By Graziella DiNuzzo
In Swaziland (now officially eSwatini) Africa, a man with AIDS walks many miles through precarious terrain to arrive at the nearest clinic. If he is lucky to be seen that day, the clinic attendant will need to conduct testing to determine a diagnosis – testing alone may kill him, the attendant, or any number of people who might mishandle his infectious blood. The clinic does not know this man’s history – no computer, no database, no medical record.
The narrative is the same in a mountainous village in Lesotho, Africa where a young child’s already limited education, anchored in a primitive one-room schoolhouse, makes him virtually invisible - no computer, no school record, no access to the world.
When Robert Hutchison, President and CEO of Visual Software, attended a networking event hosted by the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia, US Commercial Service and Bucks County Community College, he met Victoria Senome, President of the African and Caribbean Business Council.
“Victoria said our software would be revolutionary in Africa,” said Hutchison, “and I am learning firsthand that she’s right.”
Two weeks later, in October 2018, Hutchison found himself on his first trip to Lesotho, Africa, with a mission group from the National Baptist Convention and meeting with the minister of education who welcomed him with open arms.
Since then, Hutchison has made four trips to six countries in Africa, Jordan and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq…and he’s getting ready to leave for Africa again next month.
“Globally, we had already worked in Australia and England, but what led me to Africa was a desire to use the software we developed to maximize impact, not profit.”
Hutchison is now on a mission.
“I had been praying about how to use our products to make a significant contribution to the world, and then opportunities in Africa opened up.”
IT has always been Hutchison’s calling. His 40 years in the computer / software industry includes working at Bell Laboratories on the UNIX Operating System project, and developing advanced mathematical modeling software for internationally known clients. He also created an advanced warning system for one of the largest telephone systems in the world and written three textbooks.
Hutchison and his team at Visual Software created Sustainable Applications and Solutions optimized for use in rural settings and large communities. Using a private cloud-based system, the software can maintain basic and advanced information for healthcare and education sectors.
“From building databases and providing individual IDs to e-based learning and more, lives will be improved and saved. In some places, 14 out of 100 women now die in childbirth. Technology will make a huge difference and improve that statistic.”
Since 2001, Visual Software has served millions of students and companies in the US, Canada, Europe, Africa and Australia. With close working relationships with Microsoft, Oracle and many regional systems integrators throughout the US, UK and Australia, they are able to provide custom, integrated platforms. Visual Software has been a Microsoft Certified Partner since 2003 and an Oracle Gold Certified Partner since 2014. They are also members of the international security group OWASP.
So with no electricity, how does a poor village power up computers?
“We are working with solar equipment providers to create a low-voltage solar energy package that supplies the needs of schools and clinics without generating the heat normally associated with such systems,” Hutchison explains.
“By eliminating the solar inverter, the heat generated is far less and the system runs more efficiently. By reducing the heat, the need for cooling fans is eliminated, thereby reducing the amount of dust making its way into the equipment. By reducing dust, the equipment lasts longer.”
Robert Hutchison wheels out a black metal rolling cart with several shelves. He places a laptop on top of the cart and lifts it to point out the encased heavy rubber covering.
“Students will use hardened laptops, tested to the Military standard 810G for durability and resistance to moisture and dust. The carts will hold the equipment inside and the outside will be fitted with solar panels. Wireless networking will connect to the Internet. The cart can be wheeled between rooms. Having all components pre-packaged eliminates much of the work of deploying the solutions in these remote locations.”
And what about wireless connectivity?
“Having nearly universal wireless connectivity throughout Africa was initially one of the factors that opened the door for opportunities such as these. Much of Africa is still hard to get to via typical transportation methods, but at least in terms of information, connecting these rural communities has become much easier. It’s surprising how well-connected Africa is – in some countries, they even have 5g connectivity."
The Visual Software team had to re-write the software for low bandwidth, in consideration of markets like Africa with high internet access costs. “In Africa, Internet customers pay for their wireless internet data by the gigabyte; there are no unlimited data plans as is common in the US. As of May 2019, data rates for 10GB of data range from USD $8.37 (Egypt) to $279 (Equatorial Guinea). “
In Sierra Leone, there is a hospital called Emergency, established by an Italian NGO in 2001. To date, Emergency has treated 798,496 patients and was a critical resource during the Ebola crisis – all without technology.
“Outside the hospital in Sierra Leone there are extreme environmental challenges, like dirt, mud and flooding from monsoon rains but inside the hospital is spotless. They even have white PVC encased doors so they can be wiped down. But they still log all of their patient blood tests in big ledger books.”
Since 1994, Emergency has opened its doors free of charge to victims of war, refugees and the sick at its hospitals located in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, Sicily, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
As the son of a refugee, Hutchison has a deep understanding of the long lasting affect of humanitarian aid. His mother and aunt were part of the massive child refugee evacuation called “Los Niños”, during the Spanish Civil War”, cramming nearly 4,000 children into a steamship to England, who were also come to be known as the “Basque Children.” His mother was eventually adopted by a family in Northern England. His grandparents were captured by Franco’s forces, put into slavery and then moved to concentration camps. After the war, his grandparents lived out the remainder of their lives in Mexico.
Hutchison is paying it forward.
“I have been donating my time and resources to this project in Africa. The best part of Africa is the people.”
Once the technology is implemented, the goal is to create jobs and set up the project to be self-sustaining. Visual Software will provide support when needed.
“Within the first year of our education deployment, we intend to deploy classroom technology to 1,000 schools with an eventual target of over 30,000 schools in the first five years.” Hutchison smiles.
“Visual Software recently connected with several of the PA Overseas Authorized Trade Representatives ATRs during our recent September 19 and 20, 2019, Bringing the World To PA (BTW2PA) events in Philadelphia during their one-on-one ATR meetings to discuss market expansion in the UK and Australia, as well as market entry strategies for Scandinavia, the Czech Republic, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (Arab Gulf region). Visual Software has already done some great work in Australia with many more opportunities to expand upon their initial success,” said Dale Foote, International Trade Specialist for the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia.
In Iraq, Hutchison’s team is currently working on software that will be used to reconnect families dispersed by war and chemical weapons attacks.
Robert Hutchison and his team are transforming lives, one byte at a time.