In Africa, the term “telecentres” covers diverse examples, ranging from a multitude of small telephony shops or Internet cafés, telecentre networks and multi-purpose community telecentres to projects initiated by governments and supported by international funding (1). However, each of them plays a specific role in the population’s adoption of ICT practices. (2)
By Philippe Royer
A telecentre can be defined as a public space where users have access to various ICT tools, enabling them to obtain information to broaden their knowledge or communicate, while facilitating a better knowledge of digital tools and infrastructure. While every telecentre may have its own specific features, the common goal is to use ICT to foster social, economic and cultural development by facilitating social networking – thus reducing the digital divide.
The reference model is the Multipurpose Community Telecentre (MCT), which has been supported by UNESCO since 1996 in various parts of the world (3).
Since the late 1990s, (4) the African continent has witnessed the regular, more or less organised development of numerous projects enabling public access to ICT, be they public and/or private, free or paid. This can be seen as a direct consequence of the weak infrastructure of telecom networks, of the lack of competition between the operators, and of the access costs to their services and to computer equipment. It must be remembered that in this field, the continent is still the most expensive in the world (5). However, this tendency is perhaps about to be reversed due to the rate of mobile penetration, major technological infrastructure projects and increasing competition between operators and equipment manufacturers.
Many telecentre are situated in urban and suburban areas, but they are becoming increasingly prevalent in rural areas. Access in such areas varies from country to country. In general, it remains dependent on gender issues or on the degree of poverty among rural communities, both of which often limit the frequentation of telecentres. In Mali for instance, as yet too few women make use of telecentres (6); others criticise their establishment in regions with a largely illiterate population! From an economic standpoint, they struggle to find an appropriate method of management to generate income, compete with large companies and adapt to technological developments. (7)
The impact of Multipurpose Community Telecentres
Despite often struggling with viability and sustainability (7), MCTs are, nevertheless, the real hub of transformation of African culture and economy. This is especially the case in rural areas, where they serve as vital centres of ecosystems and loci of social and economic innovation, creating a productive dynamic of wealth and knowledge between rural and urban communities. In Africa, more than anywhere else, access to ICT gives rise to homegrown solutions, which transform companies and fuel entrepreneurship, innovation and economic growth. (8)
Thus, MCTs can support rural companies in a number of ways. Farmers, for instance, share the ICT tools at their disposal to gain access to urban markets and business intelligence in order to expand their activities or to acquire new professional skills. Their customers can also order online. (8)
Pooling, networking / a condition sine qua non for the proper functioning of MCTs
The study trip of 12 delegations of francophone and anglophone African countries, invited to Bangalore in India in 2010 to explore and understand the (public-private) system of multipurpose community telecentres in rural areas (9), has undoubtedly been a key political catalyst for the networking of several national projects (10). In addition to the necessary governmental involvement and international support, the pooling of technical, resources, content and knowledge have been identified as conditions sine qua non for the sustainability of multipurpose community telecentres. It is at this level that civil society and other private structures often step in, spreading good practices and pooling resources and competencies at both continental and global levels. .
SATNET (11), a regional net of telecentres in the countries of Southern Africa, is one such example. Its primary aim is to promote the sharing of knowledge and networking between telecentres in order to stimulate regional socioeconomic development. The exchange of knowledge and interactions at a local level, gain increasing significance as a means of fostering territorial development in Africa (8).
Telecentre.org is a worldwide community of persons and organisations determined to enhance the socioeconomic impact of local telecentres. Its hub for the African continent is Netafrica (12). Other examples include Foundation INfoBridge (13), Afriklinks (14), UgaBYTES (15) or the Forum e-brain, all of which are platforms and networks involved in implementing telecentre projects throughout various regions of the Continent.
Perspectives: The advantage of taunting the crocodile before reaching the other bank is that one learns to swim faster.
The many initiatives and attempts to establish multipurpose community telecentres or other cybercases (17) have often shown that, in spite of the numerous difficulties they encountered, it was necessary to take a risk and invert the traditional logic and prioritisation in territorial planning by making ICT access the cornerstone of its development.
Thanks to improved public access to ICT tools and practices, North-South relations are significantly developing, as is the use of Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 applications; as well as the case for African regions that are both urban and rural. The challenges are immense and the gaps huge, but new home-grown models are being developed in African e-communities to the same extent as in Europe or Asia, with barcamps and fablabs raising their profiles from Cape Town to Dakar, even though this still seems eccentric to many (18)! The last edition of the InnovAfrica 2012 conference (19) (20) painted a comprehensive picture of Africa’s capacity for innovation and, in this light, the multipurpose community telecentres could serve as the crossroads of potential.