Solar powered computer to connect rural communities
30 July 2014
Cape Town-based company Capsule Technologies has produced Africa’s first low-wattage, solar-powered desktop computer, the Impi Mk1.
The hardy computer, built to withstand hot and dusty conditions, uses less power then an energy-saving lightbulb. It runs on the Android system and uses open source software to make it more accessible.
With its 500GB hard drive and 4GB of Ram, the design features a standalone Computer Processing Unit (CPU) that allows the user to recycle e-waste by using secondhand hard-drives, keyboard and monitor.
Franck Martinaux and Megan Vercuil, the team behind the computer’s design, told SAinfo this week that they wanted to develop a machine that used fewer resources, conserved energy and addressed the lack of infrastructure in Africa’s remote rural areas.
“We wanted to offer the same chance to prosper for any African … rich or poor, in urban or rural areas, and to create the awareness of alternative means to get the same result, especially for people in those under-serviced communities where access to technology, services and information seems to be out of reach,” Vercuil said.
It took Martinaux, a hardware and software designer and Vercuil, an IT and education consultant, a year to develop the computer, which runs off a mere 20 watts, as compared to the 200 to 400 watts used by an ordinary computer.
“We identified a problem around the high electricity consumption of standard desktop computers and wanted to reduce the carbon footprint,” Vercuil said.
“Ordinary computers can emit almost 220Kg of CO2 per annum. By using more efficient systems as found in the African computer range (such as the Impi Mk1) of PCs, this level of CO2 could be reduced by almost 70%, down to a mere 70Kg per annum.
“But you can still do everything with 20W. Absolutely the same things as a standard laptop or a tablet,” she said.
“IMPI Mk1 uses specialised systems, based on low-power computer processing units such as the Intel Atom 2550 dual core processor 1.86Ghz. These CPUs develop much less heat during operation, often less that 25% of the heat developed by a regular desktop CPU system.”
Using it with solar power, Vercuil said, a typical application would be a school, a mobile ICT facility (container), or even an internet café where up to 20 machines could be powered and the cost of the solar panel optimised.
“The computer comes with both an ethernet card and wireless card, and has built-in wireless mesh networking, which provides a community network between computers and does not need to be linked up through an internet service provider or cellphone subscription. This translates into a saving on infrastructure and monthly costs.
“In addition, it uses Linux and Android and open source software like King Office or Libre Office, which has word-processing [capabilities] and spreadsheets. You can also access dictionary and wikipedia offline content,” she said.
“We are developing the software layer to enhance Android to a top-level desktop environment which includes an ethernet network, printer drivers and CD burner software. This computer is as easy to use as a mobile phone is.”
Vercuil said the computer was well-received during its prototype phase when it was tested by schoolchildren in Gugulethu and Khayelitsha, who enjoyed the game apps and the word processing apps in particular.
She said they planned to do a more focused roll-out to gather evidence about the machine’s usability, performance and areas for improvement. “This is a work in progress since we became shortlisted for the Global Cleantech Innovation Programme to represent South Africa.
“We are in talks with the Western Cape government to try and identify ways in which they may use, it such as MOD [mass participation, opportunity and access, development and growth] centres.”
The company ran a Thundafund crowd funding campaign, raising R20 000 for research and development for the computer. The Impi MK1 is also an official project of the World Design Capital 2014, Vercuil said, which gave them “a great starting point for networking”.
The computer is available from the company for R3 399, and Vercuil says they are currently talking to distributors.
“Currently there are no products on the market that match our affordable price, and our expertise is specific. Computers are being sourced from overseas.
“Our dream is to grow local expertise, and we are committed to use local people, whom we have committed to teach because currently services like firmware development for any kind of device are outsourced to India, and grow our economy at the same time by producing locally and create jobs.”