Guest post by John Nielsen
GM, EMEA Customer Service and Support
Earlier in September, I accompanied a ten-strong team of engineers from across Microsoft EMEA Customer Service & Support to the Blantyre area of Malawi. The team were there to install a brand new network that would connect four local schools. Working closely with teams from mobile network Access Communications and the charity Computers for Malawian Schools, we helped launch the Malawi Learning Partnership (MLP) – a community networking project using ICT tools to allow teachers, students and partners communicate and enhance education in Malawi.
We’re extremely proud that, over the week, we helped these schools bridge the digital divide so that they can better harness the power of technology; giving teachers the IT tools that will help them create more dynamic lessons for their students. The network now in place will let schools integrate their work much more closely, widening their access to new learning tools and ideas.
The visit wasn’t without its complications – we made slow progress on our first couple of days and had to deal with rolling power cuts every two nights, which meant that we had to complete a large portion of the networking by candlelight. In addition, using computers with 128MB RAM felt like a trip back in time for many of us. In spite of this, the team made it work and the partnership launch was a great success.
In fact, upon my return to the office, I was delighted to take part in a Skype call with some of the students and my colleagues still in in Malawi at the time – something which would not have been possible a few days earlier.
Late on in the trip, the team met some of the hardworking staff at the Jacaranda School for Orphans. Even though they were already behind with the schools they had initially agreed to network together, they were so impressed and humbled by their work that they insisted on including them within the MLP. Despite the set-backs due to the power-outages, they charged forward.
Our work wasn’t limited to helping to launch the MLP. We also had the pleasure of meeting with several hundred local residents – including parents of children at participating schools, local business leaders and members of the community – at an evening event we hosted. During the session, I presented to the guests about our citizenship agenda, and the work we were doing in Malawi.
The female members of the team were also fortunate enough to run a session as part of Microsoft’s DigiGirlz programme, which gives high school girls the opportunity to learn about careers in IT and participate in hands-on computer workshops. Fifty girls from around Blantyre took part, and everyone was delighted to have seen this part of the project come to fruition. One participant told us the session had been “the best day of her life”, which is pretty amazing. Our hope now is that the participants have more confidence in their abilities and understand more about the possibilities of working in IT thanks to their involvement in the session.
Technology aside, the visit was also a chance for us to see some of our fundraising for Against Malaria in action. We hand-delivered some of the 5,000 nets funded by our efforts – a simple but vital tool in helping Malawian families prevent spread of the disease. This was a great moment of the trip – seeing how our efforts will help to save lives.
And although we’ve returned home, our work hasn’t ended. We have now formed a Technology Mentoring Network with the people of Malawi that will offer ongoing support and training to young Malawians starting new businesses.
I think it’s safe to say that the visit to Malawi was one of the proudest moments of the team members’ careers. It was a hugely rewarding experience – it was fantastic to see benefits of our work immediately, and meet some amazing people. We’re excited to keep in touch with the team on the ground and hear more about the progress being made.
I’d like to leave you with a short video showing some of the highlights from our trip.