Rural Africa's unreliable energy sources for PCs has led Computer Aid International to investigate low-power computing alternatives and experiment with the new wave of low-cost machines targeted developing countries.
Computer Aid International (CAI) collects and refurbishes unwanted PCs from UK businesses then ships them for reuse in education, health and not-for-profit organizations in developing countries.
The power supply in Africa's rural areas is unreliable, leaving little choice for steady energy beyond environmentally questionable diesel generators or expensive solar panels and power-generation technologies, said Tony Roberts, CAI's founder and director of development.
There was very little independent information on energy issues beyond manufacturers' claims, so there was a need to re-evaluate current research, Roberts said. CAI worked with ZDNet to survey available choices for low-power machines.
Experience shows that it is not necessary for PCs to consume more than 200 watts of power — some computers can consume just 20 watts. "In the past all of the computers that we provided to Zambia and other countries were desktops PC with standard CRT monitors [averaging 200 watts]," said CAI's London Workshop Production Manager Kenfe Tekle.
Tekle manages a team of 12 technicians who refurbish about 100 PCs per day.
Not all CAI PC recipients have energy issues. Gertjan Van Stam, technical director of LinkNet in Zambia — a recipient of Pentium III and IV computers from CAI — said that he does not have power problems because LinkNet taps main lines from the national electricity grid.
But Roberts explained that in rural areas without main electricity (or no reliable main electricity), CAI has experimented by providing PCs with flat TFT (thin-film-transistor) screens to schools using solar power in order to reduce power consumption.
"We also piloted the use of laptops in preference to desktops for the same reason," Roberts said. "Although these power savings were very useful to those schools reliant upon solar power we decided to conduct research into a range of new computers that claimed much lower power requirements." Some machines claim to consume as little as 8 watts, he said.
CAI has been looking at low power computing using the traditional desktop power sources of electricity, solar panels and diesel generators, Roberts said.
CAI Technical Officer Ugo Vallauri explained that when they looked at solar energy they realized that many solar panels were not created to power computers. When solar panels are used to power PCs, often one panel powers only one PC.
The research also showed that the capital of setting up a solar panel system proved very expensive at first because solar panels also needed batteries to help power the computers, Vallauri said.
"One incurs costs in setting up, and in the long run it becomes less and less expensive," said Vallauri.
Vallauri said using generators "was very expensive because rural communities in Africa do not have access to loans or micro-credit to keep running an oil energy source as the prices of fuel in Africa keep on rising."
Vallauri added that research also shows that the use of generators is low cost at first but proved to be very expensive in the long run.
This is why CAI has decided to test new products, Roberts said. He said universities in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria will field-test the power consumption of the Intel Classmate, OLPC's XO, the EEE PC, NComputing's X300 and Inveneo's Communication machine.
The research will be done by the universities' IT personnel, who are expected to form teams to look at issues specific to the African environment.
CAI officials were in Zambia recently to visit some of their projects and donate 200 PCs, 50 Wi-Fi routers and power surge protectors to a project in Macha -- a rural area in Zambia's Southern Province. The group also conducted follow up research on reliable energy for African schools.
CAI has donated more than 10,000 refurbished PCs to Zambia, to education-based recipients including the Ministry of Education, School Net Zambia, Computer Aid Zambia and health institutions. The organization has donated more than 120,000 PC in over 100 countries of which 80 percent have been to Africa and 20 percent to Latin America.