ISF: the theme of sustainable technology is crucial in Africa

The third edition of the Informatici Senza Frontiere Festival was held in Rovereto between the 17th and 19th of October. This festival is aimed at stimulating the dialogue around the social impact of new technologies. The second day opened with the meeting ‘The African Youth dreams and challenges: what can technology do?’. Among the speakers there was Maurizio Bertoldi, ISF Africa coordinator. We talked with him about the ISF activity and discussed the impact of digital technologies in Africa.

by  Luca Indemini (translation by Agnese Glauda)

Maurizio Bertoldi, besides coordinating the projects of Informatici Senza Frontiere in Africa, is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Sinapto. A company offering technological counselling. The African context is surely very different from the Western one. There are challenges and specific problems. Therefore, it is necessary to be able to adapt and target interventions, not to waste resources and in order to maximize the impacts.

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Maurizio Bertoldi, where should we start?

The main theme is sustainable technology both in the Western world and (even more) in Africa.

” The damages brought by unsustainable technology are visible to anyone. For instance, I think about the mines in Congo, where they extract Coltan. Coltan is essential for the production of smartphones. Advanced technology has a very high toll, which is often paid in Africa. Nonetheless, there are some alternatives, such as the Fairphone, the sustainable smartphone that cares about who produces it and the impact on the planet.”

“Another big issue is linked to hardware disposal, which creates landfills in Ghana and Bangladesh. Less evident, but not less challenging, is the software impact. Are Bitcoin and blockchain sustainable from an energy standpoint in Africa? Informatici Senza Frontiere works to inform the population about the advantages of digital technology. Firstly, it is a universal language. If I learn the Java programming language, it is the same in New York, India and Africa. This is a very ‘disruptive’ aspect of digital technology. Furthermore, the Internet allows me to be everywhere, anywhere, at any time. These are all opportunities to take advantage of, but in an ethical, conscious and sustainable way.”

Due to the lack of primary resources, should we question whether bridging the digital divide should really be a priority in Africa. Or, should we rather consider this a primary need?

“Sometimes, we hear comments such as: “ they do not have food and you worry about bringing technology” but this logic does not hold up.”

Technology does not solve specific problems. Instead, it is an enabling factor to face many challenges.

“The open source software Open Hospital is a good example. It is used to manage hospital activities in Uganda and in many other African hospitals. Open source software is fundamental to create inclusive access to technological solutions, at least on an economic level. Then, there is certainly a need for competences, but that can be easily fixed. It is important to stimulate the collaboration among different organisations, to create solutions that can be replicated in other countries.”

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Open Hospital Platform in a hospital in Somaliland

“Moreover, the average population age in Africa is very low. The youth is willing to get involved, even if they often take the wrong direction. Nowadays, everyone wants to be a programmer, risking to become the exploited working class of the new millennium. We try to promote youth entrepreneurship, by promoting digital technologies. There are many interesting examples in the agritech sector, the logistic sector or the mobile app sector. In Addis Ababa only, there are five competing car sharing services, similar to Uber.”

How does Informatici Senza Frontiere place itself in this context?

“ISF aims at creating partnerships with local associations, institutions and organizations such as Cuamm, together with the Comboni missionaries. Everywhere where an IT project is necessary. We analyse the needs, draft a project and implement it working together with volunteers or aid workers.”

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“Our intervention is based on three pillars. First of all, training. We create digital classrooms and train mainly the teachers to facilitate the knowledge transfer. Then, we have projects in the health sector, digitizing the infrastructures. Finally, we provide counselling for public administration and universities. Our goal is to guide choices, so to avoid waste”.

Where is ISF active in Africa?

“We are active especially in Eastern Africa: Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania. But also Somaliland, Sudan, Kenya. Whereas in the west, we have projects in Cameroon and Senegal. About ten countries overall.”

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Saint Luke Hospital in Wolisso, the first paperless hospital in Ethiopia

If you had to choose an exemplary case among your African projects, which one would you choose ?

“For sure the Saint Luke Hospital in Wolisso, Ethiopia. It is a perfect example of the way we work. We collaborated with Cuamm and contributed to make it the first entirely paperless hospital in the area.”

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In conclusion, could you tell us something about the Informatici Senza Frontiere Festival. What does it stand for ?

