Reuse, reboot, recycle: how old Irish computers are starting new lives abroad

An Irishman’s Diary: About 100,000 computers are decommissioned in Ireland every year. One orgnasisation is putting them to good use

‘About 100,000 computers are decommissioned in Ireland every year. And Camara (a West African word meaning teacher) has its eight-year-old roots in one mass disposal.’ Above, recycled Irish computers being used at a school in Lusaka, Zambia’

‘About 100,000 computers are decommissioned in Ireland every year. And Camara (a West African word meaning teacher) has its eight-year-old roots in one mass disposal.’ Above, recycled Irish computers being used at a school in Lusaka, Zambia’

Wed, Jan 21, 2015, 09:51

If you’re getting rid of an old computer, these days, you could probably earn a few quid for it from a recycler. The more valuable parts will then be stripped out. As – you hope – will be the toxic material. The remaining plastic and metal will probably be baled into cubes, for reuse God knows where.

But for the loss of a fiver, or so, you could instead give your computer to an organisation called Camara. Which will also recycle it, except in more holistic fashion. Remaining intact, the PC will gain a new life in more ways than one, this time used by schoolchildren in Africa, or the Caribbean, or maybe Ireland. If you’re any way sentimental about the old machine, you can even find out where it ends up.

About 100,000 computers are decommissioned in Ireland every year. And Camara (a West African word meaning “teacher”) has its eight-year-old roots in one mass disposal. The year was 2005 and the founder, banker-turned-educationalist Cormac Lynch, had just visited Ethiopia, where he heard from schools that computers were the thing they needed most.

Soon, back in Dublin, he saw a skip-load of condemned PCs, probably bound for landfill. It was, as James Joyce might have said, an epiphany. Camara, an education charity designed to turn one country’s waste into another’s opportunity, was born.

Like many things in Ireland, it started in a pub. Not the idea, the operation. The early Camara occupied a room at the back of Pravda on Dublin’s Ormond Quay, courtesy of the late Hugh O’Regan, a developer with a conscience. It quickly outgrew that space, however. And today, although still on the Liffey, the headquarters has moved upriver to an industrial estate at Chapelizod.

As I found out when dropping by there earlier this week, this is where the old computers go now, first to be tested, then wiped to a standard that defies US military detection methods, then refitted with an open-source operating system. About 40 per cent of PCs don’t make the grade. The rest embark on second careers, usually overseas.

Camara is a social enterprise rather than a charity. That’s to say, it operates on business lines but with a defined good, not profit, as its aim. Thus the parent organisation “sells” refurbished computers to its overseas hubs, which then sell them to schools, along with training packages.

I visited one such hub in Lusaka last month, where Camara’s Zambia CEO Isabelle Fay spoke of the tight “margins” she had to work with, just as any businesswoman would. Aside from the efficiency this encourages, there is an old-fashioned ethos behind the model. Things given away are not always respected. The Camara approach requires schools to buy into the system in more ways than one.

But of course, the PCs are heavily subsidised, by those who donate them, by cash gifts, and by volunteerism. The day I was in Chapelizod, staff were outnumbered by volunteers, ranging from students on work experience, to a retired nun who used to teach physics in Africa.

The nun was apt because, despite all the hardware, teaching is the core of what Camara does. In Lusaka and elsewhere, it won’t give computers to schools unless they also sign up to training.

Fay cites examples of places where new computers are locked away, unused, because the teachers are clueless but can’t admit this in front of pupils. The Camara idea is to train as many staff as possible, not just one IT specialist whose expertise can later be poached, leaving the school helpless.

There’s an equally strict approach to facilities. Two of a computer’s deadliest enemies – heat and dust – are especially prevalent in Africa. So school computer labs have to meet stringent criteria before Camara will part with any product.

In Lusaka, I also accompanied technical director Farid Ali on a trouble-shooting mission to a new lab in the department of education headquarters. There was no shortage of trouble, about which he lectured the fitters in robust terms. But as he said, it’s all part of the education, “A good laboratory is good training”.

When he started out in 2005, Cormac Lynch intended to send only a single container-load to Ethiopia. In the years since, Camara has shipped 40,000 PCs, in the process training 11,000 teachers. The result is an estimated 500,000 digitally literate children throughout Africa and the Caribbean.

But you don’t have to go that far to find educational disadvantage. In recent times, the refrain Lynch heard in Ethiopia has also been heard closer to home. As a consequence, Camara has of late dispatched almost 1,000 recycled computers to Irish schools. That number is expected to grow too.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com