To a Linux advocate, the principles that guide MachaWorks and LinkNet will sound uncannily familiar. Putting people in control of the solutions offered to them, sharing knowledge among a large community for the benefit of all, promoting open innovation… there's a lot of overlap between the vision of grassroots development agencies such as Macha and the goals of open source.
Tony Roberts co-founded the charity Computer Aid International, and has been involved with MachaWorks for several years. Although he left Computer Aid in 2010 to study for a PhD in IT and Development, he remains close to the Zambian project and visits regularly.
"Agency freedom and participation are key to good development practice," Roberts explains. "Open source enables greater freedom for communities to produce software in their own language, tailored to cultural settings and self-determined needs."
Linux isn't used exclusively around MachaWorks, though. The syllabus at LITA is built around the International Computer Driving Licence, which is a Windows-based course, because there are no equivalent certificates that can help graduates find work using Linux.
Some of the cybercafes use Windows machines, too, including one provided by Computer Aid. In this case, using Windows helped reduce costs by networking 11 thin clients to one server.
Pragmatism, not evangelism
Hitesh Chauhan, Computer Aid's IT manager, says that the company encourages projects that it supports to use open source software, but isn't prescriptive of it.
"We use open source software extensively in both our production departments and our own back-end systems, and offer it as an alternative to propriety solutions, such as Microsoft Windows," says Chauhan, "Computer Aid has experience in implementing open source solutions and encourages its use and benefits. Where a recipient requests Microsoft Windows, we will also install open source alternatives such as Firefox, Google Chrome, Libre Office, Gimp, Audacity etc. We utilise Ubuntu as our primary distro, though we do keep tabs on other distros."
In development work, any project - IT-related or otherwise - that doesn't put people first is in danger of failing. Wayan Vota, a prominent ITC4D practitioner (ITC for Development), who blogs at ICTWorks.org, says that while open solutions are often best, it's important not to put philosophical arguments above the actual problem being addressed.
"Fundamentalism is the number one reason that folks get turned off from FLOSS," Vota explains. "Too many in the FLOSS community get so tied up in the philosophy of open source that they forget the practicalities of deployment. The best ICT interventions use the best software, regardless of its code base. In some cases that's FLOSS, in others its not - and both should be acceptable, and applied equally."
Given that PC sales are being held up by huge growth in countries where the cost of proprietary software would seem prohibitive, such as India and China, it might seem odd that there's been no significant change in the global proportion of desktop users running Linux.
"FLOSS is growing in popularity, but I'm not sure if it's increasing in scale greater than the general increase in ICT usage," Vota says, "I have the feeling - but no hard data - that it's growing at about the same rate as ICT usage overall, with the exception of Android, which is growing quite quickly in the mobile space."
While it may not be to every LXF reader's taste, Munguya is a fan of Unity, the new Ubuntu front end. He's just finished upgrading LinkNet to version 11.04 and says that the speed with which people who've never used computers pick up Unity is quicker than the old Gnome 2.x.
"I think the challenge people have faced in the past with Ubuntu is 'where do I find what I'm looking for?'" he explains, "With the new version, people don't need to go far - if they want to open Libre Office, it's one of the icons on the desktop."
Jono Bacon, Ubuntu's community manager, says that while Unity wasn't necessarily designed with development work in mind, increasing accessibility will always be part of Ubuntu's core values.
"Ubuntu's singular mission isn't focused specifically on supporting people in developing nations, but it is part of its remit." Bacon says, "So there's a set of core values - that it will always be free, there will always be one version, that it will always be in your language and accessible. These principles help to guide the project forward so they can benefit people in Zambia as much as San Francisco."
Munguya lives in a small dormitory with other MachaWorks employees near the organisation's HQ. After he finishes work, he can often be found indulging in his other big IT passion. Using equipment borrowed from the radio station and local church, he's slowly creating a digital archive of Zambian folk and gospel music.
Munguya believes that although the introduction of technology will inevitably change local culture and tastes, it can also be used to preserve it. In a country with more than 70 spoken languages, and even more traditions, that could be the task of a lifetime.
"I collect the sound of traditional music," he explains, "And I'm learning more about the different cultures. I need some things, like a condenser mic, studio sound card and mixer for a proper studio, but the project is coming on very well. For my computer studio, I still use Windows software, like Fruity Loops and Cubase, but I'm learning Ubuntu software, like Rosegarden, too."