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North Delta charity's rugged server lets African students access a world of knowledge

ARES, developed by Afretech and American non-profit Tembo Trading, has a special battery to protect against power outages and surges.

It looks like a box, but inside, it’s a trove of information and resources African schools would never normally have access too.

ARES is a recent development from North Delta-based charity Afretech, headed by local philanthropist Bonnie Sutherland, and the American non-profit Tembo Trading. Designed for use in rugged environments, ARES first rolled out in 2015.

SEE ALSO: GOOD NEIGHBOURS: North Delta charity helps kids in Africa get an education

In essence, ARES (African Ruggedized Education Solution) is a computer server with pre-downloaded open- source databases. It contains everything from Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg (a database of thousands of copy- right-free books) to Hesperian (a personal health guide) and Khan Academy (a series of videos teaching elementary and high school lessons).

Many of the resources are contained in RACHEL, an offline system of databases. But ARES also has many other ones that are tailored to the locations the computers are in. There’s the Kiswahili version of Hesperian for use in many parts of Africa, and a dictionary that translates 50 different languages.

It also includes administrative programs for school officials that allow them to make class schedules and track school fees, something that can otherwise be prohibitively expensive.

ARES has already been installed in about 24 African schools, and Bonnie Sutherland, president of Afretech, has seen some of the successes first-hand. One time, she introduced an agriculture teacher to Wikipedia, teaching him how to do research on the database.

“He said, ‘We have this trouble right now,’ and he started looking at it,” she said. “Half an hour later he had gathered three boys in and he was teaching them using the information.

“From his perspective, this was absolutely phenomenal. He had just discovered this wealth of information. It told him what kind of action could be taken, given the certain climate conditions...and it was all at his fingertips.

“He didn’t want to leave, and neither did the boys, because it was so relevant to them. It wasn’t something out in airy-fairy land. This was life and death on their own shambas [farms].”

There are other systems like ARES out there, but the thing that makes ARES special is its durability.

The server is designed to work under unreliable power, which is an essential requirement in many places across Africa. Without power most servers won’t work, and power surges can fry the motherboard.

ARES uses an uninterruptible power supply battery which protects the server against surges. This battery also lets the server keep working without power for up to eight hours. The server is also heat-proof, dust-proof and, as much as possible, people-proof.

“In Africa, and a lot of places, an expert in computers is someone who knows where the button is to turn the power on,” Sutherland said. “We’ve gone back into situations where three or four computers have been destroyed. People have tried to jam things into the USB ports and so on, and stuff has been stolen.”

There are two types of ARES servers: the library server, which connects to 40 devices, and the classroom server (pictured), which can connect with 20. The library server costs $500 to install and the classroom server costs $200.

ARES servers are currently only in Africa, but Sutherland thinks the A in Africa Ruggedized Education Solutions should really stand for “Anywhere.”

However, in order for the two year old ARES to really move forward, Sutherland said it would need to receive some sort of grant.

“We have to gear up,” Sutherland said. The project needs seed money to keep going, although Sutherland did mention something about putting that in herself.

“We really have to think the whole thing through.”