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Guest Blog: Interview with Neil Gilchrist

Having just returned from Malawi, I thought it a perfect opportunity to ask Neil a few questions about both the trip and the SolarBerry project taking place in a Northern district of the country.

Taken by Neil on his recent trip to Malawi (notice the tree to hide behind!)

Hi Neil, as I understand it, you have just come back from overseeing the SolarBerry project in Malawi. How was your trip and what did you do there?

The trip was great, the people were great, the country was great. I wasn’t exactly overseeing the Solarberry project, I was there for other stuff, it just so happened that the SolarBerry project coincided with my trip. I spent a lot of time working with our partners in Malawi, the Centre for Youth and Development, watching how they performed and carried out the maintenance. I also helped with school installations, explored the country, met Malawi education representatives and the representatives of other charities working in the country.

The SolarBerry is a self-financing, community-owned off-grid computer lab powered by solar panels. This sounds like an invaluable project for rural Malawians. How many computers are in the SolarBerry and how many people can use the labs at one time?

There are eleven Raspberry Pi’s in each lab, allowing one for the teacher and two students per computer. The SolarBerry will also be used to screen films where there could be up to 100 people using the lab at one time

The SolarBerry is multifunctional. It will provide 50 students and 1000 adult learners access to technology. Given that the space inside the lab is rather small, how would this work?

There is no internet on the site in Choma. There may be a 3G connection to do some updates, but the main resources will be accessed from the server inside the lab. This will allow people with smartphones in the vicinity to access the offline resources. Things like offline Wikipedia. This means that they don’t actually have to be inside the lab to access its resources.

How long has the laboratory been in development for?

Probably about 3 years, so a bit before I started volunteering with the Turing Trust. It will be going live this month.

If the SolarBerry does break down or malfunction, how will this be overcome?

The SolarBerry is maintained by technicians from the Centre for Youth Development who are based approximately 30-40 mins away from Choma.

The site chosen for the pilot run of SolarBerry is the Choma Community Day Secondary School, North of Mzuzu. Is there any reason in particular for the site being there?

There are a variety of reasons why Choma was chosen. The community is off-grid and there are no foreseeable plans of getting them on-grid and electrifying them in the near future. The site which was chosen is also located between 3 schools, so there are approximately 700 pupils within easy travel distance – just a few hundred yards in various directions. The other reason was that the community really got onboard with the idea and wanted to supply funds to provide the foundations for the project. They were really keen to have it. With it being a pilot as well, we wanted the lab to be within a reasonable distance of support. There are parts of Northern Malawi where it can take the best part of 12 hours to get to from Mzuzu. I think it’s a good fit for a pilot.

How many years is the SolarBerry expected to run for?

The parts are all upgradable. The shell is a solid shipping container so should last a long time. The hardware and software can all be upgraded and replaced if needed.  If the community still finds it useful, there is no reason why it won’t stay there until the government decides to electrify that part of the country, then it could potentially be moved to a new site for another off-grid community to get the benefit.

What obstacles have been overcome during the lifespan of SolarBerry? Did you encounter any challenges on your most recent trip?

I can’t really comment on the challenges faced in during the lifespan of the SolarBerry as I haven’t been here long enough. What I would say from what I saw in Malawi was the difficulties moving the SolarBerry from where it was being constructed to its site in Choma. It is a 20-foot-long shipping container and in Northern Malawi, they don’t have a lot of sufficient cranes and transport for moving these things about. It took the best part of a week to move it 30-40 miles. A lot of this time was moving it out of its original compound. Things that we take for granted here – such as heavy equipment – often isn’t available in rural Africa.

To illustrate, I was expecting to visit Choma as soon as I arrived, but couldn’t get there. There’s just the one road that goes there from Mzuzu and because it had been raining for a couple of days before I arrived, the road was covered in 2-3 feet of mud. To be honest, I’m really surprised we managed to move the SolarBerry there at all with potholes that were several feet wide. To get a lorry up a mountain with a 20-foot container on the back is a big task and I’m really pleased that the guys managed to do it!

Lastly, how can people interested in the project support it and/or get involved?

A couple of ways. People can support the Turing Trust, in general, by donating their old computer equipment or even some cash to help pay for transporting the equipment to Africa. If you happen to have any old shipping containers or solar panels we’re happy to take them off you too!
In terms of Choma in particular, as a community, they really need more than a SolarBerry. They also need to be able to charge car batteries for powering fridges, school lights etc. There is certainly scope to help out the community with a small solar project that is not IT-related but is just designed to supply the community with electricity. I would estimate £1500 – £2000 would supply power to that whole community of several thousand people.

Get in touch if you want to make a direct impact.

This post was written by Kara Weekes, Social Media Intern.