Change in Uganda

Internet Cafe Helps Community

A knee injury kept Will Patrick from going to Uganda the summer of 2007. After all the work he put into preparing for it, nothing could have held him back this summer.

That ill-fated summer he was supposed to join a small team of students from Smart Home and the Duke chapter of Engineers Without Borders in a trip to Uganda to help a community-based non-governmental organization in Nkokonjeru and assess the some of most pressing issues of the people there.

Based on the findings from that first trip, a group of 13 students - nine from Pratt - headed to Uganda with three engineering-related goals - bring the internet to the local community, improve the ability of local coffee growers to process their beans, and study the use of novel biomass materials to replace the use of charcoal. The trip was supported by DukeEngage.

An overarching and more long-term goal was to help a local organization - Rural Agency for Sustainable Development (RASD) - become able to fund its own activities without outside help. By the end of their time there, the group established an internet café, which has been temporarily shut down, that was actually turning a profit for RASD. The problem should be remedied in the near future.

"We were trying to make RASD as self-sufficient as possible, since we won,t be able to support them forever," Patrick said. "Ultimately, they not only want to be self-sufficient, but they also want to be able to fund their own initiatives."

Last year, the Duke group installed solar-powered computers. This year,s mission, which was presented with more of a technological challenge, was to bring the internet to an area where the closest connections were 30 bone-jarring miles away in Kampala. The team came up with a plan utilizing a technology that has become ubiquitous worldwide.

"There may not be much technology infrastructure in rural Uganda, but anything to do with telecommunications is booming. I got better cell phone service there than I do here," Patrick said with a serious chuckle.

After long discussions with the local telecomm company, they were able to access the internet from a general packet radio service (GPRS) router which was getting the signal from cell phone tower in town. The computers that were brought in last year were connected and an internet café was born.

"It was so gratifying to see people – many of whom had never been on the internet before - at the computers," Patrick said. "We trained RASD volunteers how to maintain it, and in its first month, the café brought in more than 200,000 shillings. It,s not much, but it was twice as much as the bills to the phone company."

The café has another benefit - it will much easier for RASD officials to prepare and submit grant proposals.

The system was running fine when the team left in late August. However the router was inadvertently damaged, so the team will have sent a new one over by mid-October. They are also working get more laptops for the café.

The group also went with the intent of demonstrating how coffee growers could shell the beans cheaply using a form-made sheller out of concrete. What they discovered was that the growers, since they were selling only the basic commodity, could add value to their by cutting out middlemen, such as the shippers. Members of the group helped organize the growers so they could more cheaply get their product to Kampala for sale and increase their profits.

With the community members, the team also started a project to explore possible alternatives to charcoal, which is a staple for cooking. They looked at such biomass materials as corn cobs, coffee shells or sawdust. While the use of coffee shells may have some potential, more work needs to done, Patrick said. The community members are continuing to study the problem, just as are the students are back at Pratt.

"The problem with coffee shells is that they densely pack, as compared to corncobs, which can be stacked," Patrick said. "Because of this, it,s hard for enough air to get inside to fuel a hot fire. We plan to continue working on it this year."

As another way of helping the RASD become more self-sufficient, the group engineered and helped construct a large workshop, and furnished it with such tools as a drill press, table saw and welding equipment.

The community members started a vocational education class in early September, and the workshop gave them the tool and space needed to conduct the classes.

"While we ere at RASD, we helped them build a workshop, buy the tools, hire a teacher and looked at the school,s financials to make sure it was economically sustainable," Patrick said.

By the end of September, they have eight students.