“Now, it is a well established event. This is the third edition. In the beginning, we used to organize two annual assemblies: an internal one and a second one aiming to create a moment for exchanging opinions with the public. We bet on Open Source and networks are, for us, not just the ones made of cables.

Three years ago we decided to turn the second annual assembly into a real festival, targeting especially to youth and schools. It is a moment to take stock of the situation and share technological, robotic and AI knowledge, without forgetting an ethical and sustainable approach. Basically, the message that we want to bring across is that technology is a tool to improve results. It does not solve problems by its own but it helps facing them more efficiently. For instance, it can help manage hospitals and schools better.”

From threat to resource: Precious Plastic gives new life to plastic

A hands-on approach, an ‘open’ mindset and a master’s thesis. These are the elements that brought Precious Plastic to life. Precious Plastic is a global community which connects hundreds of people working to find a solution to plastic pollution. Knowledge, tools and techniques are shared online for free. This allows everyone to enter the community and to give their contribution. Thus, Precious Plastic is still growing and has recently expanded to the African continent, after projects coming from the U.S.A., Europe and South East Asia.

by Luca Indemini (translation by Agnese Glauda)

The Precious Plastic project was created by Dave Hakkens, a Dutch young man. He designed a machine to recycle plastic at home while working on his master’s thesis.

Now, he has come a long way from the first model. In fact, four machines were designed four and the instructions are available for free on his website, together with video tutorials. Hence, users can build them independently and the costs are between 100 and 300 euros.

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The four recycling machines designed by Precious Plastic

Firstly, there is the Shredder Machine, which breaks down the plastics in very small pieces, easy to work with. Then, there is the Extrusion Machine, which transforms residuals in threads (useful, for instance, in 3D printing). The most advanced is the Injection Machine, which creates very specific items, with molds, in a short amount of time. Lastly, we find the Compression Machine, which creates larger items.

Only the products created through the recycling process can be a source of profit.

Joining the community is quick and simple. You only need to access the website and register on the map. In the beginning, the members were mainly FabLab, makers and geeks. Lately, also various organizations have joined, including training institutions and NGOs working in developing countries.

During the past six years, the community has grown considerably along with the ideas and shared experiences. This is what defines the project’s ‘open’ mindset.

Precious plastic in Africa

About thirty users with different backgrounds have joined the Precious Plastic initiative in the African continent. Some projects are less advanced, with the main goal to raise awareness regarding waste recycling. Others are already experienced businesses.

One of the most interesting projects is the Koun social enterprise, set in Casablanca, Morocco. The Precious Plastic website defines Koun as the ‘true recycling heroes’. A youth group collects the plastic waste to transform it into new items for the growing Moroccan middle class, searching for beautiful and ethical products. Stools, handbags, mugs, lamps, chandeliers and many more.

Up-cycling principles inspire Koun’s philosophy. In fact, up-cycling is the art of transforming waste into items worth more than the original. Koun collects raw materials directly from factories, schools and Casablanca associations. Then, turns waste into original products. The project has a positive social impact as it employs young disadvantaged people. Five of them work under the supervision of Mohamed, the foreman.

A different situation is found in Yoff near Dakar in Senegal, where Precious Plastic found its way to the hostel ViaVia. The hostel built three machines that cut, melt and press plastic into products, such as plates and bracelets. Karen, Jens, Masha, Jitse and Yehbonne, five Belgian students from the University of Leuven started this program. The AFD (Academics for Development) supported them while they volunteered during their summer vacations.

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The main venue of Precious Plastic in Africa

This was a first step but it has already proven quite successful. Many people from Dakar and the neighboring regions have expressed their interest towards the project and wish to build similar machines to fight plastic pollution.

Instead, in Kisii, Kenya, Precious Plastic started as a pilot project between 2017 and 2018. In that case, the UN-Habitat (UN program concerned with sustainable urbanization) invited Precious Plastic to create a plastic recycling workshop.

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The venue of Precious Plastic in Kisii, Kenya

The project had two main goals: to solve plastic pollution and counter youth unemployment. Currently, the Kiisi workshop employs 11 people. Additionally, it is especially in trying to educate the local population on pollution, through clean-up events in the area. Finally, the Precious Plastic machines turn plastic into bright coloured vases and plates.

Up until now, the project worked on a small scale. However, if the good results are confirmed, UN-Habitat is hoping to create new workshops in the region and in the whole country.