TELECENTRES SPECIAL: REACHING THOSE PARTS THE MARKET CANNOT YET REACH

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Somwhere beyond where the market can deliver a phone and internet service are telecentres. Although recently these have been souped up with multimedia and suitcase radio, they remain essentially the same concept as when first launched in the mid 1990s. The central idea is that the public sector with donor support provides an at cost or low cost service for communities that are too poor to pay more. When they work well, they become a vital part of the community and are well used. When they don’t work, they are an usually stark example of supply-led failure, the development equivalent of one hand clapping in an empty room. The problem they set out to solve is central to closing the digital divide: how do you connect people who are outside what the market can deliver? With UNESCO planning to set up 150 new telecentres in Africa, perhaps now is the time to begin thinking about how to answer this question.

Since no-one on the funding side of the table can envisage funding these in the long term they have generated a rhetoric about telecentres becoming sustainable. The best part of this rhetoric is that attention to driving up business and income will inevitably put you in the arms of your users. The worst part is the fuzzy thinking about how and what financial sustainability might mean. Telecentres might return 10-25% of their running costs but it is unlikely that they will ever fully cover them. In these circumstances, who will pick up the balance of their costs? Hard-press African Governments? Local Universal Access Funds? The answers are none too clear. This special issue opens with a look at a telecentre in southwestern Sudan from Ben Parker. Sarah Parkinson, a researcher with IDRC then reflects on the good and bad parts of the telecentres in Southern Africa. Polly Gaster, one of the early pioneers from Mozambique remembers how it started and thinks about what might happen in the future. It closes with Russell Southwood reporting on a trip to Kafanchan in Nigeria to meet John Dada of the Fantsuam Foundation and its experiences in delivering connectivity.

YAMBIO - TELEPHONE AND INTERNET IN THE MIDDLE OF A WAR ZONE

The video-shows were too successful. The neighbours complained about the noise, so martial arts movies won’t be playing any time soon at the Yambio information centre, southwestern Sudan. But Hanan Richard, the young manageress of this remote outpost of the internet has another scheme Anyway, a photocopy service and a library. Ms Richard and her colleagues at the Equatoria United Youth Development Association. (EUYDA) manage the only Internet access point for several hundred kilometres in any direction in the southwest of war-ravaged Sudan.

Yambio, the main town of the southwest, is calm these days, huge mango trees plopping their fruit onto the roofs with a clang. But only a couple of years ago it was bombed by government of Sudan Antonov aircraft in a futile attempt to dislodge rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army who have held the town for much of the 20-year civil war. The nearest public telephone or internet service is in Arua, 350 km away in neighbouring Uganda. To the west are the vast forests of the DRC and Central African Republic. Years of war have left Yambio at the end of some spectacularly bad roads and with a society and economy as tattered as the pungent, disintegrating Sudanese pound banknotes that are one of many currencies accepted in the rebel areas.

With a couple of computers, a TV, video and satellite dish and a VSAT internet connection, the Yambio information centre is opening up previously inconceivable horizons for people in this remote and long-neglected area. To begin with, computers are a novelty in this vast region which lacks any public electrical power, water, sewage and telecommunications services at all. "When they see things moving on the screen? some even want to touch with their hands" Richard explains, adding "Something wonderful is happening here".

For most office workers, the joy of communication is long forgotten in a deathmarch of e-mails, spam and voicemail. In southern Sudan, an e-mail can still be life-changing. "There was information that I was killed", says John Noel Jubek, 38. He had just received a mail from his brother in Canada after being out of touch for 15 years. His brother was overjoyed to find him alive and astonished his long lost brother was sending mail from the war zone.

The Yambio information centre raises most of its revenue from internet access (100 Uganda Shillings per minute), although the African Cup of Nations on TV should be a money-spinner too. The PCs are always busy. It also provides free services like video shows on AIDS to children and youth. A cheap scanner will serve as the pilot photocopy service and as the original building is now overflowing with people watching TV and using the Internet, EUYDA is hoping to raise capital to build a separate, quieter library unit. The spending power of the people of Yambio is not high, but with more well-chosen schemes they can keep the all-important generator running and plan for the next level. Ben Parker, Communication Officer, UNICEF Southern Sudan (

THE ROAD TO TELECENTRE SUCCESS REMAINS MYSTERIOUS

Telecentres are a one of life’s good ideas. They aggregate demand so that providing ICT-related services in areas outside of the main urban centres is more economic. They provide support and often training so that those unfamiliar with ICTs can also use them and apply them in their own lives. They attempt to go beyond mere access towards developing applications of ICTs relevant to people’s lives. That, in a nutshell is the idea. In Africa, the idea has had about six years to incubate, with the first telecentres opening in 1998 or thereabouts. The results to-date have generally been disappointing. The evidence for this is not very subtle. The real reasons are less obvious and more complex, but certainly bear echoes of development’s past experiences with technology transfer, which has rarely been a roaring success on the continent.

