DIPICHI, South Africa (Reuters) - It is hard to believe that 19 shiny flat screen computers can cure the ills of this tiny community in South Africa's arid north where people battle every day against poverty, AIDS, illiteracy and hunger.
Yet US computer giant Hewlett-Packard 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 favour as countless ill-conceived rural IT centres went unused.
Sceptics 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. 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.
Next to the brightly painted shipping container that houses the IT lab, Viviane Marakalala proudly showed off the village vegetable garden, which has been packed with leafy cabbages since a group of women learnt about drip irrigation from a computer program.
"I had never seen a computer in my life but now I know how to use it," said Marakalala, 27. "We looked in the computer and it told us in our language how to use our water better."
Gadgets for gadgets' sake
HP's former chief executive officer Carly Fiorina and Mbeki launched the i-Community project -- one of only two in the world -- in 2002 at the World Sustainable Development conference in Johannesburg. The other project is in Kuppam, India.
The project is being run in the Mogalakwena municipality in Limpopo province where 53 percent of the population is jobless and more live below the poverty line.
Run in tandem with local government, it links libraries, community centres, clinics and schools around the main town of Mokopane to the internet, and includes a PC refurbishing centre, call centre and micro-lender.
It also includes IT centres in rural villages like Dipichi, which until recently had neither water nor electricity and can be reached only by a dirt road.
In Dipichi, and in many other locations, the computers are operated using satellite technology and residents hope that their presence will pressure local authorities to link their villages to the electricity grid.
Miriam Segabutsa, one of the project directors, conceded computer literacy might not seem like an obvious priority for a continent racked by disease and hunger, but insisted it could improve quality of life for ordinary people.
"It is not about teaching computers for the sake of computers, it is about giving people access to the information they need," she told Reuters.
HP is not the only multinational to hand out free computers.
Chipmaker Intel funds community IT centres in townships and software giant Microsoft is setting up "digital villages" to reach half a million poor South Africans.
Mobile phone companies have adapted wireless technology for myriad development uses like low-cost banking for the poor, delivering price information to rural farmers and monitoring AIDS patients in sprawling townships.
Cellular technology has won praise thanks to the lightning spread of mobile phones across Africa but some commentators wonder whether computers and the Internet can be as useful.
If only a minority of people in Africa's richest country have access to the web, internet use is even rarer in the rest of the continent, where populations are more scattered, resources scarce and where few multinationals dare to venture.
Even if computers were available, many would not be able to use them in countries with some of the world's highest illiteracy rates.
"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.
But HP and the government say the i-Community project is about opportunity not aid, and can be easily replicated.
"Most digital divide projects have had a philanthropic impetus, but HP has said that if this thing is to be sustainable, it has to have a solid business case," said Clive Smith, HP's project director. "It can't be sustainable if it is dependent on grants."
HP and the local government want to turn the project into a business, which might include handing community IT centres over to local entrepreneurs.
After that, they hope to launch more projects across the developing world, eventually making them self-sufficient.
"Dipichi is making history," Mbeki told crowds of cheering villagers during a recent visit to the project. "Dipichi can show the whole of South Africa how to do development."
But concrete plans for turning the unwieldy project into a business are hazy and some commentators are sceptical.
"It's a bit of a pipe dream to expect this to become self-funding. You can't expect an impoverished community to bear those kinds of costs," said Goldstuck.
Feature: Can technology ease Africa's woes?
By Rebecca Harrison on Nov 17, 2005 10:30AM