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Introduction to IT developments in Macha

With this post I would like to share about what is a successful implementation of rural communications infrastructure and basic services in the rural settlement of Macha, in Zambia’s Southern Province.

Constraints facing Macha
Macha faces the major constraints that typify a rural settlement. Firstly, there is limited funding available. There are also inadequate access roads, for example, it takes over four hours and an average week’s salary for citizens of Macha to travel to the nearest town (Choma) and back.

Existing communications infrastructure in Macha pre-2004
Before mid-2004, there was little existing communications infrastructure in the settlement. Macha had only a handful of computers and only two communication network links. The communication networks consisted of an unreliable email link via high-frequency (HF) radio (PACTOR at 300 baud), and a fading very high frequency (VHF) link, which provided a radio link for short messages with Choma – the nearest town that is 60km away.

New communications infrastructure in Macha 2004-2005
New opportunities arose for Macha when the Malaria Institute at Macha was established.

  • For the first time, a LAN was implemented. This LAN incorporated a distributed Wireless LAN (WLAN) using cost-effective Linksys WAP54G equipment and Stelladoradus antennas.
  • Today, over 50 different log-ins from users are registered on this network, which are registered by the DHCP service on the network.
  • Since May 2004, Macha is linked into Tier 1 of the Internet through a dedicated satellite connection (C-band VSAT connection with 128 kb/s downlink and 64 kb/s uplink.)

Computers support the growth of the network
In 2004, approximately 40 privately donated computers were received amounting to a large total donation. These computers have been implemented in various sections of the Vision Community Center at Macha for use by the community, and also at various institutions. Priority is being given to investing in, or receiving additional donations of computers to further expand the network. However, as the number of computers continues to grow rapidly, the network and services have to be carefully managed continuously and the network has to run optimally.

Lessons learnt from the new communications infrastructure
Both the Malaria Institute at Macha, as well as private individuals contributed the initial investment for building the new communications infrastructure in Macha. During the project, it was discovered that the implementation and maintenance of communications infrastructure within a rural area needs an ongoing high level of attention from experts. It became obvious that this specialized expertise is difficult to find and necessitates time-consuming and varied training. The level of expertise needed to keep the new communications infrastructure running cannot be sustained for a ‘single user’ such as the Malaria Institute of Macha.

The birth of the ‘LinkNet’ concept
As a result of these learnings, the concept of ‘LinkNet’ was devised. This concept endeavors to both develop and maintain IT-infrastructure and services in all rural areas of Zambia. The IT-infrastructure developed will be used for all non-commercial and non-profit users in rural areas, and will benefit from economies of scale in rollout and maintenance. Importantly, it will also provide an innovative and challenging environment for the development and retention of IT-experts from rural areas – enabling them to stay, develop and work in rural areas.

LinkNet networking & the types of services available
In Macha, two network servers with open source software are operational to ensure that the network runs effectively. One server is dedicated to LinkNet network functions, while another server operates as a secure server for the Malaria Institute at Macha. The LinkNet server runs services such as e-mail (including IMAP and web mail interface), DHCP, DNS (for multiple domains), content filtering (spam), proxy services, firewall, virus scanning, file sharing, network printing, web servers (>10 websites and growing), content management (blogging), network and system management, traffic prioritization, and database services.

During this implementation, valuable experience was gained regarding the specific needs and (network) challenges of working in a rural setting, which are often of a different nature than those faced in an urban setting.

LinkNet network used by the whole community
After the IT-infrastructure had been implemented for the Malaria Institute at Macha, the network was opened for use by the whole community, to cater for its needs. In order, to avoid a ‘those that have’ and ‘those that have-not’ situation, the network was opened up to the public through implementations at the Vision Community Centre Macha. Among its 10 units, this community centre now boasts a fully-fledged Internet area with over 10 computers and the LinkNet computer workshop.

LinkNet trained specialists
In parallel with the development of the LinkNet concept, three locally self-trained IT experts started in Macha. Their areas of expertise are in hardware and networking, in web design and application programming, respectively. The availability of this IT expertise, combined with the practical experience gained at Macha, resulted in outreaches with training, network and system support and planning at the Churches Health Association of Zambia, and at Flying Mission Zambia’s airstrip at Chilongolo.

LinkNet potential expansion into Macha Mission Hospital
A grant request has been made, which when coming through may support the expansion of the LAN and WLAN connectivity into Macha Mission Hospital. This means that the whole hospital will be brought online – including administration, laboratory, pharmacy, theater, wards, and other departments. Then trully tele-health will be implemented.

The LinkNet concept is more all encompassing than only network infrastructure, as it also caters for specific application development (and implementation) aimed at the healthcare and education environment. Examples of applications include rural telehealth applications, training, data collection and data mining, fault ticketing, information exchange, communications, scheduling, network management, etc.

Focus at Macha is rural-to-rural development, with now rural people from other areas in Zambia coming to Macha to be guided in their ‘self training’ in IT.

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