Rural East Africa Goes Dot Com

Published on 9th September 2008
The initial campaign was about fixing power saving lamps to cut down on the energy consumption levels throughout East Africa in a move to make this vital utility available for normal business.  Most of the households in this region yielded to this demand mainly to make sure change comes to their strained pockets.

The much-desired change in terms of reducing power costs has been evidently slight, and in other cases the situation remains the same-in this part of the continent plagued by chronic power shortage.  But now in a country like Uganda, the computing industry has not waited for the same bells. It has wailed loud enough, and now business has to go on normally with or without normal power supply. An ICT firm in Kampala has taken initiative to move the industry to another level. With its ingenuity it has struggled to ensure this backbone industry remains in business despite a widely inconveniencing situation complicated by lack of access to power from the national grid.

CLS Limited has introduced, for the first time in Uganda, an ultra-low power, solarised-computing station – the Inveneo. Operating with an energy consumption rating of a maximum of just 25 watts, this is indeed a revolution that would have a significant impact not only in the country’s efforts to save power but also the ICT sector. In a country like Uganda many obstacles still stand in the way towards sustainable growth of this industry, particularly, unreliable power supply from the national grid, and access to modern devices that can be efficiently run on renewable energies like solar and wind being the most significant.

 Others include, limited access to funding for investment in modern ICT devices, Limited budgetary options that constrain liberty to invest in modern ICTs, Minimising business and organisational operational costs so as to remain competitive and sustainable. While all these challenges count, the issue of costs, efficiency ay matter most in this industry. For instance, the cost of a unit – Kilowatt per hour - is in excess of Shs500 and rising. This is penny-pinching. And now, this new computing station from the local operator CSL comes into the tech-world with a combination of factors to appeal to individuals, businesses, organisations and institutions in developing countries which face similar setbacks such as high cost of electricity for running ICT equipment.

 Inveneo computing stations, which the Daily Monitor has seen, are compact and rugged desktop computers with a stylish design to give any work station the modern look. The most obvious feature on an Inveneo desktop is its almost total lack of movable parts. Except for the keyboard and mouse, everything else is built into one solid unit thus saving on space and avoiding the clutter that can be caused by wires and other accessories that have come with ordinary computers.

The CPU is mounted on a bracket fitted at the back of the station’s LCD monitor. This compact design also holds the key to Inveneo’s ultra-low power 25 watts consumption. Other specifications on the Inveneo computing stations include: Viewable size: 14.1 inches, Four USB ports, Power consumption: 25 watts (maximum), 11 watts (typical), 3 watts (standby) and Processor: AMD Geode LX800 (500MHz) and 256 (upgradeable) MB Ram (DDR SO-DIMM) far from the ordinary. “If one is to install any electronic device in an area where there is unreliable or no electricity at all, or where its cost of consumption is high, the smart thing to do would be to opt for that (devise) whose energy consumption is lowest,” said Mr Mark Ejangu, the Projects Manager for CLS Ltd, a partner of Inveneo Inc, a non-profit social enterprise in the USA.

This, Ejangu says is because the higher the energy  consumption, the higher the cost of investing in energy generating equipment and grid electricity consumption as well as high maintenance costs. He said this true whether one has invested in a generator set, power backup units or solar power systems. With the prevalent high costs of energy in Uganda, business organisations and institutions are paying some of the highest tariffs in the history of the country. Some may have taken it as an inevitable trend and a foregone operating expense but still remains a choking option in business.

According to manuals, the Inveneo computing stations consume eight times less than conventional personal computers (PCs) with CRT monitors and six times less than PCs with LCD monitors. This means energy saving can extend beyond installation of energy saving lights to running energy-efficient computers even if the end user is measuring per unit (Desktop). They (Inveneo computing stations) can also be run on alternative renewable energy like solar.

According to Ms Kristin Peterson, a co-founder of Inveneo, the organisation wasn’t founded with the idea of being a green tech player, but by necessity it has focused on creating ultra-low-power models because of the unreliable power infrastructure in many of the places where its projects are ongoing. Peterson says their goal is to partner with up to 50 in-country entrepreneurs across Sub-Saharan Africa this year and up to 100 in total by next year. “These partners, in combination with continuously designing and integrating ICT solutions (hardware/software/power) for rural areas, will enable Inveneo to be a catalyst in accelerating more and more ICTs in some of the poorest and under-served regions in Africa and other areas of the world,” she told the Daily Monitor September 1, in an email from San Francisco.
Its work currently reaches more than 100 communities and touches directly and indirectly over  400,000 people in rural and remote areas in five African nations-Uganda, Rwanda, Guinea-Bissau, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Mali and Cameroon).  

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