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[NAIROBI] An organisation that gets multimedia into African villages has won a US$1 million award.

The Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) received the Access to Learning Award for establishing ICT-based information centres for rural communities in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

"This is a pure, God-sent opportunity," said Anthony Mugo, ALIN's programmes director. "The award couldn't have come at a better time because one of our organisation's major stumbling blocks has been [the lack of] adequate funds for the expansion of our activities."

ALIN's community knowledge centres — known as Maarifa, the Kiswahili word for knowledge — provide multimedia equipment and publications for villagers so they can find out about agricultural and scientific information. They can also access the Internet at the centres.

Topics include drought-forecasting, pest control, markets and new technologies.

Mugo said that ALIN's top priority was to turn access to the internet into the provision of information targeted to particular communities. This in turn helped farmers to generate income and improve their health.

Since its inception in 2007, ALIN has established Maarifa centres in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Each Maarifa centre is run by a field officer assisted by volunteers who give basic computer and Internet training to villagers. ALIN also produces two quarterly publications, one on dryland agriculture and natural resource management, and one on the impacts of climate change on Africa.

Mugo said that the challenges for ALIN include the lack of electricity and reliable internet connectivity.

Harun Warui, director of the African adaptation programme at Kenya's Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources, said: "[IT equipment] should be current and innovative [so as to help] farmers adapt their farming practices to modern techniques".

He said the packaging of the information was important. For instance, farmers in arid areas can get information on both the weather forecast and appropriate seeds for the season.

"[The] use of IT platforms like those provided by ALIN ought to enable contingency measure[s] against droughts," he said.

The award was given by the philanthropic Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on 16 August.