Powering Potential puts technology in schools in Tanzania while respecting local cultures

Janice Lathen brought more than computers to a remote part of Tanzania. She brought a window on the world.

AP Photo/Maria Almond/File
Students squeeze together in crowded desks at Majengo Primary School in Moshi, Tanzania. Like many primary school systems in East Africa, Tanzania's is supposed to be free. But in practice, schools have replaced tuition with fees for everything from textbooks to toilets, making education unaffordable to many.

Her students call Janice Lathen “Mama.” In many ways, she has nurtured them like a mother. She has also endeared herself to the broader local community after she brought the first computer to a local school in a remote district of Tanzania, in East Africa, in 2007.

Ms. Lathen’s admirers call her not only caring, but also a savvy businesswoman.

She is an American entrepreneur with 23 years’ experience managing her own computer-consulting company in New York City, where she still lives. But today she spends a lot of her time in Tanzania, where she is the founding executive director of Powering Potential, a nonprofit group that uses technology to enhance education in Tanzania while also respecting local cultures.

She has made several trips to Tanzania. Sometimes she stays as long as six weeks. She has set up a computer technology project at the Banjika Secondary school in Karatu, Tanzania.

“One day while on a safari tour in Tanzania, I became inspired by the students of Banjika, who were overwhelmed and happy when I introduced myself in Swahili,” she says. “I felt compelled to do something unique for the students after that visit to the school. So I started this project.”

The computer project is is energy-efficient and designed to last a long time.

“We use computers and monitors designed to consume small amounts of electricity, a precious resource in Tanzania,” Lathen says. “Our computers use 5 watts, and the monitors use 12 watts. A typical desktop computer-monitor uses 70 to 80 watts, so that is a huge electricity savings.”

Her organization has also installed a solar-energy system to power the computer lab and generate DC current for the computers and monitors.

“These computers and monitors are also specifically designed to withstand harsh climates – dust, heat, wind, and humidity – typical in Tanzania,” she says.

The vision of Powering Potential is that all students in Tanzania will experience the benefits of technology, including easy access to information and communication.

“Our goal for 2011 was to expand the solar energy system and install 14 more computers at our pilot school [Banjika], for a total of 21 computers. We have succeeded in meeting this goal,” she says.

In June Powering Potential began a five-month technology-training course for 24 secondary-school graduates. Some of the funds came from the citizens of Karatu, who exemplified the Swahili term umoja, which means support and unity.

The US embassy, located in the country’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, has also awarded $8,500 to upgrade the solar power system at Banjika Secondary School.

The extension of this project to two more schools will cost an additional $28,000.

“This school is a community-based school and receives support from the local community and also receives tremendous support from US-based donors,” Lathen says.

Powering Potential did not impose itself on the community, she says. The citizens of Karatu came together to do something important for their children – provide an education, a priceless investment, she says.

“I am also working with the head of the Information Technology department at the ministry of education and the head of the monitoring and evaluation department. I want to work in harmony with the Tanzanian government,” Lathen says.

Karatu has about 200,000 residents, mainly subsistence farmers who grow corn, wheat, and barley. Part of the area is affected by drought, though it also has a very fertile stretch bordering the famous Ngorongoro National Park of Tanzania, other national game parks, and world-famous Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The 20-plus computers at the school run a program called Remote Areas Community Hotspots for Education and Learning (RACHEL), whose content is proving invaluable to the students.

“The students do not have a library, and although there is abundant educational content on the Internet, in order to access it schools need a fast, dependable Internet connection, and most schools in Tanzania do not have such a connection. That is why the RACHEL content is so important,” she says.

The RACHEL content is always available on the school’s server, meaning a constant Internet connection isn’t needed to acess it.

RACHEL is the product of the nonprofit organization worldpossible.org, which has been excited by the impact that its content is having on the education of the students in Karatu.

A high school student at the school, David Naman, recently researched genes using the school Internet and RACHEL.

“I was exposed to so many details that I could have not retrieved them since the school has no books,” he says.

Another high school student, Peter Cosmas, said he could easily get information on a conference in Berlin using RACHEL.

Similar benefits were expressed by the headmaster, Justine Joseph, who said teachers at the school were benefiting greatly from RACHEL and from Internet access, when it is available.

Peter Mbwambo, the Karatu District Education Officer, says that the project is timely, since it will help the students to learn about new technologies.

“In the long run, Janice is preparing the students and the school management to develop a sense of collective ownership, which we are ready to support,” Mr. Mbwambo says.

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