From moribund to Malawi: Martin Cooper MBCS reports on The ITSA Digital Trust, a charity which collects unwanted PCs, upcycles them and delivers them to African schools.

After years of hard work and loyal service, office computers eventually become victims of a corporation’s rolling upgrade policy. When their day comes and they’re judged to be no longer shiny and new enough, these PCs are unplugged and, with no work left to do, they can find themselves skipped and tipped.

But with a skilled hand, a hard disk re-image and a few focused hardware upgrades, such computers can still make a very valuable contribution – at least if they’re lucky enough to be rescued by The ITSA Digital Trust.

Based in an unassuming industrial estate on the outskirts of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, The ITSA Digital Trust aims to collect 600 PCs, monitors and laptops each month. It collects them nationally, bringing the machines back to its base where they’re refurbished by a crew of employees and volunteers. With new life breathed into their silicon veins, they’re carefully packaged and shipped to schools in four key African countries.

A good news story all the way

‘Nobody wants to see computers go to landfill. Businesses don’t, schools don’t, and nor do private individuals. We collect used computers, refurbish them and upgrade them’, explains Geoffrey Newsome, The ITSA Digital Trust’s CEO. ‘We then send the computers to schools in east Africa – Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe – where they are desperately wanted and dearly loved. It’s a good news story all-round.’

The ITSA Digital Trust has a partner non-governmental organisation (NGO) in each of those countries. ‘They are there to ensure that the equipment is received and stored,’ explains Simon Richardson, operations manager. ‘They test the equipment before it’s sent out to schools. Having an NGO in each country means that if any of the schools in that country need any help, support or spares, they know who to turn to.’

Beyond Africa: big numbers and a blue bus

The charity has collected over 115,000 computers and laptops from UK donors and supplied over 1,800 schools. It has also raised funding for the IT training of teachers and students in Africa, as well as for the creation of whole IT labs in African schools.

But beyond this, as you dig deeper into the charity’s processes and priorities, it soon becomes clear that its whole supply chain is designed to produce positive benefits at every step.

Of the 600 machines the charity processes each month some are, for example, refurbished by prisoners in a UK prison. Though internet access rules mean they can only clean and test hardware but not re-install Windows, the prisoners learn valuable skills through their work.

In the charity’s HQ, the organisation provides back-to-work placements, again focusing on helping people build skills, confidence and a CV. The ITSA Digital Trust further provides school work-experience placements for students with different needs, as well as working with businesses whose employees want to volunteer as part of corporate social giving programmes.

Closer to home, The ITSA Digital Trust supports local communities. It donates computers to community groups and has helped over 22,000 people to build their digital skills and literacy. This focus on helping otherwise excluded communities build skills has culminated in the recent launch of Digibus.

Digibus is a blue double-decker bus that has been, fittingly, rescued from retirement. Stripped out and re-appointed, the bus is now a mobile school room which tours communities in Gloucestershire and surrounding counties providing digital skills and training wherever it is booked to stop.

The impact of E-learning labs

‘What makes me proudest?’ Simon reflects. ‘I’d have to say our E-Learning Labs. We’ve built 34, with the majority in Malawi. The programme is transforming IT education in that country. We’re giving school children there the opportunities which children in the UK sometimes take for granted.’

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Typically the labs have 30 to 45 networked computers, laser printers, internet access, a digital projector and a laptop for the teacher. Providing enough computers for each student means students can work independently, significantly improving their education quality.

‘I agree,’ says Geoffrey, ‘The IT labs are very important. We are talking now about schools which previously had no computers. The students are of all ages. Some are 17 or 18... Maybe even 20... and they may have had two years of IT education but they have never had their hands on a computer.

An NGO will go into a school and they’ll transform a room. They’ll put in electricity, internet access, security and all of the computers. They’re transforming not just that room, but many children’s education. We have videos of children running to the new labs because they’re so excited.’

Starting the journey

The charity’s donation process starts with The ITSA Digital Trust contacting UK schools and businesses and asking for retiring computers.

‘We spend a lot of time emailing and telephoning,’ says Simon. ‘And, the bigger the organisation, the harder it is. IT departments say it’s the finance department that’s in charge of disposal. Finance will say it’s the Chief Executive. So, the bigger the company, the harder it is to determine who is responsible. You need to find the right person – somebody with some oomph to overcome barriers.’

‘We also need to appeal to hearts and minds,’ Simon says. ‘Big recyclers can go into schools and say “we can take your computers away and give you some money”. We can’t do that.’

Even after deciding in principle to give away hardware, the process is fraught with practicalities. For one, organisations need to be very mindful of the data stored on the hardware. Should customer data be leaked in this way, GDPR sets out the potential fines.

‘Data security is our number one priority,’ Simon says. ‘We use specialist software to wipe hard disks – we use KillDisk and WipeDrive.’

‘For firms that want it, we provide certificates to confirm that we’ve wiped the hard drives,’ Geoffrey states. ‘Some firms may even choose to remove the storage before donating the computers.’

‘I’d always ask donors to visit us here,’ Simon explains. ‘To allay any fears they may have.’

Finding the right devices

The ideal computer for donation is no more than six or seven years old. The hope is that such a machine should last for around another five years in the field. This stipulation sees the charity carefully assess its stock before picking machines for reconditioning. Those pieces of hardware that don’t make the grade or are too niche – like Apple kit – are either sold on or sent for recycling.

Digging more into the ideal specification, Simon says a computer must be able to run Windows 10. This poses a potential problem for The ITSA Digital Trust. Windows 10 will reach its end of life in 2025 and Windows 11 has a much more demanding set of specifications — specifically, the presence of a Trusted Platform Module 2.0 chip on the motherboard and a fairly recent processor. If these are not present, the OS won’t install.

‘It’s a challenge for us,’ says Geoffrey. ‘We’re talking to our NGOs about it now. Installing Linux isn’t the answer – in Africa they want Windows. And we’re talking to Microsoft too.’

‘We’ve got through Windows XP, Windows 7 and Windows 10... ‘ says Simon. ‘Each time there’s been a challenge but we’ve got through it.’

Dead batteries and end of life decisions

Potential worries about future operating system compatibility aren’t, however, the charity’s biggest frustration. Rather, batteries are – specifically lithium-ion batteries. Many of the donated laptops have damaged, dead or bulging batteries. Indeed, these battery problems may have prompted the laptop’s donation.

For the charity, this causes a specific set of problems and frustrations. Firstly, despite the broken batteries, the laptops are often otherwise perfectly functional. Next, correctly disposing of the broken battery carries a cost the charity must pay. Finally, finding replacement power-packs is very hard. Batteries are generally designed for a limited number of laptop models only.

Standing by a box full of dead batteries, Monis Khalifa, IT manager at The ITSA Digital Trust, explained that he’d love laptop manufacturers to step in and help either by supplying replacement batteries or donating unwanted stocks.

Finally, of course, the donated machines do eventually come to the end of their second life in Africa. When this happens, the machines can be returned to the country’s NGO which can ensure that the hardware is correctly recycled. However, the computers are so cherished by the schools that their life will be extended as long as possible.