TELECENTRES - THE KEY TO WIDER INTERNET ACCESS?

23 June 2000

Top Story

The experience of telecentres may offer the key to ways of providing wider internet access in Africa. They can offer the opportunity to use its services without an individual needing to buy a PC. Telecentres come in two flavours: largely small, private sector companies and donor-supported facilities. The private sector is flourishing but provides service at the price the market will bear. The donor-aided sector seeks to meet social needs beyond the marketplace but suffers long-term problems of sustainability. Peter Benjamin looks at what the experience of each of these groups of providers can tell us.

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TELECENTRES - THE KEY TO WIDER INTERNET ACCESS?

 

Discussion of telecentres is always confused by the fact that the word covers different types of project, and many other terms can be used. This article will cover two types: largely small, private sector telecentres and bigger donor-funded telecentres.

*   PRIVATE SECTOR TELECENTRES - THRIVING IN THE MARKETPLACE

Over the last few years several countries have seen a proliferation of small phone shops. They are primarily run by small entrepreneurs and are generally quite successful (if they weren't, they would close down). These centres started off by offering basic telephone services, but several are now moving into fax and even internet services, as the market develops.

Senegal is the African country with the largest number of telecentres - over 9,000. They have been supported by Sonatel, the national telco, which has supported these 'telecentres prives' instead of payphones. Since starting in 1992, there are now around 6,000 in Dakar (almost on every street corner) and increasingly in rural areas. Telephony is overwhelmingly the main service. However, other services are offered, especially fax and photocopying, with 1% of revenue coming from Internet use. The telecentres are profitable. Operating a telecentre generates a monthly income of approximately US$200 per line. It is estimated that the telecentres contribute around 0.5% of the GDP. The Senegalese telecentres have performed very well as sustainable small businesses with support from Sonatel. There is fierce competition (especially in Dakar), and market demand is encouraging the introduction of other services slowly, such as Internet.

A different private sector model comes from Africa Online. It is an internet Company and has set up 261 E-Touch centres in Kenya (mostly in Nairobi). These centres offer email, internet, fax, photocopying, printing and telecommunication services. They give users a free email addresses and charge for usage. Each piece of mail costs around US$ 0.50. Surfing the web costs around Ksh 7 (US$0.10) per minute. There are about 30,000 user accounts in the country, 10,000 of which are active. The E-Touch centres are reasonably successful small businesses in Kenya, but their costs make their services out of reach for most Kenyans. However, some businesses and larger NGOs are benefiting from the Centres.

African Online is also active in Ghana. In 1997 it launched the project "Email for Everyone" which worked through Communication Centres (similar to the Senegalese Telecentres Prives). Unfortunately, after much initial enthusiasm, most of the Centres closed down due to poor telephone line quality in some areas; the emergence of free email services such as hotmail.com; and the market was small as computer literacy was low. Africa Online also went into a joint venture with the post office to provide email services. The email accounts were free to users, and in 3 months 30,000 Ghanaians signed up. Again, after the initial enthusiasm, the active user numbers have declined, but it still is providing an effective service to many, mainly in the cities.

In South Africa, Vodacom has established 1,800 phoneshops. These are metal shipping containers with usually 5-10 phone lines, costing R24,000 (US$3,500) to set up. They are run as franchises, and are very profitable.

A few are starting to offer fax and even internet services.

*   DONOR-AIDED TELECENTRES - MEETING SOCIAL NEED AT A PRICE

Very different from these small-scale, private sector initiatives are the donor-funded telecentres. The main programme has been a partnership between the International Telecomms Union (ITU), UNESCO and the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) that has established major centres in Mali, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa. These centres tend to be much more expensive (up to US$250,000) and offer a range of telephony, computing, internet services and information services. These projects stress community participation and sustainability, but to date none have proven that they can be self-sustaining after external funding. Most of these centres are supported by foreign donors, though the national programmes for telecentres in South Africa and Egypt can be included in this category.

Perhaps most well known is the Nakaseke Multi-purpose Community Telecenters (MCT) in Uganda. It opened in March 1999. It aims to introduce and test new technologies and applications, and demonstrate the impact of such technologies to development of rural and remote areas. A baseline survey was conducted to establish the nature of information needs of the community and the services. 60% of funding came from international donors, 40% from national government. In 2001 a 'School tax' of US$0.59 is planned for all 8,000 school children in Nakaseke to subsidise the centre.

The Telecenter has 8 computers, 2 printers, a scanner, a photocopier, VCR/TV, video camera and projector. However, frequent power cuts are a problem. As well as phone, fax and internet use; there is a paper and digital library; computer training; and an interesting Indigenous Knowledge programme where centre staff are building a resource of local health and crop experience. The centre has proved that ICT can be useful for development in a rural area. The centre is just about covering operating costs (subsidised by the community) but there is no expectation that the centre could generate enough income to replace equipment in a few years (depreciation) let alone repaying the major capital investment. This centre required great external support (financial and organisational) and so is unlikely to be a model that can become widespread.

