Every now and then when we post on how solar power is bringing the internet to rural Africa, or enabling the charging of mobile phones in poor communities, I'll hear concerns from naysayers who wonder what these technologies might mean for traditional social structures in these remote areas.
Let's leave aside the morally questionable issue of internet-connected critics worrying about access to the internet for others for a moment, and look at the core question—does internet connectivity threaten rural communities? Actually, if UK-based charity Computer Aid is anything to go by, the reverse is true.
From helping farmers to market their crops and communicate with veterinarians, to helping nursing students keep up to date with the latest research, access to the internet is providing rural Africans with the resources they need to keep their communities viable and slow the push of urbanization. Having seen how access to the internet had help support farmers, students and community institutions in the Zambian village of Macha, Computer Aid is now looking at how to bring that access to other communities that do not have the infrastructural benefits that Macha enjoys. (Macha was the location of a research station and Christian mission that facilitated the building of satellite internet.)
The solution is what has become known as the ZumbaBox—a shipping container with satellite-enabled wi-fi and solar panels on the roof, which houses one PC and a number of "virtual desktops" that villagers can use to study, communicate and stay connected to news and cultural events.
Below is a BBC report on what looks like an awesome project, and Business Green has an excellent write up of the use of ZumbaBoxes across Africa. Oh, and if anyone is out there communicating from a ZumbaBox, be sure to drop a note in the comments and tell is how you like it.