The Free Internet Cafe for the Blind & Visually Impaired, the first in the whole of Africa, which opens the World Wide Web, making The Gambia a leading light in Africa, with this technology by allowing free and total access to surf the net send and receive emails and for students to enhace their studies with the aid of this pioneering software. No more do they need to rely on a third party to read to them newspapers, magazines, books, letters and world wide information. - Article in IAP magazine
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Article in IAP magazine. (Institute of Analysts & Programmers)

Simon Wezel, FIAP set up the Kingfisher Trust more than a decade ago to provide a wide range of technical facilities and support in the Gambia.

Most recently, it has set up an Internet cafe for the blind and visually impaired - the first in Africa. Here he discusses his work in conversation with Robin Jones.

RJ: tell me something about what you were doing before founding the Kingfisher Trust.

SW. I started in horticulture. then went into import and export and that grew into an international transport company.

As a one-man business. 1 was lucky to get Koni Shock absorbers as my first customer. We were the first transport company to have radio telephone communication with Securicor.

This was also one of the reasons that I got Ford Motor Company as a regular customer. After a few years I formed a partnership with a family business of three brothers in Holland.

We offered overnight transport between the UK and Holland. In 1983 they bought my company but I stayed on as managing director until my retirement.

Our main business was motor car spares. but it changed to records and CDs. Having a very good record of being able to deliver all the goods without losing any of the content, our business was extended to the growing computer industry.

This sparked my personal interest in computers. starting with a Sinclair ZX81. In the years that followed I started to use computers in the business.

We were one of the first companies allowed to print our own Customs documents, enabling us to computerise the whole business, providing HM Customs with manifest details 12 hours before a consignment arrived. which helped both Customs and ourselves.

The program is still used over 10 years after I left the company to go to the Gambia.

RJ: What led you to set up the Trust?

SW: I visited the Gambia on holiday and was moved by the poverty I saw. I wanted to find a way to assist those who had no way to help themselves.

Starting with few resources. 1 encouraged organisations and friends in the UK to donate goods and distributed them to those in need. After travelling between the UK and the Gambia for 14 years.

I decided to live there permanently and thus expand the organisation. Over the years tangible results of the Trust's efforts began to emerge and more people got involved. Links were set up with donors in Europe. all of whom were willing to assist this developing nation.

RJ: Give me a sense of the kinds of things the Trust has done up to now.

SW: We've provided medical equipment and two ventilators for the intensive care unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital. We link with UNESCO clubs and the President's Award Scheme in the skills training of young people.

We provide typewriters. sewing machines and computers for schools. We get tools for villages and skill centres. And we've built a 3-classroom nursery school and toilet block.

RJ: What gave you the idea of developing an Internet café for the blind?

SW: Several years ago. Captain Saine. who lost his sight after a car accident in 1993. joined us as President. lust before visiting the UK in October 2005.1 read an article in VSJ about a computer program for the blind.

A Symantec employee had just offered us £500 from a sponsored bike ride and the company had agreed to match his donation. Having seen a demonstration of the Guide program at the RN1B. 1 decided to buy it from Software Express.

On my return I asked Captain Saine to come and try it out. What happened was unbelievable. Within two hours he was typing a document and even sending email for the first time in his life.

He said. This will make my life independent. 1 will not need my children to read my letters and other documents. It would be marvellous if other blind people could have this opportunity."

RJ: What soils of difficulties did you meet in doing so?

SW Mostly it was about negotiating services and accommodation. At the time, I was on a wireless connection.

I discussed with my ISP the possibility of extending this to three computers that could be used for the blind and visually impaired. They said if we offered a completely free service, they would give us free access until the end of 2006.

I also did a deal with my landlord who agreed to waive rent on the building provided we built him a shop as pan of the complex. Building was started on 19 December. and being a Muslim country we had 12 people working over Christmas and the New Year.

I travelled back la the UK during February. with the building already finished, so I could buy the equipment. The goods were shipped by air and arrived at the Internet cafe within two days.

RJ: What kinds of technologies have you employed to make Internet

access convenient for blind people?

SW: The Guide Program from Software Express is really marvellous — and very reasonable.

However, it was designed for individuals, which made storing email addresses very difficult; as we entered one. the previous entry was cancelled.

This has been sorted by Software Express. which is releasing an Internet cafe-friendly version. The only other problems relate to saving and retrieving documents and the difficulty for blind people in navigating a file system.

We hope to overcome this by giving each student a personal USB flash memory stick.

RJ: How many people can you cater for at present and do you plan to expand?

SW: At present we have over 30 students aged between 14 and 38. the majority being 100% blind.

We work very closely with the school for the blind. where they have now started to teach keyboard skills. and we will co-ordinate a timetable because they have more people who would like to join. If we had the money. we could expand the cafe.

RJ: What has the experience of setting up the Internet café taught you about how such projects should be approached?

SW: With any project there are always unexpected problems. My house within the compound is ran on solar power and we were hoping that adding 50% more panels would give us enough for the Cafe.

Unfortunately it didn't, so we have now installed a generator to give extra power for about 4 hours a day. 1 am in the process of changing to LCD monitors. That will save an extra 80%.

RJ: What can IAP members do to help? SW. We need plenty of USB memory sticks! I expect a lot of our members will have old. small capacity devices in their drawers. Please send them to:

Kingfisher Trust, PO Box 110. Banjul, The Gambia. West Africa

Please indicate on the jiffy bag that they are articles for the blind. And, of course. donations are always welcome!

You can contact Simon The Kingfisher Web site is at