Computer Aid International’s Stephen Campbell visited the community of Macha to see the impact of the Internet and the research it enables, on an African community.
You won’t find the community of Macha on many maps. It’s 50 miles from the nearest road in the Southern Province of Zambia, itself a land-locked southern African country – it’s pretty much the last place you’d expect to find a community logged on to the Internet.
Taking advantage of a satellite link installed by John Hopkins University Malaria Research Institute, the LinkNet Cooperative (formed three years ago by the community and staffed by talented self-taught local youngsters, none of whom have graduated beyond grade 12) has established the largest wireless Mesh Network in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Wireless routers, similar to those used in homes in the UK, are used to spread a single internet connection across a wide area. This lowers costs enough to make internet connectivity affordable for homes, small businesses, schools and the local hospital and nurse training college.
By researching crop types, local farmers have already diversified – many have substituted part of their maize crop (a staple subsistence crop) with sunflower oil which generates vital cash in the local market. A small cash income for a family there sends children to school and can cover medical expenses for ill family members.
Doctors and nurses at the local hospital can seek advice on treating patients from specialists in the capital. Screening for malaria has improved thanks to the John Hopkins link and rates of malaria have dropped by 90%. Local people are using the internet for research to establish businesses whilst transaction costs for basic goods have reduced considerably.
The community has moved from net migration to cities, to net immigration from surrounding areas as income, healthcare, employment and small enterprise opportunities have increased beyond all recognition. Perhaps the biggest development, again driven by Internet-based research is the development of a bio-fuel, Jatropha, from scrub land on the edge of town. A fully-grown Jatropha tree can generate 1.5 kilos of fruit per year in this climate and, crucially, the crop times are compatible with the maize growing season – providing 400 farmers with a cash income initially and, longer term, a ready supply of fuel. The community expects to be self-sufficient in fuel inside three years.
There are thousands of communities like Macha across sub-Saharan Africa. Macha proves that access to information is the critical first ingredient in helping local communities to help themselves. We’re proud to have the support of BioMed Central to help more and more projects like this.