ICT changing the fortunes of rural communities

Indeed, the power of ICTs as a force for socio-economic change is now being realised by the mostly poor residents in costal areas of rural Kenya. At the click of a button, members of well-organised rural self-help groups are able to search for markets for their farm products, make inquiries and even secure orders!

The life-changing initiative is being spearheaded by the Coastal Oceans Research and Development Indian Ocean (CORDIO) in partnership with the Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute (SDMRI) India and Nykopings Folkhogskola School of Sweden with support from the Swedish Program for ICT in Developing Regions (SPIDER).

The project, dubbed ’empowering Self-Help Groups in Kenya through ICT for better education and alternative livelihood opportunities’, aims at alleviating poverty, promoting sustainable development and empowering self-help groups through an integrated approach.

According to CORDIO ICT Livelihood Project Coordinator Mr. Stephen Oluoch, this collaborative intervention with women’s groups seeks to unlock these principal barriers and empower women to exploit their potential through the use of ICT.

He says that CORDIO has been working with local fishermen for ten years but has come to realise that some economic needs of the community could not be attained. Therefore, the organisation decided to involve women to enhance their household income, health, education, food security and self-reliance.

“The objective of the project is to introduce ICT into a poverty-alleviation strategy as part of an adult education programme to empower villagers. The goal is to support environmentally sustainable livelihood activities in order to help improve the standard of living among coastal communities”, he says.

He explains that if the three focus areas are properly harnessed, they can play a fundamental role in lifting communities out of poverty to become more self-determined and less vulnerable to environmental and economic shocks.

So far, the initiative is assisting five women’s groups in the Kwale District that have over 130 members, but plans are underway to extend it to other coastline regions. The self-help groups include Mwamlongo, Karoyo, Wakunga, Lolarako and Gazi Women Mangrove Boardwalk. The first five are in poultry and duck cultivation, while the last one focuses on tourism.

Wakunga ICT Livelihood & Education Project, Kenya

The women’s groups are assisted with ICT training and facilities to engage in alternative livelihood activities. The project initially sponsored a number of trainees – largely women – to attend a computer college. The computer course included an introduction to some Microsoft products, including Windows, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as well as Internet use. Others have been trained in the workings of the community payphone project and supplied with the necessary equipment, including mobile phones. The training covers topics like phone operation techniques, security and its benefits.

All the groups have also been provided with calculators to aid in calculations to increase accuracy and efficiency in income, expenses and contributions accounting. Each of them is also provided with a cashbook for data recording. One of the women’s groups has received a computer and furniture and has received financial support to install electricity. More groups will be benefiting from the computers in the second phase of the project.

Mr. Oluoch says members of the group have acknowledged that having a community phone enables them to obtain market information and technical services. This helps them to sell their products or services and at the same time generate direct income.

Previously, CORDIO has assisted local projects by promoting alternative livelihood activities that are environmentally sustainable. These include crab aquaculture and fattening and the use of non-traditional marine food items to improve their nutrition and food security.

“The programme is helping the rural communities to enable them to close the digital divide and survive in the fast-changing world”, says the Kenyan official. “ICT is efficient, convenient and helps the people to save money”, he adds.

However, despite the current success, the initiative faces many hurdles, including inadequacies in infrastructure, access to electricity, security of housing facilities and Internet connectivity. Other obstacles include a lack of ready market for products, mishandling of gadgets and political instability as well as difficulties in accessing market prices and sharing information on experience and best practices. The inability of the groups to organize and function efficiently and equitably to maximize shared benefits from their livelihood activities is also another hindrance.

The project is being implemented in collaboration with the local national women’s network, local administration, mobile telephony service providers, the social service and fisheries departments.

Kenya is still confronted with enormous challenges as it attempts to close the digital divide. The ICT infrastructure development in Kenya has been concentrated mainly in the urban areas, but even in the urban sector, some regions are more highly developed than others. Regional differences in economic development and population density across the country have also resulted in some areas considerably lagging behind.

Mr. Oluoch feels a tri-sectoral partnership involving the government, the private sector and the community should be encouraged to help promote and revolutionalise the ICT industry in Kenya.

Mr. Oluoch and a Swedish partner will be attending the third eLearning Africa conference. They will do a presentation on the Internet aspect of ICT and community payphones and their impact on socio-economic development. It will also highlight the associated challenges based on the Kenyan experience.

By Reuben Kyama and James Waititu

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