From insects to kids and computers to comics

By   |  March 27, 2006

Joris Komen of Namibia has built up quite a reputation as the tough-talking director of Schoolnet Namibia. How he got to this position is a small story in itself.

“Up until 1999 I was involved as a curator of birds in a national museum. As a biologist, I got very heavily involved in databases and making these accessible to museum workers. Then, I realised how powerful it was to use the Internet as a tool,” he says.

Along the way, Komen was instrumental in organising the Insect@thon. This was a school competition at the National Museum of Nambia, meant for kids to capture paper-based information, digitise it and make it available online. “We incentivised it with trips abroad, computers and Internet access for schools,” says Komen.

“I realised working with kids was far more rewarding than working with middle-aged museum staff.”

By 1999 he came to the conclusion that best way to “catch them young” was to set up an organisation. So he went ahead with SchoolNet, built capacity and garnered support. Its office was launched in 1999 and the orgnisation got help from the Namibian ministries of Education and Information as well as the country’s power monopoly and the power sector.

Support came in from the IDRC, the Canadian agency for supporting international development projects, and in 2001 Schoolnet signed deals with Sida, the development agency of Sweden. Now, it is groups like USAID which are offering support. More recently, it was Telecom Namibia, which offered R14 million, and subsidised Internet and wireless infrastructure. In addition, Namibia now allows the use of 2.6 gigahertz as a licensed solution for schools.

“Now we’ve got infrastructure right across Namibia and northern towns. Other African countries have also set up their own Schoolnets, which are all autonomous organisations in their countries of origin, and work in co-ordination with SchoolNet Africa founded in Namibia in 2000,” says Komen.

But that’s moving ahead of the story. Nothing comes without hard work. And setting up SchoolNet Namibia was tough too.

“In 2000 we got our first batch of volunteers, We got them through our ‘Kids on the Block’ volunteer programme. A group of FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) geeks, guys involved in KDE and Suse. We began working on LTSP, on Suse. Then Schoolnet Namibia set up own boot-floppy solution. We got subsidisded internet support and things really boomed,” Komen recalls.

“Today we have our own ISP with about 200 000 regular users. Probably 85% to 90% are learners. We have come out with a comic book, meant to familiarise people with concepts in IT. The comic has made a massive impact on teachers,” he says.

“When people ask me what SchoolNet is about, I say, ‘read my comic’. In a country of 1.8 million and some 1 600 schools, SchoolNet is now active in 340 odd schools. Of these, 23 school are working with solar power.”

To achive this Komen’s team built a solar power model for schools that are remote . “Our internet wireless solution covers an area that is 120 kms wide by 600 kms long, covering 48 000 sq kms. It is based on wifi with masts.”

SchoolNet Namibia’s operational team comprises 73 people and a core team of 9 to 12 people. Komen is exectuive director. Most workers are volunteers who join SchoolNet as young unemployed persons, and includes a number of women.

Says Komen: “I’ve got about 23 techies and the rest are trainers — eRiders basically.”

One of his innovative, and prize-winning initiatives, was a comic introducing the world of IT. How did this come about?

Komen says that in its work SchoolNet Namibia struggled with a lack of interest from teachers who were not embracing the field of ICTs.

“Most of the users are children. There were very few teachers engaging with the technologies.”

Most of the web sites visited from school, except that of The Namibian newspaper, were kids sites.

“We asked what we could do to get teachers into the lab? We thought of face-to-face teaching or giving cheap computers to teachers, but we had no real positive reaction from teachers. We also realised most stuff arriving in schools gets trapped somewhere between the principal’s office and the staffroom.”

“Finally we came up with the idea of a graphic novel: the history of SchoolNet, and how we evolved. Then we thought: let’s make it a foundation-skills comic, and aim it at women teachers. Some 70% of teachers in Namibia are women,” says Komen.

It worked as expected.

On reading the comic, teachers would say, “hey, I didn’t realise that we could use the spreadsheet to make a time-table for our school.”

Komen is trying to guess who’s using the computers by monitoring the demand for printers. Maintaining a printer in a school can be a costly job. So, they assumed — and probably rightly so — that printer requests and problems come primarily from teachers and school administrators.

“Earlier, in 15 months, we had 16 calls for printer-recorded matters. But in June-Nov 2005, we had over 200 printer-related calls from schools. The only thing that changed in our realtionship with schools was the introduction of a comic, which teachers started reading,” says Komen with a smile.

Komen is critical of the dominant players in the world of computing, and that is why he chose Free Software rather than proprietory software.

“The giants have not even made an effort to be equitable partners in countries like Namibia. They come into these countries, make loads of money but never offer anything.”

“I’ve challenged them to do what Schoolnet has done together with its partners, which is to invest R47 million or US$8 million in the education sector,” says Komen.

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