The first of the major funded Multipurpose Community Telecentres in Africa was established in Timbuktu in Mali in May 1998. Sotelma, the national telco was the main local implementor, with other main partners being the ITU, ORTF (TV Mali), UNESCO and IDRC. The majority of the funding of around US$200,000 has come from the external donors. The pilot telecenter is equipped with 11 computers. It offers copying, telephone, fax, and Internet services. A major emphasis of the telecenter is to provide training to artisans to set up their web page to sell their handicrafts.

The telecentre has proved to be particularly useful to the tour agents organising visits to Timbuktu. The services are subsidized and offered at fees decided by the steering committee.

In Mozambique, two pilot telecentres were established in 1999 in Manhiça and Namaacha (both in Maputo province), funded by the IDRC. They each have 4 computers, an Internet hub and modem, 2 printers, backup equipment, 1 public phone, 1 fax/phone, 1 external cardphone, 1 photocopier, overhead projector, whiteboard, TV with video, radio and binder. Current operating costs are just being met by operating income, except the phone bill. Initial conclusions are that long-term economic sustainability depends on the existence of a critical mass of users and the adoption of computer-related services (over-reliance on phone and photocopy services for income means vulnerability to inevitable future competition and that the major "telecentre" investment is not justified); Technical support, backup and continuous staff training are essential, especially for encouraging the developmental and information services; Good communications channels with local authorities and community leaders, and maximum transparency and information regarding the project, are important to success.

In South Africa, 62 telecentre have been established by the Universal Service Agency. These cost around R200,000 (US$ 30,000) and most have 4 computers, 4 phone lines, printer, copier and TV. Most are in rural areas.

Only a few are economically sustainable, mostly through running computer training courses. There have been many technical, financial and managerial problems.

 

*   LEARNING HARD LESSONS

These two models show different lessons. The small business centres have been very successful in some countries, and they require a supportive environment (legal system, tax and helpful telephone operator). Some are starting to move beyond telephony into ICT services but only when there is an economic demand (local content creation is unlikely). They increase access to internet and ICTs, but primarily for those who can afford rates out of reach of the majority of the population. The majority of the centres are in the main cities (Dakar, Nairobi). There is usually no explicit commitment to wider developmental goals.

The larger funded telecentres show that ICTs can be useful in development when there is sufficient local involvement, support, training and finance.

However none of them have shown a model that is sustainable. The more realistic projects, such as in Mozambique, have business plans that show that the centres will take at least 4 years to be self-sustaining (and only then with the capital written-off).

At best these centres cover operating costs (sometimes not including phone bills or salaries). No major funded telecentre has been able set aside money for depreciation of equipment, let alone generate money to repay the initial capital. Many of these sites are offering useful services in their communities, though most are so young that their impact is more anecdotal than demonstrable. In most cases there have been greater technical problems than anticipated (power problems, telecomms, computer crashes, theft and lightning strikes). Many of the externally funded telecentres have been very top-down projects, certainly with participation, but within the guidelines of the external funders.

Whilst there is now experience in the usefulness of ICTs in development, none of the existing funded Telecentres could be rolled out in any largescale way - so far they do not present a model that is useful for Universal Access as opposed to individual projects.

Some lessons can be drawn:

-   Centres are managed better where the owners have a stake in them. In some projects, donated equipment is lying around unused. The entrepreneurial instinct is a strong force in making a centre effective.

-   There is a great demand for telephony. ICT use can be built, but it takes time, training and local adaptation.

-     Simple business models are more likely to be successful than

complicated ones. The idea of a multi-purpose telecentre is ambitious.

Without extensive training and support, many of the wider aims of telecentres are difficult to reach.

-   Computers by themselves are not an information service. Few centres use IT systems to provide information for local use.

The small telecentres have shown there is a greater demand for telephony than had been thought, and a market is growing for ICTs. The larger centres

have shown that ICTs can be of use in rural areas, but currently are not economically sustainable. Purely market-driven initiatives are likely to increase the digital divide within Africa, and we do not yet have a model for sustaining community access centres that can provide access to the majority.

Peter Benjamin would like to thank the following for their input: Meddia Mayanja, Polly Gastor, Margaret Ndung'u and Eric Yankah.

SNIPPETS

*   ACCESS TO EDUCATION IN AFRICAN LANGUAGES?

