Dozens of telecentres set up to take telecommunications services to rural areas have been an absolute waste of time and money, says an organisation trying to salvage them. Of 133 telecentres set up by the Universal Service Agency (USA), many are underused, entirely dysfunctional or have turned into private businesses benefiting the people appointed to run them. Now a three-year project is under way to revive some of the centres and assess which should be written off.

Many may be beyond salvation, says David Barnard, a director of Sangonet. "There are some fairly critical views about the impact telecentres have had and to a large extent those criticisms are valid," he says. "Real questions have been raised about their relevance and whether millions of rands have been pumped into a big black hole with little to show for it."

Sangonet, a body that helps development agencies use IT in the communities they serve, is driving the telecentre overhaul. It is working with the USA, now renamed the Universal Services and Access Agency of SA (USAASA), with the goal of reinventing them as community centres offering IT training. Also involved is the Telecentre Association of SA, which helps rural communities operate sustainable centres offering distance education and other multimedia services.

Private companies including Microsoft and technology training group Torque IT have been brought in to add more skills, money and expertise to the overhaul. "We are bringing in advice and expertise because to turn this telecentre Titanic around, a number of things need to be changed," says Barnard.

Telecentres were expected to provide rural areas with access to educational, health-care and government services, facilities for small businesses, and to teach people computing skills. The agency's original goal was to roll out 4000, but in 2003 it admitted that 25 of 68 centres set up by that stage were not functioning well and had to be relocated. Yet no changes were made to the strategy, and many centres set up in the following years have also failed.

The centres were built using a levy paid by every company licensed to offer telecommunications services, including Telkom and the cellular operators. Those companies often complain about the inefficiency of the agency and believe they could invest their levies in far more effective community development projects.

The operators contribute 0,2% of their annual turnover -- totaling hundreds of millions of rands -- to the universal service fund, which the agency should use to take telecommunications services to remote areas. But several studies have confirmed that the agency has failed to do that, forcing the communications department to intervene and revitalise the organisation.

The telecentre revival plan is an attempt to "sort out the mess" the agency created, Barnard says. Too much emphasis was put on creating a physical infrastructure with little attention paid to the skills of the people running them, their accountability or the services they actually offered. "They built some buildings, put in a couple of PCs and thought they had taken care of the problem," he says.

The first step saw 50 telecentre managers attend a course to learn how to train their colleagues. But their skills were so poor the top 10 have been asked to continue training the other 40. "For some people on the course it was the first time they had switched on a PC," says Barnard.

Yet those people were running the centres and teaching rural residents to use the equipment. Once the managers are properly educated they should be able to run computer literacy courses and issue qualifications to help people find employment.

A second step was to teach the managers to run the centres as self-sustaining operations with proper governance and accountability. Many are run on a voluntary basis, so business acumen, sustainability, quality control and a responsiveness to community needs are absent, Barnard says.

Sangonet wants the agency to conduct a thorough review of each telecentre to assess its sustainability. Even a well-run centre with skilled staff will be ineffective if nobody in the community needs IT skills or can afford the training.

Centres in the most remote regions may have a community development role to play, but they will need private companies to support them. The agency's head of regulatory and corporate affairs, Tebogo Thapatlaase, says the role of telecentres is being re-examined after a study last year highlighted their underperformance.

"We are aware of the criticisms and some of the criticisms are right," he says. The lack of skilled managers should be solved with the help of Sangonet. A second problem is the location of some centres in areas with too little economic activity to sustain them. The agency is now looking at an individual approach for each centre to suit the community it serves, he says. Efforts to broaden the quality and quantity of technology training they offer will make them more useful.

"When the community sees it is something that's useful to them, the usage will be higher, and that will make them more sustainable." Thapatlaase disagrees that money has been wasted. "Whatever shortfalls there are, there has been an element of awareness of what technology can do for development."

Business Day