Electrification remains one of Africa's largest economic challenges, as overall less than 25 percent of the continent’s rural areas receive electricity, leaving communities isolated, with limited access to the benefits education receives from Internet connectivity.
In South Africa that is about to change, as Samsung Africa recently launched its Solar Powered Internet School model at the Samsung Engineering Academy in Boksburg, Gauteng.
A model marriage of cutting edge technology and progressive social policies, the Samsung Engineering Academy’s prototype Solar Powered Internet School classroom, built inside a 12-meter-long shipping container incorporates laptops and electronic blackboard and is completely solar-powered, mobile, designed to increase accessibility to education and connectivity across Africa’s remote rural areas with limited or no access to electricity up to now. The facility can house 21 students and a teacher within a climate-controlled structure designed to maintain a "temperate environment" against Africa’s often torrid weather. The Solar Powered Internet School is also equipped with an energy efficient refrigerator, a file server, router, Uninterrupted Power Supply, video and wi-fi cameras, designed to communicate via 3G, allowing a remote central location such as the Department of Education to monitor classes and deliver curriculum-based content directly to both the learners' and educators' notebooks.
According to Samsung Electronics Africa, the Solar Powered Internet School can be trucked to remote areas and is designed to work in harsh weather conditions, while solar panels obviate the need for grid electricity supplies. Designed to run for nine hours a day, the most enduring aspect of the project is that its storage batteries will allow the Solar Powered Internet School to operate for one and a half days without any sunlight at all. Samsung Electronics Africa has ruggedized the Solar Powered Internet School, replacing the glass photovoltaic panels with ones made of rubber to better cope with Africa’s less than perfect roads.
Samsung Electronics Africa President and CEO K.K. Park said, "We have set an ambitious goal for ourselves in Africa: to positively impact five million lives by 2015. We believe that this can most effectively be achieved if we connect our CSR initiatives with our history and core business. With the goal to grow our business on the continent, we also know that we have to sustain our level of innovation. This can only be achieved if we invest in education to facilitate African thought-leadership and to ensure we have access to a large workforce of skilled engineers in the future. The Solar Powered Internet School is a great example of this strategy at play. The amount of power generated by the schools each day means they can be used beyond the traditional school day as an adult education centre in the afternoons or a community center over weekends. Our goal was to create an environment that would facilitate learning for whole communities in remote areas that otherwise don't have access to education tools or internet connectivity."
The Solar Powered Internet School’s computer server contains the complete South African school K-12 curriculum, allowing the facility to teach any subject or grade. Preparing for the unexpected, in the event of a complete power outage, teachers can continue their lessons using a regular built-in blackboard.
Samsung’s Ntutule Tshenye elaborated how the company pedagogical initiative differs from similar projects, remarking that "it is unique in that it is packaged and configured differently. The concept of the container is not new but most of these are not solar-powered and do not offer the connectivity and technology that we have."
Their initiative has attracted some significant partners, including Teach SA, which will provide technical and pedagogical training to teachers on how best to utilize technology’s potential. Other strategic partners include Microsoft, Learn Things and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
The Solar Powered Internet School prototype is currently undergoing field testing at the Katlehong Technical High School in the Ekurhuleni municipal area, where grade 10, 11 and 12 students attend electronics classes sponsored by the Samsung Electronics Engineering Academy. Following its field tests, the Solar Powered Internet School prototype will then be sent to Qunu in the Eastern Cape to undergo further testing as a functioning learning and teaching environment in a target, and if all goes well, Samsung Electronics Africa will begin full scale production of the schools thereafter.
One not unexpected benefit of this initiative will be the emergence of a new generation of African electronics and electrical engineering specialists, all trained on Samsung technology. Echoing Park’s earlier remarks, Katlehong Technical High School Principal Margaret Masiteng underlined this, stating, "My pupils and teachers benefit a lot through our collaboration with Samsung. We teach them theory and they come here to do their practicals. Grade 12s who do well stand a good chance of getting full bursary to go and study electronics and electrical engineering in Korea."
Amidst the grim news usually emanating from Africa, this initiative is a superb example of a “thinking outside the box” proposal designed to break the continent’s seemingly intractable cycles of poverty and despair. Accordingly, one can only wish Samsung Electronics Africa the sunniest of futures.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com