An 85-Year-Old’s Mission to Bridge the Digital Divide

The ride across the red Zimbabwean desert is bumpy, and Jim Anderson must continuously brace himself for unexpected jolts, dips and turns. He’s driving far beyond the city limits of Mutare. The government forbade foreigners from traveling to its rural villages, which had been especially hard­-hit by the AIDS epidemic, but Anderson went anyway; he needed to see it for himself.

While walking alone through the village, an all-­too-­common sight makes him pause: a young girl in a tattered jumper standing beside an elderly woman.The woman whispers something into the girl’s ear, prompting her to disappear inside their home. She emerges with a piece of paper, and thrusts it into Anderson’s hands.

It’s her report card, and she has straight 'A's across all subjects.

“Her name is Cleopatra,” says now-­85-­year-­old Anderson back in his hometown of Portland, recalling his 2006 meeting with the girl, whom he affectionately calls Cleo.
A few weeks after meeting Cleo, political tensions in the embattled African nation reached a head. Because of Cleo’s lack of a computer and internet access, Anderson lost track of her.

Throughout his 13-­week teaching stint in Zimbabwe, Anderson felt the implications of his students’ lack of digital connectivity. Having previously taught at an inner­city school in Jacksonville, Florida, he was especially struck by his American and African students’ disproportionate access to technology in the classroom.

Little did Anderson realize that his disparate experiences were a consequence of an ever­-growing global digital divide. Over 4.4 billion people worldwide lack internet access­­ (or in other words, sixty percent of the world’s population) ­­with 3.4 billion of this demographic residing in just 20 countries1. These offline individuals are disproportionately rural, low­-income, elderly, illiterate and female.

Barriers to technology include low income, digital illiteracy and a lack of necessary infrastructure. And simply owning a computer does not guarantee an internet connection or the necessary skills to operate it.

Explains Anderson: “Let me pose the possibility that Cleo comes to your company and says, ‘I want to work for you.’ And you ask, ‘What are your computer skills?’ She’ll say, ‘I don’t have any.’ then, the company probably wouldn’t hire her.”

Studies increasingly show that limited access to technology increases social inequality and impairs education2. On the other hand, digital connectivity fosters economic equality, social mobility and democracy.

He found his solution on a trip to the local farmer’s market one Saturday in 2006, where he spied a booth that felt out of place among the produce stands. This particular booth belonged to Free Geek, a Portland-based organization that recycles and refurbishes computer technology.

Free Geek’s philosophy is simple yet rebellious: collect used computers that would otherwise end up in landfills, fix ‘em up and sell them back to the community or donate them to local nonprofits.

“I wanted to send something that I was confident would serve these kids well, a great computer. What would you do if you found a 1995 Mercedes in an old woman’s garage? You’d refurbish it and take it for a spin, and it would work great. That’s how I feel about these ThinkPads. They are beautifully built."

Anderson volunteers at Free Geek every Friday, refurbishing old or broken Lenovo ThinkPads, which he then sends to various African nonprofits and schools. He says most of the students use them for writing papers, research and communicating with faraway friends and family. And because ThinkPads are so intuitive, the kids don’t require extensive computer skills.

After three years on his project, hundreds of Anderson’s refurbished ThinkPads are now floating around Africa, with another shipment going out in just a few weeks. Of course, he made sure Cleo received one of his computers.

“It was a lot of work getting it to her, but I had confidence that what I was doing was worth it,” he says.Three years after their initial meeting, Anderson was able to track Cleo down, still in school and still at the top of her class.

“She wants to be a doctor,” says Anderson, as if speaking about one of his own children. He helped to raise funds for her high school tuition. Now in her last year of high school, Cleo has the added advantage of a ThinkPad to help with her schoolwork.

“Knowing Cleo has given me hope,” says Anderson, “There is much in my Africa experience that is disillusioning. With Cleo I've been allowed to have illusions, hopes, dreams that continue to be fulfilled year after year as she has successfully advanced through her education.”
And with Cleo’s high school graduation on the horizon, Anderson plans to raise funds to send her to a top college in the States.“Cleo does not exist to fulfill my dreams,” he adds, “but I am so grateful that I've had the opportunity to be a small part in her achievement.”

1. McKinsey & Company. (2014). “Offline and falling behind: Barriers to internet adoption.” Authors: Kara Sprague, James Manyika, Bertil Chappuis, Jacques Bughin, Ferry Grijpink, Lohini Moodley, Kanaka Pattabiraman.
2. United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner (2016, June 17). “Digital technology in education can impair the right to education and widen inequalities ­ New UN report warns.” 

Rahil Arora leads Lenovo’s Customer Stories program.