Firstly, it appears that telecentres have generally done poorly in using demand aggregation to lower prices to either themselves or their customers. Take for example a telecentre in Mozambique which was plagued by huge telephone bills it was unable to recover. These bills were due to the repeated failed attempts to connect to the Internet via long-distance dial-up. The attempts hung or the connection, if made, was so slow as to be unusable.

The telecentre did not and could not charge its customers for these "services." However, the telephone monopoly, TDM, billed the telecentre for a three-minute "set up charge" for each attempt plus long-distance charges to the POP in Maputo. The most amazing thing about this unfortunate situation was that the telecentre had never complained to TDM. This, despite the fact that the telecentre was one of TDM’s largest clients in the small town where it was located and might reasonably expect some response from the company. The manager was unaware of the notion of consumer rights, or of the notion that in a monopoly environment, the regulator should help protect these rights. Thus, if demand aggregation is to serve telecentres, the managers must be sensitive to the concept of consumer culture and rights and be able to lobby effectively.

somos@telecentros

Not only has demand aggregation failed to lower prices, it has often failed to deliver services, especially the Internet. In many other places where Internet connectivity purportedly exists but is of such poor quality as to be unusable, or was ceased because of high cost. It failed for many reasons - most often a combination of high cost and unresponsive bureaucracies. For example, in the province of KwaZuluNatal, as of June 2003 none of the ten original telecentres established about five years ago by the Universal Service Agency of South Africa had Internet and most were barely functioning.

Issues around ownership and the culture of externally-funded development projects are also prime culprits in any plausible explanation of the gap between reality and intention. For example, one funded telecentre closed at 5pm, although the manager knew that peak demand was at 6pm! As a funded project, the telecentre kept government hours regardless of demand and accessibility. I have encountered other telecentres with "government hours" in Uganda and South Africa, while competing local private initiatives are open much longer. The striking difference between these projects, often languishing, and their entrepreneurial-driven counterparts is often noted by critics.

Charles Musisi of Computer Frontiers, well-versed in the ins-and-outs of ICT for development initiatives in Uganda, believes that it’s too much to expect social development experts to take on the installment of internet connections and phone lines without greater support. Their jobs are often already complex enough. I have spoken with a number of such project managers. They are often intelligent and dedicated people who have watched projects languish due to a barrage of political and technical issues beyond their control and their area of expertise.

In the meantime, telecentres still appear to be a good idea. Market-based mechanisms may be penetrating, but it questionable that they are sufficient to address social inequities and maximize the potential of ICTs for development. And while current research hasn’t produced any easy-to-follow instructions on how telecentres are done, it has found broad support and validation for the idea amongst rural and other disadvantaged populations. Amongst these communities, access to communication tools is highly valued, as is access to the new global information society symbolized by computers and the Internet. However, implementing telecentres successfully in Africa remains a rare art mastered to-date only by a very few skillful social entrepreneurs. Creating access for all through telecentres remains a distant goal and the passage to reach it, a mystery.

Sarah Parkinson is a researcher with IDRC sparkinson@idrc.ca

PILOTING TELECENTRES IN MOZAMBIQUE: LEARNING THE HARD-WON LESSONS

In late 1998 an argument took place at Eduardo Mondlane University (UEM) in Maputo ­ about telecentres. The occasion was an international sociology conference, and the lines of battle will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in what is now called ICTs for Development. Isn’t it ridiculous, in a country as poor as Mozambique, to invest in ICT access for rural peasants? Isn’t it the equivalent of providing a luxurious Rolls Royce for village transport? Have we learned any lessons from previous attempts at magic solutions for African development?

