Sunday, June 24, 2007

Beaming textbooks across Africa


Growing up in Africa, Matthew Herren saw that many children in cash-strapped rural schools have to make do with textbooks that are decades out of date. Inspired to find a low-cost solution to the problem, he hit on the idea of using satellites to transmit up-to-date educational materials. He aims to establish the technology not through programs run by traditional aid organizations but through a series of self-sustaining businesses.

"We figured there had to be a way for technology to lower the cost" of providing books and other materials to children, Herren says (see "Development Powered by Education"). Herren, who is Swiss, turned to one-way satellite radio transmission because Internet access is unlikely to reach much of the African interior anytime soon. In a test last year, a Swiss foundation called BioVision installed a satellite receiver in a grade school in Mbita Point, Kenya, on the shores of Lake Victoria. The receiver downloaded textbooks onto its hard drive. The information was then transferred to handheld computers rigged with simple Linux-based software for book viewing. Sixty students received current classroom materials.

Herren is now trying to implement his scheme on a grander scale. Working with Bridgeworks, a venture capital firm in Z├╝rich, he has already raised most of the $650,000 needed for seed money. With that capital, Herren hopes to launch a network of businesses across Africa that will sell and service the satellite receivers and handheld PCs. A country's education ministry would hire one of these companies to provide and maintain its educational-download system--and slash the per-pupil cost of providing classroom materials by more than 20 percent.

If delivering educational materials by satellite works as hoped, the basic system could be used to provide remote villages with health and agricultural information. Herren notes that in many villages that lack even roads, all paths literally lead to schools.

--David Talbot

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