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Taking technology to the people


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Hewlett Packard's I-community initiative means all adults and children now have access to IT training schemes.
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MOKOPANE, South Africa (CNN) -- One of the world's leading technology companies is providing the resources and expertise to help forge economic and social development in a region of South Africa.

The three-year partnership between Hewlett Packard and the municipality of Mogalakwena in Limpopo province was launched with the intention of boosting the regional economy by extending its IT infrastructure and improving computer literacy.

Established in 2002, Mogalakwena's "I-community" has blossomed into a network linking towns, villages and citizens across a 6,000 square kilometer area and made a key contribution towards tackling problems associated with developing economies.

When the I-community was launched, more than half of Mogalakwena's population was unemployed and living in poverty.

Almost a third of villages lacked adequate access to basic services such as clean water, electricity and health care and only five percent of schools had computers.

Slowly, that is changing. With a $5 million investment, HP has helped set up a network of Community Access Points in libraries, community centers, municipal offices, schools and clinics where users can access governmental, health and educational services.

IT training and education schemes are available to all adults and children while business resource centers have helped forge vocational and entrepreneurial skills.

"This intervention shows that it's possible to go into the least-developed areas -- to the rural people -- and bring them into the modern era," said South African president Thabo Mbeki on the I-community's first anniversary.

Last year the project earned a United Nations World Business Award in recognition of its contribution to alleviating poverty and stimulating development in line with the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

But HP's contribution has involved more than just donating money and equipment. The company has worked actively to specifically tailor its contribution to the local community, such as by making code and software available in local languages.

"There was almost no technological base where we arrived here," Clive Smith, the head of HP's Emerging Market Solutions division told CNN.

"When you're looking at sustainable development there's no 'one size fits all' solution. It depends how rural, how urban, how traditional, how literate, there are so many factors that come into it. Sustainable development is an ecosystem problem."

But it's not just corporate kindness that's driving HP's interest in Mogalakwena's development. Design a product specifically for developing world budgets and you tap into a massive new market. That's exactly what HP has done with the Multi-User 441, a PC developed specifically with the i-community in mind.

The 441 allows four people with keyboards and monitors to use one computer simultaneously. The machine also runs on open source software, adapted for local languages, and features 70 educational applications, making it an ideal and cost-efficient learning tool.

"Typically the way multinationals think about moving products into the developing world is to figure out some way to either de-feature it or cost reduce it to meet the local cost requirements," said Smith.

"You can do that to a degree, but it doesn't actually meet the needs of the local community. One of the things that HP did in this setting was to say, 'Alright, let's develop products that are optimized for a developing market from the ground up, designed for this market as opposed to being cost reduced from a developed world market.'

"Once you do that, there are all sorts of advantages that start coming in because you now have a low-cost platform with many features which also are attractive to a developed market."

By the end of the year HP says its 441s will contain enough software to run everything in a community from sewage disposal to schools. Limpopo's premier Sello Moloto says his provincial counterparts across South Africa are also keen to buy into the technology.

For HP, Mogalakwena has been a useful testing ground for a company looking to discover whether it can make money and create brand loyalty while also doing good.

-- CNN's Diana Magnay contributed to this report.


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