The UEM team that had worked on a feasibility study for piloting Mozambique’s first telecentres recognised that a certain leap of faith was involved: for example, given that the rural communities had no idea what e-mail or Internet even were, or what they could do, nobody could argue that there was a spontaneous demand for them coming up from the base. However, the study did show a high priority placed on education and learning, a need for faster and cheaper communication channels and an interest in acquiring new skills and support for income-generating activities.

Our view, based on our own study and experience and much other literature, was that we too rejected any notion that ICTs were a "magic solution", but saw them as one among various tools for development that would have to be introduced over time, prove their value through practical demonstrations, and win acceptance or not on their merits. We were also concerned that a digital divide within our own country would aggravate regional imbalances, and we believed that rural development doesn’t happen by itself, it requires investment and long term planning. What we were looking for, in brief, was not a Rolls Royce, but a practical, heavy-duty 4-wheel drive for muddy roads.

This story is now old history. Five years later, telecentres or their equivalent have come to stay in Mozambique. In addition to the two initial pilots, another four have already been established in rural districts, and two in provincial capitals. A UNESCO-led initiative announced at WSIS expects to take the numbers up to fifty over the next few years, developing the telecentre concept into the notion of telecentre+community radio under the same roof, or community multimedia centres. In fact different names abound ­ multipurpose community telecentre, school-based telecentre, etc, etc ­ but that doesn’t matter. As Shakespeare said, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

As in most African countries, the majority of the population in Mozambique lives in the countryside, and some of the straightforward needs for a viable telecentre, such as good infrastructure and minimum population density, are lacking. We felt that this is where the major challenge lies, and that we should at least make a start on facing up to it. And challenge it is!

The telecentres provide computer access and training courses, e-mail and Internet, CD-Rom libraries, fax, phone and photocopying. They also function as centres for information activities and other projects such as the CD-Rom on malaria currently being produced by a local team with CIUEM support. Two of the telecentres now have suitcase radios provided by UNESCO, and have turned themselves into CMCs.

The first two telecentres were started from scratch by CIUEM, with the support of local committees. With the end of the pilot project, one has been handed over to the secondary school in which it was housed, which is full of ambitious schemes for it, while the local committee at the other is transforming into a legal local association that will take ownership of the telecentre. One of the committee’s immediate targets is to raise money for a new building (the telecentre is currently in a rented room between a café and a church), and the town council has already given some land. These developments suggest that at least one goal of the pilot has been met ­ that the telecentre doesn’t die when the donor moves on. And this can only be because the local communities find that it serves real needs.

In the light of experience, the next round of telecentres - in Manica province (bordering on Zimbabwe) and Gaza in the south ­ were mainly established in partnership with existing local institutions, which took ownership from day one but have been supported by the CIUEM. The partners are a local NGO, a community radio station and a national NGO working on land and peasant issues respectively. They are now in their second year of activity.

Too many lessons have been learned to fit in the space of this piece, but many will be familiar to readers as they confirm experiences elsewhere. Here are a few to be going on with:

- Every telecentre will be different, according to its immediate local context ­ socio-economic base, local dynamics, etc; - Human resources is a key issue in our districts, so management and technical training and ongoing backup need to be built in somehow ­ if your young manager with 10th grade doesn’t have the imagination or skills to search the Internet s/he (but probably he) won’t be able to transmit them to others, but we demand even more, that s/he should be able to handle money, organise, plan, mobilise, teach; at the same time s/he may spend half the day producing photocopies or waiting for the power to come on; - Connectivity in our districts is an unresolved problem ­ both quality and cost have worsened since 1999 ­ and though we have a national ICT policy in place that promotes community access, in practice national trends are moving inexorably towards "market-led" solutions that do little to meet the needs of the rural areas

However, none of these are reasons for saying that telecentres don’t work. As an engineer from Radio Mozambique told me: "No energy supply anywhere in the country ­ urban or rural - meets international standards for powering radio stations, but we still broadcast in every provinceS". Since 1999 Mozambique has been battered by major floods, cyclones and now a 2-year drought, with increasingly adverse effects on power and telephone lines, not to mention purchasing power in the rural areas. But if we wait for adequate conditions to be created we will never do anything ­ rather move ambitiously but cautiously forward, and fight for better conditions on the basis of proven experience.

