Powering up: Bob Marsh (center) brings technology to people all over the world, like this GPS lesson in Buea, Cameroon
Bob Marsh is off to DFW-MAD-DAR. Don’t know that last airport code? Marsh travels to places most of us don’t go — Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Botswana and Haiti — or, as it happens on the day we chat, to Dar es Salaam (DAR) in Tanzania.
He travels so much that he uses spreadsheets (plural) to keep track of his miles. From his base in San Francisco, he flew 117,000 EQMs last year. (That’s “elite-qualifying miles” for those of you, like me, languishing in the five-digit AAdvantage Miles range.) Basically, he flew around the world four times in 2011. Meet Bob Marsh, road warrior.
Marsh isn’t a CEO or a sales rep. He is a former computer hacker, a key member of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club from back in the 1970s, a “granddaddy” of the modern IT industry — a guy whose computer, the Sol-20, hit the market before the Apple II. These days, the 65-year-old Marsh racks up miles for Inveneo, traveling to do good in the developing world. Since 2006, the nonprofit Marsh co-founded has set up Internet access in rural and underserved communities in 27 countries, mostly in Africa and south Asia. (Read on for Marsh’s picks for the best beers in Africa.)
“When you’re in a village in the middle of nowhere — and 2 billion people live in places like that — what can you know? It’s all word of mouth,” Marsh says. Access to something as simple as Google can open up the world. (Google, in fact, tossed in $2 million for Inveneo’s Broadband for Good program last year.) “Technology has the ability to transform people’s lives,” says Inveneo’s CEO and co-founder, Kristin Peterson, “giving them better access to education, health care and economic opportunity.” Inveneo doesn’t just drop off computers. It finds the right computer hardware, the right software and — this is trickier — a reliable power source and local partners to keep the systems running.
Marsh is the solar expert, but he’s a computer wiz first and foremost. He hunts down low-?power mini-PCs that need only eight to 16 watts of power to run (versus something like 45 watts for the normal laptop). Their systems can run off solar power, a backup generator or someone pedaling a bike. Job conditions can be, let’s say, unique. There was the goat who ate the computer cables, the mouse living inside the computer and the lizard who got into an inverter charger and fried an entire system. You can’t fly a techie into Africa every time the system goes down, so training locals — “in-?country entrepreneurs” — is essential. But even that presents problems: Marsh found himself training a group with no chairs … for two days.
Finicky computers hate hot climates and places? with no air conditioning but, as Marsh says with a groan, “Dust is the worst.” Electricity is often nonexistent or unreliable. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, humanitarian agencies needed? instant Internet access where no infrastructure existed. Inveneo had the first Wi-Fi links up in six days, Peterson says. Marsh’s toughest assignment, he says, was in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A power surge wiped out all 17 computers of the microfinancier working with Inveneo. One of its local workers was poisoned to death.
Stop right there, because Marsh and Peterson see they might be perpetuating some misconceptions about Africa. “People think of Africa like Tarzan movies, but their capital cities are not that much different from here,” Marsh contends. Check out the skylines of Nairobi, Kenya; Johannesburg; Harare, Zimbabwe; or Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, online, suggests Wayan Vota, who formerly worked in Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe for Inveneo. Africa, in some ways, has leapfrogged the United States: Vota says he can roll off the plane in Tanzania and get mobile Internet on his phone within three to five minutes, with no paperwork. In Kenya, where Peterson travels, 93 percent of the populace has cellphones and 20 percent of the national gross domestic product moves each year through a cellphone payment system called M-Pesa.
Marsh says he has traveled in 54 countries but still lives three miles from where he was born in Oakland, Calif. He got involved in PCs in the mid-1970s, creating the first computer sold as a complete unit, not a make-at-home kit. Two of his companies have gone public. “I was worth $4 million on paper once,” he says jovially. He gets a kick out of bringing technology to Africa and the 2 billion people who don’t have it.
As for the beer: After sampling in 16 countries, his favorites are Kenya’s Tusker and Ghana’s Star. Look for him on your next plane as he stages through Europe, then heads off to South Africa or Botswana or Israel this month. And remember to vote from Nov. 1–30 at www.aa.com/roadwarrior
for your favorite Road Warrior finalist. Marsh, alas, isn’t running (thanks to this column). Maybe next year.