It is hard to believe that 19 shiny flat screen computers can cure the ills of this tiny community (Dipichi) in South Africa's arid north where people battle every day against poverty, AIDS, illiteracy and hunger. Yet U.S. computer giant Hewlett-Packard Co. and South African President Thabo Mbeki are promoting Dipichi's smart new IT lab as a blueprint for how technology can trigger growth and tackle poverty across the world's poorest continent.
Bridging the so-called digital divide in Africa became a popular mantra among aid workers and government officials during the tech boom that started in the late 1990s but it fell from favor as countless ill-conceived rural IT centers went unused.
Skeptics asked what use a computer was when people were hungry, dying of AIDS and too poor to send their kids to school? But as multinationals start to invest in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent, they are touting technology as a panacea for development.
"Bridging the digital divide is a non starter if we haven't even crossed the literacy divide," said Arthur Goldstuck, head of South African technology research company World Wide Worx. "There is a danger of ... delivering technology without making sure people can use it." One-off projects like the i-Community that help a handful of people are meaningless when high phone call and Internet access costs keep communications out of most people's reach, he said.
Hewlett-Packard (HP) says the Dipichi project will help create jobs, improve farming and educate.
"I saved someone from a poisonous snake bite after I learnt about first aid from the computer," said Rosina Ledwaba, a 39-year old home-based carer who lives in one of the village's tiny thatched huts with her five children and husband.