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The importance of ICTs in development is no longer debatable. For development practitioners the main challenge is to find the best ways of integrating them in a development context, especially in poor rural areas of developing countries. Thus, the international community has put ICTs amongst the top priorities in the Agendas for development.

Policy framework

In the last decade international and regional policies have addressed the opportunities and importance of ICT interventions in rural areas in developing countries in general and in Africa specifically:
  • In the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ICTs are mentioned as one of the major opportunities for sustainable economic development’. ICTs are mentioned specifically in Goal 8/Target 18, and they will also be vital in achieving the other Goals, notably Goal 1 – the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.
  • The Plan of Action of the World Summit of the Information Society in Geneva recognized the role of Telecentres as a key element in strategies that will bring the information revolution to developing countries in a cost-effective way. This was confirmed by the 2nd WSIS in Tunis 2005, which stressed the role of ICTs as a development enabler”: We agree that the financing of ICT for development needs to be placed in the context of the growing importance of the role of ICTs, not only as a medium of communication, but also as a development enabler, and as a tool for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals and objectives, including the Millennium Development Goals.
In Africa several regional initiatives were started in recent years:
  • African Information Society Initiative (AISI): an action framework that has been the basis for information and communication activities in Africa since 1996. (http://www.uneca.org/aisi/)
  • African Regional Action Plan on the Knowledge Economy (ARAPKE) - ARAPKE was requested through a recommendation of the Second African Regional Preparatory Conference for the WSIS, held in Accra, Ghana from 2-4 February 2005. In addition, the Khartoum Summit of the African Union also urged the continent to develop an Action Plan on the WSIS. The Action Plan is based on the “Accra Commitments for Tunis 2005” and the vision defined by both the African Information Society Initiative (AISI) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). The Regional Action Plan was prepared to implement the WSIS recommendations for rolling out the information society in the continent for the next 10 years.
  • NEPAD ICT Framework - The new protocol on policy and regulatory framework for NEPAD ICT Broadband Infrastructure Network, known as the Kigali protocol, came into force on 13th February 2008 (http://appablog.wordpress.com/2008/02/19/the-kigali-protocol-for-the-nepad-ict-network-comes-into-force/)
  • SADC Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP).
Many Telecentres or community information centre initiatives have been supported by international (e.g. UNESCO, UNDP, FAO, EU) and bilateral donors (IDRC, SDC, USAID) and implemented through projects with (inter)national NGOs in the last 2 decades. These initiatives were set up as pilots with differing methodologies and services.
It is necessary to take stock of results and impacts of these initiatives and provide a framework for upscaling in a learning mode.

The Concept of Telecentres / Community (Information) Multimedia Centres

The concept of shared access to information was first launched in Europe and Canada in the early 1980s through the movement of “telecottage”. This movement was accelerated in the second half of the 1990s and was especially boosted by the digital revolution and the emerging interest of development organisations and private sectors.

Attempts to define Telecentres are therefore diverse: some see them as information kiosks with a mix of ICT tools such as radio, photocopier, telephone, fax and Internet connection; other focuses on the nature of services offered such as telemedicine or money transfer. But there is no real consensus around this question. As stated in an IDRC report, the concept of Telecentre «is a phenomenon still in discovery and in the various places where it is created, the local context colours its final form. It is an instrument for development whose adaptation and mutation is far from complete and perhaps not for some time yet. As a result, attempts to classify the currently existing types are still quite unsophisticated ».

Nevertheless, what maters is the development objective of mainly looking for ways of providing the population involved with autonomous instruments that facilitate social and economic exchanges. Telecentres have therefore a double aim: to serve as a platform of exploitation of local knowledge on one hand and to be at the heart of economic and financial transactions of the community on the other.

Within this document telecentres are defined as a physical space that provides public access to ICTs for educational, personal, social, and economic development.

Key Challenges

Many countries in Africa as well as other continents are facing similar challenges with respect to the use of ICT to address social and economic concerns in rural areas. These are mainly the following:

Challenging economic environment

  • Despite notable improvement, there is still a poor access to connectivity infrastructure, as Internet Service Providers and mobile communication companies are concentrated in urban areas.
  • Limited access of rural population to social and economic information
  • Lack of awareness and access to ICTs resulting in slow penetration, integration and non use or poor application of ICTs by rural people within identified localities
  • Poor delivery of economic and social services from public and private sector institutions to local level institutions
  • Lack of access to business/market information services.

Operational challenges

The above factors are coupled with common problems that affect effective functioning of Telecentres such as:
  • Lack of sustainability and consistent revenue to support expenditures for connectivity and other communication services
  • Lack of awareness on relevant content and content development
  • Technical problems with maintenance of equipment, hardware as well as software. This includes the break down of equipment, virus invasions, LAN and PC maintenance
  • Insufficient skills training and awareness to optimize the use of ICTs e.g. word-processing, optimal use of Internet and in operational activities at centre level.

Sustainability

With regard to sustainability, increased impact, and upscaling of Telecentres in Africa, the key challenges seem to be the following:
  •  Identifying appropriate technologies for rural Telecentres - Low-cost, easy-to-implement technology platforms, affordable and stable Internet connections and suitable energy solutions
  • Demand–led content development & information services - Well-packaged, easy-to-replicate community services for Telecentres such as a range of information, communication and business services, computer training, telemedicine, e-learning, e-Government, governmental portals)
  • Development of a conducive (socio-economic, technical and policy) environment for the Telecentres through identification of the needs of (different layers of) the main stakeholders, assessment of the local situation and possible settings, capacity building for end-users and service providers, development of suitable business models, innovative social appropriation mechanisms and a supportive ICT policy strategy.