Rural Internet kiosks herald last frontier in bridging digital divide

Rural Internet Kiosks Project

Rural Internet Kiosks are currently mushrooming throughout rural areas in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Zambia, providing Africans who were previously cut-off from the digital world with Internet connections. These movable, cost-effective and recyclable kiosks, which operate with satellite connectivity provided by Intersat Africa and use solar energy, along with a highly energy efficient personal computer, allow rural communities to participate in the digital world. In this way they are able to obtain and share information crucial for education, agriculture and food security, health and environment, communications and e-governance.

By Reuben Kyama and Naftali Mwaura in Nairobi, Kenya

Efforts to tackle Africa’s gaping digital divide, which has undermined all facets of development in the region, have been re-invigorated thanks to an innovative approach that combines cost-effective, energy-efficient and user-friendly technologies to confront the challenge.

Intersat Africa, one of the leading providers of satellite-based data solutions, is promoting “Rural Internet Kiosks” to underserved rural hinterlands where physical, financial and infrastructure constraints amplify the connectivity challenge. Offering Internet via satellite connectivity to major organisations, government institutions and the private sector, Intersat strives to stay at the cutting edge of technology, investing heavily in state-of-the-art services that make service delivery more efficient and reliable.

How does it work?

Rural Internet Kiosks are independent freestanding booths, which work on solar power and other forms of renewable energy, using satellite connectivity provided by Intersat Africa, along with three highly energy-efficient personal computers. Modelled on user-friendly software and hardware, the kiosks have boosted all facets of wireless communication in remote outposts. They are manufactured and assembled in a ‘knock-down’ format, enabling them to be easily transported and set up in even the most rugged regions. “The driving force behind the idea was to make information attainable for communities which have no access to a computer or the Internet. Our vision was to design a product that would help bridge the gap between the “info rich” and “info poor”, says Jitu Patani, Project Manager of Rural Internet Kiosks. According to Patani, the concept was born two years ago, with the main aim of providing communities with connectivity to the Internet and thus bridging the digital divide. As the majority of the population in Africa still lives below the poverty line, the best option was to have a community access point through which, for a small fee, people could obtain information.

Internet accessibility everywhere and for everybody

“The kiosk is designed to promote entrepreneurship and electronic service delivery within rural and urban settings, and in turn help in e-commerce, e-education, e-health, and e-governance, to mention just a few areas,” says Patani, who describes himself as an industrial designer. “On the urban platform, the kiosk would provide access to the internet at street corner level,” he says, adding that this access would be necessary because even with a top-of-the-range cell phone there are still some services which require the use of a computer. They can ‘WI-FI’ an area in any geographical proximity and have printing, scanning and mobile phone charging capabilities. Apparently, the kiosks may be the best option for agencies promoting Internet in both suburban and rural areas.

Each kiosk has been designed to give access to all users, including children and the disabled. According to Patani, research is in its final stages to have portable USB pen screen readers and accessible websites, which will also help visually impaired persons to obtain information. The screen readers will also help people who might have a problem with reading written English but are comfortable with spoken English.

Zambia, Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria are among the countries in Africa making a determined push for rural mobile phone and Internet connectivity. After years of failed promises, the countries now seem poised to invest heavily and ensure that more people in rural areas will be able to use mobile and Internet services. “We would like to promote the use of new computers and try to stop the current dumping of used computers in Africa,” says Patani, who is currently working closely with Userful, a multi-station computing company from Calgary, Canada. He says with Rural Internet Kiosks being manufactured locally, they aim at helping promote industrialisation in line with Kenya’s government policy for Vision 2030.

Further benefits and potentials

Evidence provided by organisations at the frontline of implementing this project in rural Kenya indicates that internet kiosks have helped farmers to obtain regular updates on weather patterns, sound agronomy and better prices for their produce. As a result, their revenue has expanded dramatically. Business start-ups have also gained enormously. They have exploited potential in digital multi-media advertising to promote their goods and services, hence higher returns.

Rural Internet Kiosks are enabling government agencies charged with creating awareness concerning health and environment to reach out to local communities. Through use of multi-media information outlets, communities can access information about infectious diseases such as malaria, polio, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis. The kiosks create platforms for the promotion of tele-medicine, which is still in its infancy in most African countries.

Thanks in part to a broad consensus by both state and non-state actors, who agree that this internet revolution will catapult the Continent to new levels of economic, social and technological growth, expanding internet connectivity to the rural population has become an imperative. Consequently, African governments keen on meeting their targets in bridging the digital divide in line with the Millennium Development Goals are enthusiastic in supporting and promoting Rural Internet Kiosks.

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