African park bridges the ‘Last Mile’ of digital divide
Low-energy Web centers and classes on using computers open up better jobs for locals.
Gorongosa District, Mozambique
José Nhamitambo’s commute starts in the small village called Vinho. He leaves his bamboo and thatch hut, takes a dugout canoe across the coffee-colored Pungue River, and follows a dirt road that cuts through thick, green wilderness. A half mile later he enters the head camp of the Gorongosa National Park, a park that was decimated in Mozambique’s long civil war, and goes to a newly renovated room next to the bombed-out remains of old dormitories.Skip to next paragraph
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There, finally, Mr. Nhamitambo gets to check his e-mail.
“It’s very important,” he says, sitting in front of what’s called a “thin client” computer, where four workstations all share a central, low-energy server. “I write documents, I go on the Internet, I write to people who live far from here. Everyone is excited about the computers.”
For years, this impoverished region of central Mozambique has found itself squarely on the losing side of the global digital divide. Most people here lack access to electricity and phone lines, let alone laptops and YouTube. So there was an intense response when three computer labs were built in Gorongosa. The US-based Carr Foundation, which is working to improve conservation and human development around the district, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) joined forces to build the labs – part of a global effort to boost information and communication technology in developing countries.
“Many, many people are asking me to teach them,” says Domingos Muala, a language and computer instructor for the Carr Foundation’s project. “Especially the younger generation is interested.... They know that using computers is a big change, it’s a big chance for their lives.”
For decades, Western aid groups have tried to use technology to help impoverished regions. In the 1970s, groups started radio communication initiatives to spread health and other messages. In the 1990s, programs such as the Leland Initiative introduced Internet connectivity to previously wireless African countries.
More recently, USAID funded the Last Mile Initiative – a program to bring innovative technology to areas such as Gorongosa that had been bypassed by the digital revolution.
“When you get into the rural areas of developing countries, you find that parents want three things for their children,” says William Wright, who works for the Carr Foundation and set up Gorongosa’s Last Mile projects. “They want them to learn English. They want them to learn how to drive. And they want them to have computer skills.”
In 2003, the Last Mile Initiative began giving grants – usually about $500,000 and often matched by local businesses or nonprofits – to projects in about 30 countries, says Michael Tetelman of the DOT-COM Alliance in Washington, which helped implement many of the projects.