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Foiling The Geckos

September 17, 2009
by Erik Vance

The Internet can bring education and jobs to the world’s poor farmers. And with some ingenuity, the obstacles—political, cultural, and practical—can be overcome.

Designing computers for the world’s poor farmers isn’t easy. Rodents chew the wires. Geckos crawl into the computers’ vents and are pureed by the fans. In humid rainforests, there’s moisture damage. In the dry savannah, there’s dust. And in the Ugandan countryside, where Bob Marsh is setting up computer networks, the nearest telephone line is miles away.

Marsh is a co-founder of Inveneo, a “social enterprise” that lends technological know-how to nonprofits connecting the developing world to the Internet. Marsh is a tall man with a square jaw, a full head of gray hair, and an intense stare. He first toyed with computers in the early 1970s at Menlo Park’s now-famous Homebrew Computer Club. Fellow club members who also went on to found microcomputer companies include Lee Felsenstein, Steve Jobs, Alan Osborne, and Steve Wozniak.

Marsh met Felsenstein in the Oxford Hall co-operative during his freshman year at Berkeley. Both were active in the Free Speech Movement. Mutual passion for social justice brought them together again almost 40 years later, when Felsenstein recruited Marsh to help him connect remote villages in the jungles of Laos to an open-source telecommunications network. The machines were powered by bicycles, which The New York Times dubbed “the Pedal Powered Internet.” But all didn’t go as planned.

According to Marsh, in the frenzy to get the village Internet station up and running, no one realized the Laotian military expected bribes. Just before the project was to go online, the military stepped in and shut the whole thing down. “It never actually went live, even though we did two years of development,” he says. Local people, of course, knew what was expected and where the group went wrong. Marsh deduced that the effective way to set up communications technologies in the developing world was through churches or schools, with Westerners serving as consultants.

Along with two people from the Laos project, Kristin Peterson and WiFi wiz Mark Summer, Marsh started Inveneo, which straddles the divide between Internet startup and nonprofit. They now design communications systems and sell them as consultants at cut-rate prices to local organizations with closer ties to the hamlets.

Inveneo’s pilot project was in a village in western Uganda, far from the capital of Kampala and close to the Congo border. The Republic of Uganda has stabilized since the violent dictatorship of Idi Amin ended in 1979. It is credited as one of the first African nations to recognize the AIDS pandemic and move against it. The country is also growing wealthier. But drive just a few miles out of Kampala and most people are still poor subsistence farmers. A few Internet cafés pop up occasionally, but they quickly crumple under the pressures of high costs, a fragile infrastructure, and customers who live miles apart. “I was in rural western Uganda for two weeks and I saw one aircraft. It was a U.N. helicopter,” Marsh recalls. “That’s it.”

The team’s first order of business was to find something affordable that could survive in such a harsh environment. When they couldn’t find anything, Inveneo built a simple, user-friendly desktop computer cobbled together from bits and pieces of existing technologies. The result is the Inveneo Communications System, a customizable package of computer software—and sometimes solar panels to power it. The computer has no moving parts, minimizing dangers from dust and lizards. The software is free and open source (a computer equivalent of buying generic drugs). Switched on, the desktop looks like Windows in “safe mode”—a drab grey background with just a few icons whereby users can create documents, go online, and send email. And the computer is almost immune to viruses because normal users can’t download new programs that might carry them.

Once Marsh had a system he could sell for about $1,500 (cheaper than through the unlicensed dealers who distribute most computers in rural Africa), he needed to find a way to hook the system, and the tiny classroom housing it, into the Internet. Many villagers had never used a phone, let alone owned one. Shaky phone connections are endemic to the countryside in the developing world. They opted instead for wireless technology, taking advantage of the lack of radio traffic in rural Africa. Once a pathway was set for one village, other villages could plug in relatively cheaply.

Berkeley African Studies professor Mariane Ferme says projects like Inveneo are the next step for African development. “In places that are starved for books, the potential for electronic publishing to reach places where libraries are nonexistent is enormous. It will give them greater access to modern employment, civil service employment, educational tools, whatever.”

UCLA professor Allen Roberts says Internet connectivity has already changed the way the developing world teaches its children, does business, and even prays. For example, Hindus who practice darshan pray in front of an image or shrine of a Hindu deity, which they believe acts as a conduit for the god to “see” them. To accommodate a diaspora of Hindus who cannot bring images with them around the world, websites now post pictures of important deities so the devout can pray to the screen. Similarly, emigrants of Senegal working overseas often download traditional images and songs for ceremonies and blessings.

Back in Uganda, Marsh and Inveneo rely on their partner organizations to teach tech-savvy locals how to maintain the computers—usually schoolteachers, who already act as de facto scribes within the village. Inveneo now supplies computers to other African countries, such as Ghana, Mali, and Rwanda. In 2005, aid workers in New Orleans even used Inveneo computers to get online after Hurricane Katrina.

Marsh hopes Inveneo will offer a sustainable business model for social enterprise, and that their projects soon will be driven as much by customers as by grants and donations. “I don’t know if I would call it a fad,” he says. “You only call it a fad if it fades in a few years. Otherwise it’ll be a major new trend.”

From the November December 2007 New Media issue of California.

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