Gertjan van Stam: Macha's Link to the World

Thanks to this IEEE member, people in rural parts of Zambia now have Internet access

8 June 2009

stamSometimes cutting-edge engineering has as much to do with making technology happen in near-impossible conditions as it does with building something completely new. Last year, Member Gertjan van Stam transfixed an IEEE audience in Boston with tales of helping to build an information highway in the remote south Zambian village of Macha.

As CEO of LinkNet Zambia in Macha, van Stam helped build the first rural Zambian Internet cooperative, whereby users share costs of a local Internet connection and wireless infrastructure and maintenance.

He told 115 attendees in October at the first IEEE Humanitarian Workshop that instead of riding into town and announcing, “This is what needs to be done,” he asks residents for their input. “The challenge is to find local talent, learn how they wish to improve their community, and then train and assist them in a community-driven solution,” he says.

The landlocked southern African nation of Zambia is among the world’s poorest, with a per-capita annual income of US $800. Many residents live on $1 per day. Compare that to the cost of Internet connectivity in the area: $1300 per month for a 128-kilobyte-per-second connection shared by the villagers. Van Stam helped set up the initial infrastructure with $50 000 in seed money from the Malaria Institute at Macha, a partnership of the Zambian government, Johns Hopkins University of Baltimore, and the nonprofit Macha Mission Hospital—plus funding from individuals. Today, LinkNet has 44 institutional subscribers, including companies, schools, hospitals, religious missions, and social organizations, that pay $30 per month for any village resident to have access to the shared connection.

“When I arrived six years ago, there were five computers in the entire village,” van Stam says. “Now we have hundreds of them. We’re trying to duplicate that in 10 other villages in Zambia. After that, we hope to expand to 200 sites.”

It was van Stam’s interest in radio transmission and long-distance communication that led him to attend Hogeschool Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, in the Netherlands, where he earned a degree in telecommunications, specializing in radio and antenna technologies. After graduating in 1989, he worked as a strategist for Nozema, the Netherlands’ terrestrial broadcast system. When Nozema became part of KPN Telecom, the country’s largest telecommunications operator, van Stam got involved in the company’s expansion into Belgium and South Africa, and he developed relationships with African telecom companies.

During that time, his wife, Janneke, was working toward a degree in tropical medicine. Anticipating a move in 2000 to India for her work, van Stam left KPN in 1998 to set up his own telecom services company, Privacom, which enabled him to work from home. He developed Internet and GSM communication services that earned his company an award from the 2001 GSM Forum. Later that year, Janneke’s work took them from India to rural Zimbabwe, where van Stam set up an Internet café for the community. In 2003, her work took them to Macha.

“Most of what is necessary for development—water, power, electricity, transportation, and education—were not fully in place in Macha,” says van Stam, who receives no salary from LinkNet and lives off his wife’s salary and private donations. “So I used a holistic solution based on what locals wanted first and then helped them build it, using the $50 000 seed money. With that momentum we were able to start up an Internet connection, a community center, a library, an airport, a primary school, and a radio station, among other projects.” The airport, a nearly two-kilometer-long landing strip for small bush planes, is run by a three-person staff.

IEEE heard of van Stam’s work through Adrian Pais, the Zambian-born, Netherlands-based 2009 chair of IEEE GOLD, who visited Macha and saw van Stam in action. Pais and van Stam, with others, wrote of their work in Bringing Internet Connectivity to Rural Zambia Using a Collaborative Approach for the 2007 IEEE/ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) International Conference on Information. Van Stam, who joined IEEE last year, is now vice chair of IEEE’s Zambia Section and travels the world giving presentations about applying sustainable technology in rural areas.

Western businesses could take a cue from what he has learned in Macha, he says: “Africans place a high premium on relationships and the community—instead of on individuals, as they do in the West. New technology has to benefit everyone, not just one group at the expense of another. That way everybody moves forward, not just a happy few.”

Having seen Macha’s progress, the Dutch government this year pledged $3 million over three years to LinkNet to expand its coverage and programs into other Zambian communities. Part of the money is earmarked for establishing engineering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs at the University of Zambia’s satellite campus in Macha.

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