A knowledge economy begins at the grass roots

The telecentre movement is nothing new. As an effective service for improving the livelihoods of rural communities, it is a model which exists the world over. Picture a telecentre in Africa, and the image of a small building where people can go to get access to a computer, phone, fax, go online or charge a mobile phone springs to mind. This conventional scenario still exists in many areas, but in several parts of Africa, the telecentre concept is evolving into something much more.

New telecentre models are emerging in several countries. Innovative entrepreneurs and forward thinking governments are pioneering an integrated services concept. Under this proposition, the telecentre becomes an anchor for the development of the entire community going much further than simply providing basic ICT access.

The integrated service model has a number of different components which include:

– A platform for market information systems, advisory (questions/answers) or extension services

– Capacity building opportunities for the community

– Content sharing, adaptation and facilitation

Market information systems

Market information systems, for example, use ICTs to provide up-to-date information on market prices, demand and conditions. Access to this data allows a farmer or market trader to make better decisions about where and when to buy or sell and from whom. This enables them to make the most money from their harvest and reduce post-harvest losses. MoMeals is an example of this type of technology. MoMeals, or Mobile Meals, is an m-Marketing system implemented by UgaBytes in Uganda and supported by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA). At its simplest, it is a mobile market broker, linking buyers and sellers by cutting out the middleman. Using his mobile phone, the farmer enters some basic information on what he has for sale – quantity, price, his location, etc. This then becomes a short advert. When either a buyer or seller enters ‘Match me’, the request aggregates all adverts matching their requirements. Either party then initiates contact, and the sale is agreed. MoMeals is accessible by mobile phone and web.

Capacity building opportunities for the community

Rwanda has set the standard when it comes to telecentres and capacity development. As part of its National Information and Communication Infrastructure (NICI) plans, the government has been focusing on developing skills and creating employment opportunities in rural areas through the establishment of local telecentres. To date, twelve centres and two mobile ICT buses are open with plans underway for several more. In fact, the goal is to have a telecentre in every village in the country. Under the programme, local staff are being trained to help their communities create, collaborate and share information online.

One of the biggest challenges facing rural communities is access to relevant content. Telecentre users tend to be students or business people. There is an information supply gap though for local farmers and others in the community. The Rwanda Telecentre Network (RTN) has recognised the need to redress this balance and is producing local content in articles on ICT development issues and providing information online in English and local languages. In Kenya, KenTel have partnered with CTA and have developed a number of public-private partnerships to guarantee access to information for development. They are adapting, repackaging and translating online information, making it more accessible and relevant for farmers, youth and extension workers. Access to this type of information is invaluable to the development of the rural community allowing everyone to create new opportunities for growth. KenTel have taken the initiative one step further by organising workshops for telecentre managers to encourage them to carry on this work developing their telecentre into a location that serves the entire community.

Content sharing, adaptation and facilitation

Sikwane is a small rural village in Kgatleng District, Botswana. The local telecentre is managed by the village community. The population of Sikwane is elderly, and livestock farming is the principle economic activity. The telecentre managers recognised that if their business was to survive, they needed to be more proactive and address the needs of their villagers. Working together with the Village Development Committee, farmers, agricultural research practitioners and extension officers, they developed new content and information services relevant for their community. These new tools mean that access to pertinent knowledge is readily available and immediately accessible to farmers via the telecentre.

While things are moving in the right direction, this new integrated service model is not without its challenges. Training is essential if the movement is to succeed. There are examples of this taking place in some regions, but it needs to be more consistent and widespread and should address more than just the generation of content. Telecentre managers must learn how to pass on business skills so that those entrepreneurs in their community can have a chance at success. The managers also need to learn how to develop business plans that ensure the sustainability of their enterprise. Rwandan telecentre owner Paul Barera knows that education is needed to manage a successful ICT-based enterprise. His experiences in establishing and running a telecentre in Nyamata, a small village 30km from Kigali, demonstrate a need for understanding of good business practices and knowing how to evolve and diversify to cater for the growing needs of a community. KenTel also recognise this obstacle to success and have launched a ‘Business Process Outsourcing (BPO)’ training programme. The course, sponsored by CTA, offers participants the opportunity to learn how to identify and develop new business strategies for growth and profitability. Anthony Mugo, Programme Manager at Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) attended the training. He comments, “Embracing BPOs would be a good entry point that can help bring about sustainability for the telecentres as well as provide jobs for unemployed youth.” Joseph Walubengo, another participant from Integrated Avenues for Compassion sees BPOs as the key to the challenge of sustainability, “In my view, BPOs are a godsend, and I don’t really understand why we didn’t think of this opportunity earlier.”

Rwanda has shown that great things are possible when support comes from the highest levels, creating an enabling framework. ICT entrepreneurs of all ages are found everywhere. They need a support system that encourages them to grow their businesses and offer new services. This includes access to infrastructure and the creation of favourable market environment that encourages the uptake and use of ICTs. Ultimately, community ownership is essential if the new generation of telecentres is to be a success. Rural communities need to be involved from the conception of business through to the monitoring of how it is run and what is offered. This will then create a true ‘Community Service Centre’ not just a simple telecentre.

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  1. Pingback: Building a knowledge economy through Telecentres in Africa

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