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Reaching the Internet via the sun

Power generation in an isolated Latin American village typically comes in the form of a noisy, balky, diesel generator. But in San Ramón, Honduras, the only sounds competing with the soft clattering of computer keys are the voices of school children or the braying of a burro.

San Ramón is no ordinary village, which is immediately evident from the array of solar panels on the roof of its school and community center. The panels power a full complement of modern conveniences characteristic of a much larger, more prosperous, community.

This village of 840 people, located in the hills above the city of Choluteca, is the pioneer in a program that will use technology to jump-start development and create new opportunities. In the program’s initial phase, 100 communities will receive "technology packages" and energy production equipment such as that already in operation in San Ramón. If results meet expectations, the program could be replicated in many more of Honduras’ 25,000 other remote villages.

The central concept of the program, which is financed by an $8.5 million low-interest IDB loan, is the provision of technology packages consisting of computers, fax machines, cellular phones, and software, that will be driven by alternative energy sources. The packages will be introduced in a coordinated and integrated way to improve education, provide training, and foster small businesses and microenterprise.

"Only by taking such an integrated and targeted approach can rural areas in a poor country like Honduras bridge the growing technology gap," says IDB project team leader Pedro Sáenz. With access to new technology, he says, local residents will be able to increase civic participation, improve education and health, find jobs, generate income, and raise their own self-esteem over the long run.

San Ramón led the way. Honduras laid the groundwork for the IDB-financed program by providing technology packages, driven by solar energy, to San Ramón and two other remote communities, San Francisco and La Hicaca. This pilot project was led by the Consejo Hondureño de Ciencia y Tecnología, (COHCIT) and supported by UNESCO and other groups.

The electricity generated by San Ramón’s solar panels now powers an array of new services and facilities. Among them are five streetlights, six classrooms with electrical outlets for television and video, computers, or other equipment, lighting for the village church, and a heating and cooling system for water and the storage of medicine and vaccines at a health clinic. The panels also power an innovative classroom equipped with computers, a video tape recorder, digital cameras, scanners, printers, and other equipment.

Even before the technology package arrived, the project helped to mobilize the village by requiring it to create a village council as a prerequisite to obtaining resources. After the package was installed, school attendance jumped from 250 to 350 in one year, and grades seven through nine were added to the local school system. In a survey taken in San Ramón, residents rated their quality of life as zero before arrival of the technology package and eight at present (on a scale of one to 10).

The new and expanded project will open the possibility for participating rural villages to access two ongoing distance learning programs. One is EDUCATODOS, an interactive radio program targeted at youths 13 and older and at adults. The other is Telebásica, which serves a similar audience but is delivered by television. It is hoped that the communities will eventually be able to offer their children secondary education, which is still not available in remote villages.

The IDB-financed program will incorporate lessons learned from the pilot project in the three communities. For example, greater care will be taken to prevent technology overlap and excessive costs, and more emphasis will be placed on the sustainability of investments and technical assistance to make sure innovation produces the desired results. To that effect, coordination among stakeholder institutions will be important.

The program will introduce experimentation with appropriate technologies and research geared toward important problem-solving areas. These activities will help define national science and technology policies that benefit the poorer communities.

"The interesting thing about the education model used in the solar villages is that it is a Honduran response to Honduran problems," says Aimee Verdisco, an education specialist with the IDB’s Sustainable Development Department, who has visited San Ramón and San Francisco and studied the country’s experience with education technology packages. "Cost-effective, lower-end technologies, such as distance learning through television or radio, have a proven track record in improving access and quality for education," she adds.

But she warns that educators are still debating the best way to introduce higher-end technologies such as the Internet and computers. While these technologies can stimulate both students and teachers to higher achievement, she notes that specialists in COHCIT found it necessary to adapt prepackaged computer software to national curricula and student needs in order to increase the value added by technology to the teaching and learning process.

"It is a question of technology overload," she says. "Perhaps you can say some villages have a choice: an overload of ignorance and the status quo or an overload of technology. The bottom line is that technology overload is preferable to the status quo."

For a detailed look at Honduras’ experience with technology packages in San Ramón, see the article Honduras Solar Energy Bridges the Digital Divide by Aimee Verdisco and Analyda Melara de Franconi, minister and head of Consejo Hondureño de Ciencia y Tecnologia (see link at right)

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