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Zimbabwean entrepreneur invents tech that turns a tree into a WiFi hub

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William Sachiti
William Sachiti

Zimbabwean AI expert and entrepreneur William Sachiti, CEO of UK-based start-up Academy of Robotics has today published an open-source technology known as ‘Trees of Knowledge’ to improve access to education through smartphones in Africa.

This free-to-develop technology enables a tree or rural landmark to broadcast a WiFi connection providing access to a pre-loaded package of educational content.

The WiFi connection and content comes from a micro-computer moulded into the landmark to protect it from theft or damage. Anyone within a roughly 100m radius can then access the content on any mobile device free of charge.

Users can also charge their phone by plugging it into the accompanying solar-powered battery charging station. All the user needs is a WiFi-enabled device. There is no need for the phone to be connected to a carrier or any network provider, removing the issue of expensive data charges.

Sachiti, who was educated in Zimbabwe before moving to the UK where he started his first technology company at 19 years old, highlights the challenges. “One of the challenges in providing education through smartphones is that, while many people have access to a basic smartphone of some description, in many areas 3G coverage is still patchy. The data costs are high for most people and in rural areas keeping the phones charged is a problem when there is limited or no electricity. Trees of Knowledge aims to address all these challenges.” He says there is an urgent need to improve access to education in Africa. For many children, their classes are taught under the shade of a large tree, so ‘Trees of Knowledge’ seemed a natural technical extension of this existing system.

The micro-computers will run on the power equivalent of a small rechargeable battery and can run for years without maintenance.The technology uses a basic computer like Raspberry Pi which has been used in refugee camps in Lebanon by UNICEF as part of its Raspberry Pi for Learning initiative.

A global crisis in education

Globally there are 258 million children out of school and UNESCO’s new report Education Progress highlights that the problem is particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the population of primary-school aged children has doubled since 1990 and 1 in 5 children of primary-school age are out of school.

However, this is also a region witnessing rapid growth in smartphone adoption. Already, more than 23% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to a smartphone — a number which the GSMA estimates will rise to 39% in the next five years.

 “With the growth of the developer community in Africa, I believe we have the opportunity to simply release the technology and let local communities build it themselves,” Sachiti says.

The pre-loaded educational content is likely to be video-based and free to access by anyone at any time. While the system can work with existing educational content packages, ultimately Sachiti hopes that content can also come from local educators.

At 35, Sachiti has already set up and successfully exited three companies. His latest venture, Academy of Robotics, has developed Europe’s first autonomous delivery vehicle for the road, Kar-go.

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