Astam: Our first project completed
A warm welcome was extended to Mark Pinoli and Peter Bach from the Logged On Foundation team by Shree Bhumeshwor School teachers, children and parents on their arrival into Astam on 9th September 2011. The welcome ceremony heralded the start of Logged On’s ten week effort to establish a computer centre in the village for the benefit of the community and to improve the education outcomes of the local children. By late November, the Centre building had been built, eleven computers were installed, the internet connected and a computer teacher was employed.
A new building
The team arrived in Astam expecting that the new building that would house the Computer Centre, located on the Shree Bhumeshwor School grounds, would have been well on the way to completion. The majority of the funding for the building came from the Government of Nepal with smaller contributions from other organisations.
Unfortunately, only the foundations and building frame were completed and no further progress was made. This was the first set back in the program. Fortunately a new builder was quickly found and construction recommenced in late September.
Over the ten weeks, the Logged On team became heavily involved in overseeing the construction of the new building, furniture design, selection of building materials and paints, lighting and power layout, and building security.
The second set back to the project was the absence of electricity. Lightning struck a transformer that cut power to the village for over two months and the local authorities did not have the funds to repair the damaged equipment. This added to concerns about completing the project before the end of the year and the long-term infrastructure issues with powering the Computer Centre. The incident highlighted the need for low power computer systems, battery backup supplies and to rely on alternative power sources such as solar energy. Fortunately, a new connection was established to the grid and electricity was restored.
By mid October, the walls to the new building were erected, plastering was near completion, and the laying of the concrete floor had commenced. At this stage, the third major set back became apparent: there was no funds left for the roof, painting, furniture and the installation of electrical fittings. Initial funding for the building came from the Nepalese Government and from the Bhumeshwor School, but additional expenses during construction wiped the budget.
A phone call was made to Barry Broomfield, Deputy Principal of Gingin Senior High School, and the completion of the new building was guaranteed with the necessary funding being made available within a week. A Sister School relationship exists between the Shree Bhumeshwor School and Gingin High School in Western Australia and part of the money from a 2010 Gingin fundraising event was used to complete the building and install furniture. All computer, UPS power and internet equipment was paid for by Logged On and no equipment donations were made to the project.
DIARY ENTRY: The delivery date for the computers is set for 1st November and the opening ceremony for the 10th November. No one alerted us to any issues with the upcoming festival and the fact that the workers installing the desks, doors and windows were from India and would be returning to their homes to celebrate Diwali with their families. When I saw them packing up five days before the computers were due to arrive, I asked where they were going and when they would be back? They responded ‘in seven to ten days’! There were no desks for the computers and the electrician hadn’t made an appearance yet.
The fourth set back: building construction was put several weeks behind schedule in October because two major Nepalese festivals occurred during this month – Diwali and Dashain. There were doubts at this stage whether the project could be completed before the Logged On team was scheduled to depart which would have meant a postponement till April 2012.
Building completed – now computers and internet
Despite the set backs and difficulties, extensive negotiations with workers and help from the people of Astam ensured that on the 1 November the new building was at a stage where the installation of the computer equipment could begin. Desks were installed without the Formica finish, painting and the installation of the power outlets were happening as the technicians were installing the computers. Another power outage during the first few days in November was solved using a petrol powered generator borrowed from the Annapurna Eco-Village retreat. Final touch ups to the Centre went on right up to the evening before the opening ceremony. No solar panels were installed but was certainly something that we would like to have in the future.
We sailed close to rocks more than a few times and the only reason we succeeded was because of teamwork. When a ‘crisis’ arose, the Computer Centre Committee came together to discuss how we would solve the issue. We had absolute determination to see this project through to the end and we were not going to accept any failure. We were a team par excellence and it was one of the greatest joys of doing this work.
During a visit to Kathmandu in October, Logged On Foundation President, Mark Pinoli, visited the Microsoft Innovation Centre. Mark was introduced to the School in a Box program which bought together products from Microsoft, Dell and NComputing to provide a high quality, low cost computer solution for schools. The thin client solution consisted of one server and ten terminals that would provide a one-to-one computing experience for eleven students at any one time. This packaged system had been rolled out to some of the top private and government schools and colleges in the country. Mark had the opportunity to visit the Ratna Raja School in Kathmandu to see first hand their experience with using the system. It was decided that the School in a Box package would be ideal for Astam.
On 31st October 2011, Director of the Microsoft Innovation Centre, Allen Tuladhar, along with his technical team, visited Astam to personally deliver the School in a Box system. The Microsoft team installed the computers and provided specialist training to the Computer Centre Committee and Technical Team from 1 – 5 November. Allen also met with the people involved in the project and spoke to them about the importance of what was happening in Astam and how the Centre would create new opportunities for the community.
