Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What can be learned from buying a screw in Rwanda?

A lot, it turns out.  One of our projects in Rwanda in 2016 is to set up a community learning centre with computers and a computer network with connection to the Internet.  In order to reduce cost and to introduce the technology behind a micro-computer to the community, we decided to assemble a microcomputer based on the Raspberry Pi toolkit.  We designed a frame to house the circuit board, purchases peripherals such as a screen, keyboard and a mouse.  We taught our students to assemble it in Hong Kong, took everything to Rwanda, and taught local youths to assemble the whole system.  

The students forget to bring enough screws. So we went out shopping.  In Hong Kong, we know exactly what we need, and we know where are the hardware stores where we can find the screws.  In Rwanda, there are much fewer hardware stores.  And the hardware stores that we found didn’t have exactly what we need, and did not have the quantity that we need.  We ended up spending more than an hour wandering around downtown Kigali, and were only be able to find impact matches.   

As a result, we wasted much time in finding something relatively unimportant.  We did assemble the microcomputers but the result was not as good as we have wanted.  

One lesson that we have learned before, but reinforced by this experience, is the importance of detailed planning and preparation prior to departure.  If we had brought enough screws of the right size the problem would not have happened.   If we had known Kigali even better than we do (we had been here 4 times and know the city reasonably well), and have more control of our transportation, the problem could have been solved faster.  

Stepping back and looking more at the bigger picture.  We are experienced professionals and we have the expertise to carry out the project.  In Hong Kong the project could have been carried out more smoothly, in much less time.  It is because there is a much better supporting infrastructure in the form of abundance of components of the right size, numerous hardware stores where components can be found, online shopping and fast delivery, easy and efficient transportation, and so on.  

When we are in Rwanda, we are the same people that we are in Hong Kong.  But without the supporting infrastructure, we are much less effective and can do much less.  On the other hand, there are many people with similar types of skills in Hong Kong.   In Rwanda, there are probably much fewer.  Hence, potentially we can make a bigger impact, relatively speaking.  

Buying a screw in Rwanda has helped us, both professors and students, understand much better the developmental needs of under-privileged communities.  That is why service-learning, when properly done, is so important. 

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