Africast.com and ePALS have opened a service for African schools. Africast (www.africast.com), an internet portal, have announced that they are connecting African schoolrooms with ePALS' online network of 2.1 million students and teachers in 182 countries. With what is claimed to be the internet's only email-embedded instant language translation tool, African students can easily communicate and collaborate with students around the world while conversing in their native language. (source: Boot http://www.boot.co.za/news/sep00/classroomexchange12.htm )

*   SEX REARS ITS UGLY HEAD

The mayor of the Cape Metropolitan Council, William Bantom, has been expelled from the New National Party after he was caught downloading pornography from the internet and watching pornographic videos in his council office. Western Cape premier Gerald Morkel said he had been informed that officials had discovered that Bantom had visited a number ofpornographic sites in October last year, including at least one about children involved in sexual activities with adults. (source: Woza http://www.woza.co.za/sapa/sep00/mayorporn12.htm )

 

Visitors to the ABSA Web site were redirected to a pornography site

yesterday morning. The local bank attributes the problem to a technical glitch on an M-Web server. (source:itWeb http://www.itweb.co.za/sections/internet/2000/0009011050.asp)

*   ZIMBABWE'S ECONET INVESTS IN STREAMING COMPANY

Strive Masiwya's Econet has invested in Worldstream, a company specialising in audio and video streaming, providing access to radio and television stations through the internet. Last month Worldstream won a lucrative contract to broadcast anaudio stream for computer manufacturer Compaq.

"Performance Art" was sponsored by Compaq and presented at the Harare National Gallery.

One of Worldstream's first customers was the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). It receives more than a million hits every month, mostly from Zimbabweans living or working outside the country. In South Africa it expects to have connected most of the country's radio stations by September 2002.

(source: Bruce Moore-King, Telecommunications in Africa and also http://www.aitecafrica.com)

* CAMEROON'S ISPs POWER AHEAD

The latest reports show that Cameroon has out-paced its neighbours in telecommunications and IT by going from having one ISP (Internet Service Provider) to seven in just a three years. This is according to Craig Levy, managing director and founder of Ensquared, the technology solutions provider for the networking and ISP markets. Levy said in scarcely three years, Cameroon has rapidly grown its ISP industry, at the same time creating significant interest from foreign investors and mobile telephony suppliers. "The big industrialised and modernised countries are often quick to write Africa off - and often with reason - but it seems there is a growing willingness to embrace technology as a national priority. Levy said several development firms have also opened up for business in Cameroon.

Cities like Douala and Yaounde are witnessing a large increase in the number of internet users as evidenced by the proliferation of cyber cafes and what he termed dual or triple street-corner internet access points. ISPs currently dominating the Cameroon telecommunications and IT landscape include local player, Douala1.com, as well as Cyberix, ICC Net, Cyberbao, Sercom, Newtech and Camnet, a subsidiary of Cameroon Telecommunications.

Most ISPs in Cameroon are one of two types, those that use dedicated leased telephone lines and those that use private VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) network or satellite earth stations. Growth not withstanding, Levy said some ISPs are still battling to grow and are frequently limited to offering dialup access, although that service "is in a boom phase, with a phenomenal increase in the sale of modems". The development of internet services has further been hindered by the noticeable lack of ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network). Consequently, said Levy, the most pressing challenge facing internet companies in Cameroon and neighbouring nations is the dire need for improved reliability of services that will boost the market beyond simple net access, including electronic commerce.

"While Cameroon has shown initiative - which is heartening for all Africans hoping to avoid being excluding from the real global economy - so far there are no e-commerce services planned because it isn't possible to use electronic forms of payment. This, in itself, is a dehabilitating and worrying factor," he said. A possible light on the horizon is the fact that South African mobile telephony powerhouse, MTN, is planning mobile telephony services after taking over Mobile Telecom of Cameroon (Camtel Mobile). Both companies are transforming the rural and urban telecommunications landscapes. Levy said the companies plan to further develop urban networks, as well as the poorer rural infrastructure countrywide. Eco (source: http://www.boot.co.za/news/sep00/cameroonIT11.htm )

*   MALAWI GETS NEW ISP

 

Two Africa Onlines. How confusing. The one with ISPs across the continent that everyone knows about and another less-well known, Africa-Online.net.

The latter is now operating from Malawi and running and despite the usual teething problems. It is managing to provide a 24hr/7hr service which it claims the other ISP in Malawi does not. Take-up has been very encouraging, even without advertising, and it is able to provide the full complement of services including e-business. Its service is being mirrored in the UK.

*   SOUTH AFRICA SEES INTERNET USE SOAR

Internet penetration in South Africa continues to rise with half a million new Internet users in 1999, bringing the current total to 1.82 million users, according to a survey conducted by Media Africa.com. The survey predicts that based on current trends, the number of Internet users in South Africa should grow to about 2.4 million by the end of this year.

The report 'South African Internet Services Industry Survey 2000' found that 560,000 South Africans access the Internet through dial-up modems via Internet Service Providers, up from 366,000 at the end of 1998-an increase of 194,000 and a growth rate of 53 percent. ISPs retain a strong customer base, with 17 having over 1000 dial-up subscribers. There were 112 ISPs in business at the end of 1999.

Corporate users also increased, with 980,000 users accessing the Internet from corporate networks in 1999, compared to 700,000 in 1998. Delays in providing adequate infrastructure by state telco, Telekom mean corporate use will slow in 2000.

Academic use of the Internet has also soared. The minimum number of academic users who actually use their accounts is 280,000. Uninet caters for about 250,000, while privately funded schools have another 30,000 active account users.

<source: http://www.mediaafrica.co.za/3.html>