Re-using technology to liberate and educate

7 Aug 2008

Former investment banker Cormac Lynch (pictured) believes education is key to solving Africa’s problem and has persuaded Irish businesses to donate 7,000 computers for schools and colleges on the troubled continent

How does an investment banker manage to escape the jet set and engage in non-profit work?

I had been working as an investment banker for 12 years in New York, London and Moscow and got to a stage where I wanted to do something different with my life. I always had an interest in Africa and when I saw images of people starving I wanted to help in some way.

As an investment banker I was unsuited to doing anything in Africa, I was unqualified to help. But I got to thinking about it and realised education is key and harnessing the world of technology in education could make a difference for African people.

How did Camara get started?

I was out in Ethiopia three years ago and visited a teacher training college and was struck by the lack of computer facilities at third level. I was asked if I could rustle up a few second-hand computers and agreed not knowing the amount of work it would take.

At the beginning, people we know gave us a small building and I called up people I knew in UCD and started to get a couple of computers together, but realised I didn’t have the technical background to check them out and make sure they were of good enough quality.

We got technical volunteers on board and they set up the whole refurbishment process. We sent our first shipment of 100 computers in October 2005 and that was the genesis of it.

How would you describe Camara, a charity or a business?

It has charitable status but we try to run it as a business. We are very conscious of the cost per computer and we try to offer a good service to the companies that donate the machines in terms of erasing the hard disks for security reasons and getting recycling certificates. We try to operate as efficiently as a business but we’re a not-for-profit organisation.

How many computers have you shipped to Africa at this stage?

We’ve sent close to 7,000 computers. So, if you imagine that each school or college gets 25 computers per lab, that’s 350 schools and colleges which have benefited from Irish organisations about to throw away old machines.

How do you persuade security conscious firms to hand over old computers?

It’s a lot harder than you think. We spend a lot of time trying to educate people that there’s an alternative to just recycling. The stuff people throw away could make a huge difference to people’s lives in Africa. It feeds into education and makes a difference.

We get angry when we hear about organisations throwing old machines away without thinking if they could be re-used.

What kind of computers are you sending to the schools in Africa?

When we first started, half were Pentium 2 computers and once in a while we’d strike gold with a more up-to-date Pentium 4 computer. Now, most of the machines we refurbish are Pentium 4 computers, which turn out to be brilliant for school and college environments.

How are you succeeding in terms of getting more organisations to donate old machines?

A lot of Irish government departments would automatically give us their computers but some of the biggest organisations in the country take a lot of work. The latest to come on board is PricewaterhouseCoopers, which after dialogue was comfortable with our security procedures and donated all its old desktops, laptops and other useful IT equipment.

Dialogue with companies is very important in order to make them comfortable and many agree its senseless destroying these wonderful machines that could be put to good use.

Likewise, AIB came on board and gave us a load of computers. We work with the UCD Cyber Crime unit, which provides us with state-of-the-art software to ensure computers are completely wiped clean of data.

We can squeeze up to 450 computers into a 40-foot container and ship them to seven countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia and Lesotho.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Cormac Lynch, founder and CEO, Camara Education

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years