Based in Cheltenham, IT Schools Africa, has been running for 14 years. In that time - with the help of an army of volunteers - the UK registered charity has collected some 90,000 computers and laptops; helped set up 25 new school e-Learning labs in Africa; provided five million children with access to IT and supported 36 local projects within its Community IT Outreach Programme, here in the UK.
Stopping working computers going to landfill
Monis Khalifa who has been with charity since day one, explains how it all began back in 2004: ‘I was shocked to see people throwing what appeared to be perfectly good computer equipment in to a skip and felt that something must be done to put an end to this waste.’ After discussing his idea with a local businessman, to address the situation and do something positive about it - IT Schools Africa was born.
‘Volunteering is at the heart of IT Schools Africa,’ says UK Operations Manager, Simon Richardson. ‘The charity supports and trains volunteers from all walks of life - long-term unemployed, school and university students, students with special needs and community volunteers. Some people are very shy when they first start. They may have been out of work for many years, and have low self-esteem. Gradually, their confidence grows and eventually they may even go on to apply for jobs having gained relevant IT related skills.’
ITSA is able to collect donations of IT equipment from anywhere within a three-hour driving radius from their Cheltenham HQ. ‘We aim to collect 600 working computers and monitors per month and ask that any computers donated are no more than six or seven years old as we want the equipment to have as much life left as possible once it reaches Africa.
‘Once collected, all the equipment donated is brought to our depot in Cheltenham and a team of volunteers, led by our IT guru Monis, take over from there. Each computer is given a serial number, so there is an audit trail, which means we can keep track of every item as it passes through our workshop and beyond - to its final destination.’
Military grade data erasure
‘On arrival at the depot, the computers are given a basic clean and the hard drives are wiped to ensure all data is completely erased. We take security extremely seriously - it is our number one priority. We use internationally approved data erasure software called ‘Kill-Disc’ which is a US Department of Defence standard and ‘Wipe-Drive’ which is National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) approved. We can issue certificates of data erasure to prove all data has been erased if requested,’ adds Simon.
‘Anything we collect, which can’t be fixed or re-used is sent for recycling. The environment agency reviews our processes and audits the charity’s activities to make sure ITSA is following its strict guidelines.’
Learning skills, giving back to society
Once the hard drives have been wiped, the equipment then gets taken to a prison where teams of specially trained inmates clean, refurbish and upgrade the units. ‘We are proud to work with HM Prison Service and provide people with the opportunity to learn useful skills, so they can give back to society - and hopefully reduce their risk of reoffending. We’ve had a lot of very positive feedback from the prisoners working on the project,’ says Simon. ‘They tell us they enjoy learning new skills and say that they get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that their efforts are helping children with their education - and life chances.’
Improving skills across Africa
‘When the computers return from prison, our team of volunteers perform a further quality control check and will take the final steps of loading Windows 10 and adding educational software which can be used offline. Then the equipment is carefully and securely packed and palletised - ready to be shipped to our core countries - Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia and Kenya.
‘Some six to eight weeks later, the computers are delivered to our NGO partners in Africa. Our NGO’s are rather like sister charities to ourselves and are made up of a technical centre in each location, run by a local programme manager and supported by trained technicians. On arrival, the first thing the team will do is to check and make sure that it hasn’t been damaged during shipping - and is fully functioning. The teams will also train and provide technical support and guidance for teachers and schools.’
Simon continues: ‘Zambia is our flagship country where we have been able to supply many state schools with computers. Deliveries to Zimbabwe have been more intermittent, over recent years, due to the political and economic situation there. The programme in Malawi has been going from strength to strength in recent years and we have even constructed 21 purpose-built e-learning centres. We just started a new programme delivering to Kenya last year, so this is a new venture for us.’
Educating a wider audience
‘The computers are used during school-time, but can also be set up for use at breakfast clubs or after school clubs - allowing the schools to make a small charge for their use. The money made from this can then be used to buy books, tables and chairs for the school. Using the computers outside normal school hours, means that more people benefit from learning IT.’
As well as sending computers to Africa, the charity donates equipment to local UK charities and community organisations. It has recently launched Tech Connect - an initiative in Cheltenham which is open to charities, elderly and unemployed people. It offers a range of IT training - free of charge - where people can to learn everything from basic internet use to managing their finances online.
Improving IT access in the UK
‘Lack of access to technology can result in digital exclusion and a lack of access to resources and benefits. Lack of access is also a barrier to education, gaining employment, managing money (accessing Universal Credit) and making social connections. Those without access to computers can become isolated and disadvantaged. Our aim is to help those who need access to technology - low income families, people out of work, people with disabilities, the elderly and refugees - so they can use it effectively. This helps them learn new skills, helps reduce social isolation, makes them better placed to apply for jobs and have access to online public services. It gives them access to life enhancing skills and knowledge so they can make more informed choices.’