Given the uncertainties with the completion of the building and the installation of the computers, the internet connection was put on hold until a few days before the opening ceremony. Logged On negotiated with a national internet service provider to install long range wireless antennas to connect the school to broadband internet. Astam is fortunately positioned on a ridge with a clear line of sight to the Northern end of the town of Pokhara. Only two antennas were required to connect Astam to Pokhara and provide symmetrical DSL connection (no microwave satellite link was established).
Now that the computers were in, we followed up on 6 weeks of negotiation with the Internet Service Provided (ISP) to connect the village to the internet. Having been assured that they would take care of all aspects of installation, we were told that we needed to install a pole for the antenna to be attached. After the meeting, we immediately went to find a steel pipe 10cm in diameter and 5 meters long that we ended up strapping to the roof of a jeep, along with 11 chairs, and 60kg worth of batteries for the backup power supply. The next day the ISP technicians arrived and we had to dig a hole for the pole and put in the concrete, install the antenna, run 30 meters of cable underground to the Centre and then finally connect Astam to the internet for the first time. This was the day before the official opening!
The Centre was officially opened on the 10th November 2011 by Arjun Thapa, Development Officer for the District Development Committee and Mark Pinoli, Logged On Foundation President.
Community consultation & networking
The Logged On team consulted as widely as possible within the village of Astam, the Dhital region and with the local Village Development Committee about the project and the vision for the future.
The Development Officer from the District Development Committee was invited to open the new Centre building and after the opening, the President of Logged On visited schools in the area to discuss future computer centre projects and about extending the broadband network.
A Computer Centre Management Committee and a Technical Team were formed to deal with the day-to-day running of the Centre. The Committee and the Technical Team were instrumental in helping to complete the new building and with the installation of the equipment.
We were impressed with the level of community involvement in Astam and the committee structuring in general. We attended every possible meeting to discuss our vision and at those meetings, attendance and minutes were recorded, and committees and subcommittees were formed for everything that had an impact on the community, not just for our project. There was a high level of accountability and community participation. This made community involvement and ownership of the project easier than expected and it quickly became clear that the task of forming a committee to manage the Centre was an inevitability.
Logged On also networked with NGO’s and companies in Nepal to share ideas, experiences and advice on projects that they were undertaking. The President of Logged On met with HELP Nepal, the Nepal Library Foundation, Smart Solutions, World Distribution Nepal, BrainWorks Learning Solution Centre, Nepal Wireless, Nepal Schools Trust and the Microsoft Innovation Centre Nepal. Logged On also visited Ratna Raja and Shuvatara schools in Kathmandu to discuss issues with education and ICTs in Nepal.
Documenting the work
Advocacy is an important part of the work of the Foundation. Effort has been made documenting every stage of the project through photography and videography with a view to communicating the issues that exist in rural Nepal and how computers and the internet can be a positive tool for change.
Logged On will be completing a documentary in 2012 highlighting the work being done and to provide a perspective on contemporary rural life in Nepal. The documentary will take viewers through every stage of the project, the community and committee meetings, the homes of the villagers, the lives of school children, the education being provided at the Shree Bhumeshwor School and the mode of life in the village from work in the fields to community festival.
Thanks to our friends
Heart felt thanks to friends who helped the Foundation to achieve a successful completion to the first phase of the project:
- The Logged On Foundation Committee, their family and friends who helped in fundraising in Australia.
- The Computer Centre Management Committee, the Technical Team, the teachers of the Shree Bhumeshwor School and School Management Committee.
- The people of Astam and Dhital who became part of the effort to establish the Computer Centre and for allowing Logged On to photograph and video them.
- The people at Marigold Hotel and the Annapurna Ecovillage who looked after the Logged On team like family during their stay in Astam and Pokhara.
- Special thanks to: Bishow Adhikari, Shree Bhumeshwor School Committee Chair who was the pivot for all movements on the Centre building and community support and participation.
- Raju Pariyar, the Chair of the Computer Centre Management Committee for his efforts and energy in making sure that the project was completed and the opportunities were made fully available to the community.
- Ves Raj Bastola and Sita Adhikari who were part of the core team who were there at every meeting, every setback, and helped see through the project to the end.
On our last day in Astam, a group of tourists visiting the village from the Capital Group in Dongcheng District in Beijing, China, chanced upon the school and the newly completed Computer Centre.
After some discussion about the purpose of the project and seeing the students using the computers for the first time, they donated US$1,000 on the spot to go towards equipment for the Centre.
The school thought that they won the lottery! We were very thankful.