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Solar Powered Computer Center Opens in Sierra Leone: An Interview With Samuel Atere-Roberts

By Roland Marke, June 23, 2008

Some of the students who will benefit from the solar powered computer center project. (Photo courtesy of Roland Marke)

Samuel Atere-Roberts is the president of the Prince of Wales Alumni Association (P.O.W.A.A.), Georgia Chapter, in the United States. On June 10, he participated as project manager in the commissioning of the solar powered computer center at his alma mater, the Prince of Wales School at Kingtom, in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Computer literacy is a prerequisite for many jobs today, but students in Sierra Leone often have to seek out computer schools to gain the necessary skills. There are many issues that can inhibit the opening of a computer center in a school here, not the least of which is funding. The Prince of Wales School, for example, has no power, despite its close proximity to the city's main power station. To provide the school with computers meant also supplying power and reliable Internet access, in this case a solar power system and high-speed satellite service, as well as an I.T. teacher. The project was sponsored by Old Princewaleans and friends from around the world.

This is an edited excerpt of an interview with Atere-Roberts by Roland Marke.

***

Please walk me through the Solar Powered Computer Project: how was it born?

On Feb. 1, 2006, Mr. Eben Strasser-King, a member of the board of governors submitted a document that listed his personal views about the project needs of the Prince of Wales School, including the estimated costs for implementation of these projects. This document was circulated amongst Princewaleans in the diaspora. One of the needs in that document dealt with improving the operations of the computer center. He listed the following problems associated with the existing computer center:

The document recommended that additional computers be purchased and that the existing computers be repaired. Also recommended were the purchase of a generator for power supply, the provision of Internet service, and the employment of a manager or teacher and assistant for the computer center.

As a professional engineer and then the vice president of the Prince of Wales Alumni Association, Georgia Chapter, I reviewed the document and developed a project to address the computer center needs of the school. In August 2006, I presented a proposal to the P.O.W.A.A. Georgia members, to raise funds to implement a project and create a new computer center powered by solar energy. I estimated that the capital cost would be between $60,000 and $70,000. The Georgia Chapter accepted the proposal and committed to an initial funding of $25,000 to this project. I also made presentations to the other Prince of Wales Alumni Chapters, including Maryland and Washington, D.C., New Jersey and California, and the United Kingdom and Ireland. All Chapters gave their total support to the project.

A global fundraising drive for the project was then started and Princewaleans from all over the world were encouraged to support the project. All the other four chapters contributed generously to the project, in addition to individual contributions from Princewaleans and their supporters around the world. While fund raising was going on, I took the lead in developing project specifications for procurement of solar equipment and computers. A technical committee of Princewaleans was formed to prepare a plan for implementing the project. Members of this committee include, Denzil Georgestone, Ibrahim Huballah, Daniel Ademu-John, and Samuel Atere-Roberts (project manager).

(Photo courtesy of Roland Marke)

Where did you obtain the training and skills qualifying you to undertake this project?

I received a B.Sc. in civil engineering from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria, in 1982 and an M.S. in environmental health engineering from the University of Texas, Austin, in 1988. Although I am a consultant primarily working on the design and construction of water, wastewater, and solid waste facilities, for utilities and counties in the U.S., I have always been interested in renewable energy and that led me to research the use of solar energy for developing countries like Sierra Leone. I developed the preliminary design for the P.O.W. project followed by procurement of equipment for the project.

(Photo courtesy of Roland Marke)

How much did the project cost, how was it financed, and what were the challenges and objectives?

The cost is approximately $60,000 for the purchase and installation of all equipment including solar and computers and operational cost for one year. Operations cost is estimated to run between $700 and $800 monthly for the I.T. teacher, Internet service, security, insurance, and miscellaneous expenses. We raised funds from members, other Princewaleans, and supporters of the Prince of Wales School all over the world. We used an e-mail fund raising strategy to raise the funds for the project. And also used funds previously raised from our yearly thanksgiving services from all our chapters.

(Photo courtesy of Roland Marke)

Why is the project personally near and dear to your heart?

The Prince of Wales School provided the foundation for me and other Princewaleans all over the World. The successes we have achieved in our careers could not have been possible without the foundation we received at the P.O.W. School. This project, and others that we will embark on in the future, is our own small way of giving back to our alma mater.

How will this project help bridge the technology gap between the West and Sierra Leone?

Having Internet access opens the world to students in Sierra Leone. They will be able to find any information they need to access to enhance their knowledge, while attending the P.O.W. School. With the advent of long distance learning through online classes, they will be able to take classes that are not even available at the P.O.W. School, so long as they can pay the fees.

What is your area of specialty, and what other ways will Sierra Leone benefit from your expertise?

As I mentioned earlier, I am in the water, wastewater, sanitation, and solid waste business; and I have written extensively on water and sanitation issues affecting Sierra Leone, and recommended solutions to address some of them.

Are there other projects probably in the works?

Yes, there are projects being considered. However, our current focus is on how to sustain the new solar powered computer center for the next year—for the school to develop a cost recovery model that will require students to pay for classes and Internet browsing at the computer center.

How will you assess the present academic standard of both the teaching staff and the students?

Since I focused exclusively on completing the project while I was in Freetown for 10 days, I did not find time to explore the current cadre of teachers at the school or the school's recent examination results. However, I am very confident about the professionalism of the teachers that we have. I believe that this project will go a long way to improve the I.T. capabilities of both the teachers and the students, which will eventually reflect in improved results in the examinations the students take before graduating.

What message would you like to send to alumni of other schools or institutions of higher learning?

My message for the alumni of other schools is for them to continue to support their alma mater in any way possible. Since our government gets 60 percent of its operating budget from donors, any help we give to our schools is indirectly helping the government of Sierra Leone as they gradually move toward creating the revenues for them to be self-sufficient.

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