In order to strengthen the scaling-up of its activities and partnerships in Zambia, Connect Africa recently has launched a public and private sector stakeholder engagement programme with financial support of the TelecentresAfrica Programme of CTA, through which a number of workshops are implemented.
The workshops are designed to stimulate participation and involvement of the government and private sector agencies and identify critical challenges facing delivery of services to deep rural areas through ICTs and suggest possible solutions to improve communications and access to resource information services by rural communities. This is in line with key workshop outputs in which the Connect Africa Service Network infrastructure could effectively facilitate the delivery of multiple government and private sector services to rural communities
The first Connect Africa Engagement Workshop for government officials was held at Ridgeway Sun Hotel in Lusaka on 24th September and involved 17 senior government representatives from 9 government ministries and agencies, notably Agriculture and Cooperatives, Communications and Transport, Health, Education, Community Development and Communication Authority of Zambia (CAZ).
The first workshop was officially opened by the Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Communications and Transport Ms Florence Chawelwa. She commended the activities of Connect Africa in Zambia for taking one of the key roles by supporting the implementation of government policies and in particular the Information and Communication Policy (ICT Policy) to provide opportunities to the rural population.
Ms Chawelwa officially opening the stakeholder workshop
Ms Chawelwa encouraged Connect Africa to continue and increase its services in Zambia: “The initiative is exciting and appropriate. Connect Africa is highly commended; it complements the government ICT policy. Solutions towards better and effective communication services lie in identifying and supporting innovative rural ICT infrastructure investments and the government will support such investments. Your success is government success”.
The challenge of lack of adequate infrastructure in rural areas in Zambia
Most of the African countries including Zambia are faced with challenges of lack of adequate rural information and communication technology infrastructure through which the rural populace can have opportunities and benefits of the advent of ICT tools. The development of rural community based telecenters and related enterprises in Zambia are affected by this challenge. Though penetration of mobile technologies has increased to almost all the rural districts, there are still constraints on both mobile and internet access to areas located outside a certain mobile radius limit. A number of internet service providers (ISPs) concentrate their investments in urban areas with little hope of extending to rural areas in the near future. Lack of traditional hydropower supply in vast rural areas has affected communications and delivery of information services to the rural population. The scenario means that the so called digital divide between urban and rural areas will remain wide unless other alternatives are employed in rural areas to mitigate improved access to communication and information exchange. This has brought among others negating issues such as high cost of access to ICTs and lack of delivery of public and private sector information services. Currently rural communities resort to costly ways of accessing ICTs.
To ease this challenge the government launched the national Fiber Optic project through the Zambia telecommunications Company (ZAMTEL) to improve access to communications in rural and urban areas. The projects will link up with the International Fiber Optic Network from east Africa. However the benefits of the Fiber optic projects are yet to be seen as the projects have not been completed. The Zambian government through the Communication Authority of Zambia recently unveiled the disbursement of Universal Access fund. Tender advertisements have been running in the Zambian press to encourage communities to come out worthwhile projects to benefit from the UAF. Among other projects on the list include community based telecenters to apply for project funds.
Local innovations by Connect Africa
Connect Africa project, a social enterprise organization operating in Zambia since 2008 has been carrying out a trial in deep rural districts of Central and Western provinces of Zambia to support increased access to shared ICT tools and infrastructure. The project tested the use of share community ICT services and powered by alternative energy options such as the solar power and the use of locally manufactured fuel cells to provide energy to computers and public phones. The Zinc Fuel cells are locally manufactured batteries connected to a laptop or public phone. This model is demonstrated by local ICT demands and needs of the population; ultimately these local infrastructure centers will grow into fully fledged community telecenters with all communication facilities and services sustainably facilitating development needs of the local people.
At the workshop participants identified main challenges in rural areas related to ICTs some of which are:
- Lack of infrastructure such as communication towers
- Lack of effective information packages relevant to local users
- High cost of service charges by internet service providers
- Lack of energy sources (power)
- Low literacy levels on the use of ICTs
- Poor public investments in ICTs
- Gender access imbalance.
Participants suggested the following solutions:
- Reduction in service rates by communication companies
- Improvement in the satellite coverage
- Improve radio communications
- Institute lock down Policy to sustain service delivery
- Government must subsidize rural infrastructure development through erection of multiuser communication infrastructures (towers, solar energy systems etc)
- Government should spearhead public-private partnerships in the area of ICT4 development and speed up implementation of Universal Access Fund
- Increase ICT awareness campaigns
- Demand - led project investments
The expectations of the workshop participants was that the stakeholder consultations should continue and government agencies should be able to support rural ICT investments to facilitate rural access and improved delivery of social and economic services to the rural populace.
Closing remarks at the workshop were given by Mr Dean Mulozi, Connect Africa Zambia and Mr Dion Jerling, Connect Africa Special Projects Director, South Africa.