Inveneo Braves Goats, Killer Bees for IT

Odd quirks can disrupt a new computer setup even under the best of circumstances. But for Inveneo, a company that specializes in building computer and communications systems in mud-hut villages in Africa and other remote areas, killer bees and Ethernet-cable-chewing goats have been some of its more peculiar challenges.

Take one sunny day in Gulu, Uganda, last August as an example. The long-range Wi-Fi network that Inveneo had set up for a rural village went down, knocking out Internet service. The network was part of a typical IT setup from Inveneo, which usually includes computers, solar panels and Wi-Fi wireless transmitters for Web access.

The problem: A colony of killer bees had made its new home inside a Wi-Fi junction box set high up on an abandoned TV tower, and this caused a short circuit.

That's not exactly the kind of issue an IT manager faces in the developed world. Luckily, Inveneo's local partner in the project, Norbert Okec, knew the local beekeeper and was able to borrow a light-blue protective suit, as well as get advice on how to remove the bees: Wait until dark when they're less active and then smoke them out.

The next night, he climbed the rusty TV tower, poured smoke on the bees and returned with the junction box, which was cleaned, repaired and reinstalled.

"It just shows how important it is to have local partners to help with installations, support and many of the other issues you can never predict in Africa," said Mark Summer, CEO of Inveneo, in a recent interview.

"Honey actually conducts electricity, we've learned," he added.

Inveneo, a nonprofit based in Silicon Valley, is focused on making computing a reality for some of the most out-of-the-way places in Africa, including in Cameroon, Nigeria and Burkina Faso. Most of its projects have been for schools, hospitals, community centers and aid camps on the continent.

Inveneo's team contends with the same core problems experienced everywhere, including no access to reliable electricity, Internet service or computers. Inveneo's job is to integrate the entire setup, work with local partners to put it in place, train them on how to best use it, and provide long-term support.

The organization relies mainly on its own hardware designs but also uses some from others, carefully choosing hardware that will survive in rugged places.

Often, the "solutions" it puts in place face unexpected difficulties.

In one village the company installed a system in a building with a corrugated metal roof, which is where it placed the solar panels. But the panels didn't last long. Kids in the village had for years thrown rocks onto the roof because they liked the loud clang it made. Now, the clang was gone and so was the power.

Again, a local partner came up with an economical solution. Knowing that it would be impossible to guard the roof day and night against rock-throwers, the partner rigged a protective cover for the solar panels with some wood and chicken wire.

Local partners have been invaluable to Inveneo, said Kristin Peterson, chief development officer of the group. The organization started a certified partner program a few years ago because locals often know how best to get equipment from one place to another and can help with training and troubleshooting after a system has been set up.

The company works in such rugged conditions that it develops most of its own computers and other systems to withstand the harsh environment and ensure low power consumption and longevity.

But the organization demurred when asked about the cost of its systems and how they compare to other offerings from companies such as NComputing, which uses virtualization to turn a single computer into a server for as many as 30 stations, at an average cost of less than US$70 per user.

"Each setup has its own needs, so costs vary," said Peterson.

As an example, in several schools across East Africa, where between 15 and 25 computers were installed, Peterson estimated the costs at between $15,000 and $35,000 per project. That cost included different configurations for wireless Internet access, the added cost of printers and projectors in some schools, and ensuring a stable power supply, which can include battery backup systems and solar panels, she said.

Transportation and installation alone of a 10-computer setup can cost $1000 due to the price of gasoline and roads so bad that even short distances can take hours to traverse.

And once it's all finished, anything can happen to add more cost to the equation. Goats, for example, like to chew on Ethernet cables, Inveneo has found, forcing the organization to find ways to hide the cables and keep them out of harm's way as much as possible.

"Goats will chew through anything," said Inveneo's Summer.

Inveneo relies on donations, grants and volunteers for its work, and corporate partners include Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Cisco Systems, he said. The organization uses their products when they can, including AMD low-power reference designs and chips, but they don't have to.

"We are not tied to any product," he said. "We are a completely technology-neutral organization. We will always only use the technology that makes sense."

Software is another area in which Inveneo tries to keep out of global IT issues, such as the fight between Microsoft and Linux. Most of Inveneo's hardware runs open-source programs, but if a client asks for Microsoft, Inveneo installs it.

The final hurdle in developing-world computing is making the technology easy to use and relevant to what a school, community or organization wants to use it for. Sometimes, that means training and finding new software to make sure the system helps the organization.

And despite the fact the people at Inveneo have largely eschewed high-paying Silicon Valley IT jobs in favor of long, hot rides over bumpy dirt roads, constant headaches caused by the sound of rocks hitting corrugated metal, the buzz of killer bees in Wi-Fi boxes and goats chewing on computer cables, they seem to think it's worthwhile.

Said Peterson: "We're all here to make changes in people's lives."

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