Wilma den Hartigh
A homegrown information and communication technology innovation has made it onto Time Magazine's list of the top 50 inventions in the world for 2011.
The world's largest weekly news magazine cited South Africa's Digital Drum, jointly developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the UN Children's Fund (Unicef), on its prestigious list.
The Digital Drum, built for the Ugandan market, is a computer system that gives people access to information on issues such as health and education.
Based on existing technology
The Digital Drum is closely based on another CSIR invention known as the Digital Doorway. The main difference is that the former is housed in a discarded oil drum.
The Digital Doorway is a robust standalone computer system developed to promote computer literacy and provide information on a range of subjects.
The content includes the OpenOffice productivity suite; educational games and programs; an introduction to computer terminology; scientific software; 10 000 ebooks from project Gutenberg; a snapshot of Wikipedia; Mindset curriculum-based educational content; interactive science simulations and numerous other applications for children and adults.
The digital drum has two work stations, with content adapted from the standard Digital Doorway suite.
SA's technology invention in the spotlight
The listing is a major achievement for South Africa and showcases the country's technological innovation.
"It gives us recognition and acknowledgement for our ingenuity," says Meraka Institute technologist Grant Cambridge. "We are really proud of the achievement, which is good motivation for continuous innovation."
The Meraka Institute is the largest group in South Africa dedicated to ICT research.
Low-cost and sustainable
Cambridge believes that the Digital Drum was noticed by Time because it is an innovative, low-cost solution made using locally available material and simple construction techniques.
The Digital Drum designers recycle oil drums, which would otherwise be discarded, as casing for the computer terminals.
"The Digital Drum is providing access – at low cost and using an environment friendly solution – to technology, information and education for many who previously had no access to such resources."
Promoting ICT literacy
In today's modern world computer literacy is essential, but for this to happen, computers must be easily accessible to potential learners. This is why the Digital Drum is such a groundbreaking invention.
The Digital Doorway and its sister invention are ideal for encouraging unassisted learning as people can use the product to discover the wonders of ICT at their leisure.
Many developing countries miss out on the advantages afforded by ICT because of a lack of facilities and teachers trained in ICT.
According to the Meraka Institute, unassisted learning provides a mechanism to promote mass computer, technology and information literacy in developing countries.
Adapting existing technology
Cambridge says that the creation of the digital drum came about when a delegation from Unicef led by Dr Sharad Sapra, head of Uganda's Unicef country office, visited the CSIR Meraka Institute.
Here they were introduced to the Digital Doorway. They soon realised that it was very similar to a portable internet communication product they wanted to develop.
Following the visit, the CSIR was contracted to supply 30 units to Unicef Uganda for education purposes. However, as shipping costs of the product were very high, it wasn't economical to buy them from South Africa.
Unicef then considered manufacturing the product in Kampala. The contract would have required Cambridge, one of the Digital Door inventors, to travel to the East African country to investigate the feasibility of manufacturing the product there, and assist with training locals to install and maintain the devices.
However, his findings proved that there was neither capability nor technology available in Kampala to manufacture the devices there.
"Manufacturing the Digital Drum in Uganda was impossible as the country lacks the necessary technology – powder coating and laser cutting equipment – to manufacture it to specifications," he explains.
As a solution, Sapra suggested that the products be manufactured using locally- available materials.
"Because empty oil drums were readily available, Unicef thought it would be great to develop such a platform from the drums," Cambridge says.
Cambridge worked with Jean-Marc Lefebure from the Unicef Uganda office to come up with a prototype digital drum.
"The digital drum design proved to be an innovative way for Unicef and the CSIR to address a need through a solution developed in the absence of technology," he says.