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The SolarBerry: Bringing 21st Century Skills to Rural Malawi

The SolarBerry is a solar-powered computer lab held within a repurposed shipping container.

Photo of James Turing
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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

The SolarBerry (https://turingtrust.co.uk/home/our_work/solarberry/) is an affordable, effective business solution to bring sustainable incomes & ICT classrooms to rural, off-grid African schools. It is a Social Enterprise which tackles the lack of access to ICT in rural African communities and the social stigmas which prevent young people, and girls in particular, from participating in STEM subjects. It does this by offering off-grid African communities foundational ICT experiences, enabling young people to take advantage of new learning opportunities & possibilities for their future. In doing this it gives them and their communities access to the educational possibilities ICT can provide whilst creating a self-sufficient community hub which can be used socially as well as for education.

Although this project targets young people, the project will always be open to the whole community and we actively encourage anyone who would like to become involved. Our Malawian needs assessment showed that youths in rural areas, particularly girls, are often discouraged from accessing ICTs due to lack of infrastructure, & cultural attitudes. The SolarBerry will offer opportunities to girls who have been pushed away from STEM by challenging these stereotypes with targeted, female-friendly activities & inspiring African tech heroines.

Our solution solves the sustainability challenges faced in trying to bring marginalised communities ICT resources. The SolarBerry is a visual representation of the information age that will inspire young people in rural areas to become agents for change. Offering foundational ICT experiences enables young people to take advantage of new learning opportunities & possibilities for their future.

At the heart of the SolarBerry are revenue generation features that save the local community income & ensure that they’re able to create wealth for long-term safety & security of the SolarBerry & the community.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

We will target rural Malawian youths (aged 15+ who are in or out of secondary school) who lack educational access to ICTs through this project. Through our open-source initiative, we hope to scale our solution to off-grid communities worldwide. The SolarBerry will help bridge both the digital divide & the gender divide in African ICT – enabling participation in Malawi’s burgeoning digital economy.

Secondly, our computer labs are always open to entire communities meaning our beneficiaries include people such as an 82-year-old Malawian woman, our oldest adult digital literacy programme graduate to date – one of our African tech heroines.

Our SolarBerry will follow a very similar ethos to our existing on-grid computer labs, benefitting all members of rural communities, but most importantly, enable us to help off-grid communities. The SolarBerry will be based in schools & therefore have an immediate impact on the Malawian youth, helping them to get foundational digital skills.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

The SolarBerry is unique in it's holistic approach to IT education in off-grid rural areas. The Turing Trust has built up extensive experience working with rural African communities and realises how significant the maintenance and electricity challenges are. Many schools we work with that are technically on-grid only have electricity 30% of the time, making IT lessons scarce and PCs are often damaged by this fluctuating supply. By providing a complete, self-contained solution we are able to control all of the infrastructure variables and focus on our core work with the community.

For the SolarBerry to succeed, the most important part is engaging the whole community with the digital world. We do this by hosting movie nights, adult IT classes and fostering a culture of integrated collaboration. Through our e-library, all learners at the SolarBerry will have the chance to learn how to manage both the IT and solar systems helping us to create prosperity in a sustainable manner.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

The Turing Trust supports education in sub-Saharan Africa by reusing computers and improving teacher training through ICT.

https://turingtrust.co.uk/

Expertise in sector

  • 5-7 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

The Turing Trust, founded by Alan Turing’s closest family, believes that bridging the digital divide in Africa would be a truly fitting way to honour his remarkable legacy. Alan Turing, often thought of as the father of the computer realised that it was a tool to help solve problems. Whilst the information age can bring significant benefits – it is vital that none are left behind.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

Peace: By increasing access to information the SolarBerry will help its users to increase independent thinking and political involvement to promote peace.

Prosperity: By bringing digital education to its users the SolarBerry will increase their employment opportunities, opening avenues to jobs users would otherwise be unable to access, in turn bringing prosperity.

Planet: By delivering this educational platform with renewable energy in an upcycled container we believe our e-learning materials, including resources on topics such climate resilience, will physically demonstrate the opportunities for the community to develop in harmony with the planet.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

We have two implementation partners for this project: the community in Choma where the SolarBerry is based, and the Centre for Youth and Development, our long-term partners in Malawi who we have been working with for the last 2 years.

So far, Choma community has raised funds for the building of the foundations which will keep the SolarBerry in place. These have now been built and the SolarBerry has been put in place. The community will be supporting the project going forward by allowing us to monitor their adoption of the SolarBerry, supporting our monitoring and evaluation, and ensuring the SolarBerry is generating the income which will allow it to self-sustain.

The Centre for Youth and Development have been key partners in the development of the SolarBerry. They have supported in the gathering of a Needs Assessment which informed our design. They will be conducting our monitoring and evaluation and our joint technician will be responsible for the upkeep of the SolarBerry.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

Choma was chosen to host the prototype of the SolarBerry for a number of reasons - the first being the community's enthusiasm for the project and dedication to making it work. Secondly, although rural and off-grid, they are within reach of our team in Mzuzu making it easier for us to support and monitor the project in its pilot stage. Lastly, the chosen site is located between 3 schools, so there are approximately 700 pupils within easy travel distance

Geographic Focus

Choma, near Mzuzu, Northern Region, Malawi.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

This project will last 36 months from the launch in June 2018. In the first 12 months, we will monitor the SolarBerry's adoption, energy use and educational impact. Following this, we will look to develop relationships with other off-grid communities who are interested in their own SolarBerry, and make any changes to the design and implementation plan which have been flagged as necessary by our monitoring and evaluation. We will then begin to design and build a SolarBerry for a new community.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • Yes

If Yes, how has project idea changed, grown, or evolved since last year? (2,000 characters)

The SolarBerry project has evolved over the last year in a number of ways.

1. Community Fundraising
The community at Choma has raised funds to build the foundations of the SolarBerry which has really highlighted the enthusiasm for the project. The site for the SolarBerry is within easy walking distance of three schools enabling it to support 700 students and their community.

2. Consultations with the community
We have undertaken multiple consultations with the community at Choma who have influenced the design of the SolarBerry.

3. Engineer visits
The engineers developing the SolarBerry have visited the site in Choma to speak with the community and get a better idea of how the project will have an impact on the community and to plan for some of the challenges it will face.

4. Construction
The SolarBerry has been constructed in Malawi over the last year. The container arrived in the summer of 2017 and it has since been converted into the solar-powered computer lab by local Malawian tradesmen. The equipment has been installed.

5. Arrived at Choma
In May 2018 the SolarBerry arrived in Choma where it was put onto the foundations the community had built.

6. SolarBerry monitoring system developed
Over the course of 2017, the Turing Trust developed a solar-monitoring system which will enable us to measure how much energy the SolarBerry is generating and using. This will allow us to see how much of the energy-generated is being used for education and community activity and how much is being allocated to the income generation which will make the SolarBerry self-sustaining.

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Photo of Johannes Cornelis van Nieuwkerk
Team

Dear James,

Great project with a lot of potential... I am proposing a kind of complement of it in Europe in relation to refugees. Controlled migration via "Remote Apprenticeship" plays an important role in my project proposal. Skills development is crucial especially in rural areas in order to avoid further urbanization (create a better balance between urban and rural) and keep the countryside alive via Internet based jobs... http://www.openideo2017.refival.org and http://www.openideo2018.refival.org.

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Hans van Nieuwkerk