For much of the world’s population, access to information and communication technology is readily available from home and work. But for the billions of people living in developing countries, the digital divide has hindered their access to those same technologies.
Allan Werth, country manager, Sims Recycling Solutions, Africa, is working to make that access possible, one refurbished computer at a time. Werth is responsible for developing and implementing the Sims WeCare Program, which aims to increase computer literacy throughout Africa by making inexpensive used IT technology available to communities and disadvantaged schools.
“There are tens of millions of people in Africa who have no access to IT equipment and are not part of the digital world at all. To give you an idea of the scope of the challenge, consider that in South Africa, the poorer schools have one PC for every 50 students,” said Werth. “Our aim is to improve that statistic so there is one PC for every two students.”
Generally defined as the difference in levels of access to information and communication technology among developed and developing countries, the digital divide remains significant according to the U.N. International Telecommunications Union. In South Africa, where Werth is located, only 9.8 percent of households are connected to the Internet.
ITU also recently noted that even though a steady drop in the global costs of telephone and broadband Internet services enabled several developing countries to expand access to IT, at the end of 2011, the price of a basic, monthly fixed-broadband package in those countries still represented more than 40 percent of the monthly gross national income per capita, compared to 1.7 percent in developed countries.
This fact doesn’t surprise Werth. “We identified a massive gap in the African and South African markets where people have no access to IT technology as the technology was too expensive. The typical person in Africa can afford to pay about one-third the price of a new, unbranded PC,” said Werth. “There is a huge demand from individuals and schools for affordable PCs and the demand far outstrips the supply of secondhand PCs.”
In an effort to meet that demand, Sims asks its corporate and government take-back customers to consider supplying their used equipment to the WeCare Program, either through a direct donation or by selling the equipment to Sims at below-market value prices. This enables Sims to then sell that equipment to schools and surrounding communities at reasonable prices after making repairs and installing Windows Office software.
Werth notes that when customers choose to participate in the program, their equipment still receives the same level of asset management service—data erasure, asset tag removal, refurbishment and software installation, and in the case of nonfunctional equipment, responsible recycling.
“By participating in the WeCare Program, our customers make good on their corporate social responsibility commitments. Through their generosity, schools and individuals gain access to affordable computers that help to enhance computer literacy in Africa,” said Werth.
One of the first schools to benefit from the Sims WeCare Program was Bongimfudo Primary School, a 140-pupil school located in South Africa’s rural KwaZulu-Natal North Coast. The school received 10 refurbished Dell computers.
Werth says that the technological benefit delivered to the schools by the new computers is enhanced by providing Internet access and ensuring ongoing support, ideally by WeCare Dismantler containers.
The WeCare Dismantler containers are an integral part of the WeCare Program and serve as the technological hubs for the communities in which they operate. The containers are owned and operated by local entrepreneurs who, after receiving basic PC and cellphone repair training, support, and supplies from Sims, can sell Sims-supplied refurbished PCs, notebooks, and cellphones; provide Internet, copy, print, and fax services; and offer adult computer training classes. The container staff also accepts and dismantles general e-waste, eventually creating a network that will help to remove e-waste from multiple sites throughout Africa.
The containers also address a serious problem in the region: deferred dumping of electronic equipment. “Sims will be putting thousands of PCs into the schools of Africa, and after a while these computers will become obsolete,” said Werth. “This is the first and only program in Africa that provides a closed-loop solution: Sims supplies the IT equipment, the WeCare Dismantler container staff collects the equipment once it is no longer usable, returns it to Sims, and Sims recycles it.”
Now that the program is firmly established in South Africa, Werth says Mozambique will be the next country to benefit from the program. “Our plan is to roll out the program all over Africa,” said Werth. “Sims already collects electronic waste from 27 countries in Africa — bringing it to Durban for recycling — so we know about the logistics networks of the continent.”
After only a year, Werth admits that it’s still too early to tell how much of a difference the program has made in the lives of South African students and residents, but he says, “The program will go a long way toward bridging the digital divide in Africa, as well as creating jobs and removing and recycling e-waste.”
For more information about the WeCare Program and to view photos and videos, visit the program’s Facebook page.