It is the aim of this project to develop a community-based, solar-powered Internet café that works within the Sub-Saharan context, can quickly realize self-sufficiency, and can eventually be replicated. Success in this endeavor hinges on three principles. The first, minimizing initial cost and size, mandates the overall launch costs to not exceed $2,000, and all materials must not occupy more than the space of two suitcases (or similarly sized transport containers), to facilitate easy shipping or transportation. The second principle, community integration, emphasizes the necessity of making the internet café a community center for learning, entertainment, and communication. The third principle, sustainability, ensures that cafés will not only continue successful operations in the long term, but will continue to give back to the community that embraces them.
Internet cafés will benefit from an innovative assemblage of equipment, the origin of which rests in the Supply Point. For the testing model, the Supply Point will be Austin, Texas. Volunteers will set up a website, post flyers, and develop partnerships with businesses to advertise computer donation services. An opportunity to support development in Africa will draw donors who would otherwise dispose of or give away their old computers. Local pickup will be provided along with an assurance that all data will be securely wiped. Advertisements will clearly state that only computers less than five years old and in working condition will be accepted.
Upon arrival at the Supply Point, computers will first be separated into laptops and desktops. Laptops move on to the second stage of processing, while desktops are retained for training purposes, possible resale for funding, or intraorganizational use. Laptops are then evaluated for performance and a life estimate is assessed. Only laptops that meet minimum standards for performance and earn a sufficient life estimate enter the next stage. Laptops that meet the first two conditions but are in need of an inexpensive repair or upgrade will be analyzed for price practicality and serviced.
Most laptops will be received with Windows as the operating system. The next stage of processing entails installing Ubuntu Linux in place of Windows. Ubuntu runs faster than Windows, is immune to viruses, and presents a simple interface to users. Free software for video editing, word processing, and web design will be installed on each laptop. After language and other settings are adjusted, the laptop processing phase is complete. Four laptops and a fifth reserve laptop comprise an internet café.
Solar panels will bypass the crippling limitations of poor power grids and allow internet cafés to function when surrounding buildings go dark. Flexible solar panels must be purchased in the Supply Point country, although the 12V batteries that they charge can be purchased throughout Africa. Although the pilot project will utilize a $300 foldable solar panel, future development of the system and in-depth training can cut prices in half by allowing solar panels to be custom fabricated. This will also reduce the space required for transport or shipping of the internet café. The solar system will power the café laptops directly during the day while also charging the 12V battery, allowing use after dark.
The internet café will generate a miniature economy and with time become an established point of commerce. In an attempt to attract new users and boost demand, hourly internet use rates in the café will be set at 70% of market price. Higher demand for services compared to other internet cafés will negate the lost revenue from the price drop and potentially lead to decreased prices throughout the entire local internet café market, making internet access more affordable for all. Community members will also have the opportunity to purchase hours in bulk upfront at an additional discount, which will provide capital that could be used for café projects and purchases or saved for café replication at a later date. Lastly, two hours every Saturday will be designated as free-use hours. This practice will allow first-time users to get a glimpse of the online and computing world, and the demand created during free-use hours will spill over into paid hours.
A number of goods and services will also be available for purchase in the café. The background image for each laptop will list items available to purchase, which include the laptop itself, priced appropriately for its real value and the local economic context. Few users will be financially able to purchase one of the café laptops, but when a purchase is made, that money will be used to pay the shipping costs of a newer laptop from the Supply Point. Any excess funds will be reinvested into the café or saved for café replication. The extreme decline in the international price of computing accessories will allow the Supply Point to provide small accessories as part of the initial and continuing inventory of the café. In the U.S., 1GB flash memory drives can be purchased for $4, earbud headphones for $2, portable speakers for $4, and MP3 players for $11. Purchasing computing accessories will move community internet users closer to computer fluency and give them a feeling of personal investment in the services provided by the café.
The café will yield two jobs for the community. The two café employees will be interviewed and screened for computer fluency, and pay will be granted at or above appropriate market levels. The start up target of $2,000 will include two months pay for these employees (average monthly income in many Sub-Saharan countries ranges from $50-$100). The employees will work a rotating schedule. During A week, one employee will supervise the café while the other makes daily visits to clean and several visits to hold free computer training and internet exploration classes. The two employees will swap roles for B week. In addition to these two full-time employees, the café will host local entrepreneurs who provide snacks and beverages to community internet users. Although food and beverage providers will not be required to share profit, their presence will be regulated to ensure fair pricing and an attractive business approach.
The café will engage in both advertising and outreach. The B week employee will be tasked with visiting local stores, restaurants, and other businesses to find locations for advertising. This contact with the local business community could also be utilized to develop mutually beneficial business partnerships. The café will provide free classes for local organizations and groups, including schools, women's groups, and cooperatives. Classes will attempt to provide class attendees with internet skills that promote personal development, enterprise, and communication.
To spark demand, the initial internet café will be located near a university, a business or industrial center, or another strategic community point that ensures immediate clientele. The average African internet café user is young and educated, and strategically placing the first café will ensure startup outcome objectives are met. The café's first clients will act as a bridge to friends and family members who transform the demographic of the café clientele. Then, the success of the initial internet cafe will be harnessed to reach further into the community, potentially through café replication in other areas.