Are the telecentres "successful"? If that means are they economically viable on the basis of selling services, the answer is probably No. If it means are they providing a useful and valued service to individuals and institutions in the area, are they even to a small degree centres of development activity, do they provide access to information and education, are they open to women and men, are they a source of local pride, then the answer is Yes. And the corollary of that answer is that we have to go on learning and sharing our knowledge and partnering and campaigning and adapting ­ and the telecentre movement will continue to grow.

The author of this article is Polly Gaster, CIUEM.

FANTSUAM FOUNDATION, KAFANCHAN - USING THURAYA AND REGIONAL BGAN

Based in the railway town of Kafanchan, the Fantsuam Foundation initially focused its efforts on providing micro-credit and a savings facility, primarily for women. It started out with 20 women taking loans of N500 each. Membership of the loan scheme covers the chiefdoms of rural communities in Kagoro, Kagoma, Zonkwa, Fantsuam, Zangon-Kataf, Kaninkon, Maro’a and Tyap. Once the microfinance is up-and-running it suggests the setting up of a Community Learning Centre.

In each community it has sough to introduce basic computer literacy and in three of them it has set what it calls Community Learning Centres. In equipment terms, these consist of: 1 desktop, 1 laptop and a WorldSpace radio receiver. Trainees pay their instructors and one of the Centres is self-sustaining in terms of its direct costs. Although they work closely with the local community, they seek to identify an entrepreneurial and responsible individual respected by the community who will take on the development of the Centre and its activities. Initially they had started them by setting up a Committee but whilst this gave the Centre legitimacy, it was much harder to identify the responsible individual. It belonged to everyone but no one took responsibility.

As they come to the point of being profitable, Fantsuam Foundation will encourage them to incorporate and apply for a micro-finance asset loan.

They provide mobile phone calls in this area that currently has no GSM coverage using a Thuraya satellite phone paid for by infoDev. The handset cost GBP545 and it came with GBP140 worth of calls. Selling it at N250 a minute makes this a viable service. It is largely used for getting emergency messages to family in the cities or the diaspora about bereavements or the need for finance. It also used by Ibo traders who find it cheaper than the alternative of getting messages hand-delivered.

It also bought an Inmarsat Regional BGAN, a satellite powered laptop that has coverage over large parts of the continent except parts of South Africa. It cost US$1600 and there was a USD50 activation fee. There was then a monthly fee of USD35 per month plus connectivity at USD 12 mbps. It was for a period of time the only Internet connection for the 35,000 people in the district. It charged N150 for people to open an e-mail account and then N100 for 15 minutes and N400 per hour. The latter was a cost comparable to the nearest Internet access at a high-quality cyber-café in Jos, two hours away from Kafanchan.

It was largely used for e-mails but as many of those using it were using browser based services, they had not realised how costly it would be to download the advertisements that come with these browsers. In two months they had run up a bill of USD3000 and had to suspend the service.

It now has ambitious plans to open its own VSAT connection and open a cyber-café that will be able to offer Internet and telephony. It wants to create wireless connections to its Community Learning Centres, as with a tower it will be able to reach out to places within a 25-mile radius.

It is seeking to become the a Cisco Networking Academy (in collaboration with the University of Jos who will supply the instructors) and for this it needs an Internet connection.

It imported refurbished computers from UK-based organisation Computer Aid: all 252 went out to health and educations organisations, SMEs community-based organisations and individuals. When Computer Aid was first approached it was cautious, as it had never attempted to export to Nigeria before. To overcome this caution, the Fantsuam Foundation raised a loan of GBP1100 to pay for the container-load of computers. Using a Board member based in Lagos, it was able to clear the computer through customs in 6 weeks. It is now talking to Computer Aid about setting up a computer refurbishment workshop as a complement to its Cisco Academy plans.

All this is being done in a place where electricity is always at less than full power. At night the reduced wattage lit looks almost like candle light in the darkness. It’s possible to run laptops off this strength of current but not desktop machines.

John Dada has built up Fantsuam Foundation through a combination of: user fees, his own money, donor grants and locally raised funds. He has a strong belief in the potential of Kafanchan and the surrounding area: "Kafanchan has a big potential. It’s the biggest town in the area and serves a large number of nearby rural areas. It had the earliest exposure to western education and therefore has high levels of literacy. The nearest Internet access is two hours away and we will break new ground and set the pace for others to follow."

If you have telecentre experiences - good or bad - please e-mail them to info@balancingact-africa.com