Computer-on-a-Stick Introduces Kenyan Kids to the Internet

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Getting online in the developed world isn’t all that hard. You call up an Internet service provider, they hook you up via a modem, you buy a computer and plug it in. It’s just a few hundred dollars, and the world is at your fingertips. Of course, if you live on $2 a day in the slums of a city like Nairobi, Kenya, that’s not going to happen. However, with a little ingenuity and a few dollars (seven to be exact), two computer entrepreneurs are bringing the Internet to kids in places like Nairobi.

In order to understand what they are doing, you have to know just a little bit about how your computer actually works. When you turn it on, its Basic Input/OutputSystem starts. This BIOS sits on the ROM chip on the motherboard. That is, it’s in the basic circuitry and it starts up before anything else. Usually, the BIOS tells the computer to start up the hard drive and load your operating system that lives in the boot sector of the hard drive.

But it doesn’t have to do it that way. If you have ever had a hard drive crash, you might have used a rescue disk. Or if you’re really old (like me), you might have had a floppy disk that booted your system. Well, you can set your boot sequence so that the first thing BIOS looks for is not a hard drive but a flash drive. And you can stick not only an operating system but also programs and data files on a flash drive.

What good does that do me in a place like Mathare, Nairobi? Nissan Bahar and Franky Imbesi have arranged for a router and a SIM card to be installed at WhyNot Academy, a school for kids in the district. They also bought five old laptops with the hard drives removed. They do have to take turns, but each kid can put in his or her flash drive, turn on the gutted laptop and do just what you and I do for a lot more money. Two years ago, the school got electricity — today, it has Internet access.

The flash drives, called Keepods, run Android 4.4 as an operating system (derived from Linux), and you can put any program on the flash drive that will fit. The BBC reported that the Keepod, “stores any files or programs downloaded on the other half of its 8GB storage capacity. The information can be encrypted and is protected by a password needed for operation when it’s plugged in. ‘It makes it possible for anyone with a Keepod to use any computer and get the same experience,’ says Mr Bahar. ‘Each child will see their own files and apps appear in exactly the same way each time, without the need to remember lots of passwords’.”

Bahar and Imbesi wanted to raise $38,000 on the Indiegogo fundraising site. They broke $40,000 in six weeks. They think they can be self-funding eventually.

The beauty of this is that those old, obsolete computers that we’ve all upgraded from are perfect for this use. They just need a decent modem, a keyboard, screen and a BIOS that works. As for viruses and malware, Android is not very friendly to viruses (Linux is a very hostile ecosystem to any program that shouldn’t be there, and Android has kept a lot of that). Moreover, if one kid does get a virus on his stick, it cannot affect the other flash drives in the school. There’s no place on the gutted laptop for the virus to lurk. Compare that to the aggravation of a school network elsewhere that runs Windows, and someone is always downloading a bug.

Now, I have used this kind of thing myself. Many years ago, when I was even poorer than I am now, I put my files on a 2 GB stick that booted Puppy Linux (100 MB for the operating system and office suite, and I couldn’t fill the rest with my data files if I had to). For about five months, I just had to borrow a computer or use one at the library, but I had my own stuff safe and secure. It works.

Of course, there is the challenge of a kid from anywhere keeping up with his or her stuff. And merely having access to the Internet doesn’t change anything if you only watch cat videos on it. But two-thirds of the human race doesn’t have access to the Internet, and most of the reason is cost.

At $7 a person, more of us can join the 21st century.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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