A broad partnership of individuals, businesses, NGOs, and government departments is supporting an ICT cooperative to improve rural connectivity in the Butajira area of Ethiopia.
Communications Cooperative International (CCI), a US-based not-for-profit organisation, conducted a study to improve rural connectivity in Ethiopia. The study examined ways to bring telephone and internet services to rural communities. The researchers identified the Butajira area as a good place for a pilot project; the main town is relatively close (around 130 km) to the capital, Addis Ababa, which made it easy for officials from government departments and other agencies to visit and learn from the project.
The initial study showed that Butajira town, the surrounding communities, and members of the two cooperative unions in the district would benefit greatly from better access to ICTs. CCI worked with USAID, the World Bank and the Ethiopian government, and also involved as many people, businesses and organisations as possible. This broad support encouraged the commitment to develop the infrastructure and facilities needed to bring ICTs to the area.
Together, Walta Multipurpose Cooperative Union and Netsanet Fana Union of Savings and Credit Union cooperatives represent 52 smaller associations. These are mainly agricultural cooperatives and credit unions, and serve more than 7000 members. In 2006, CCI brought them together with other local agencies, businesses and individuals to form the Butajira ICT Cooperative (BICTC) – the first ICT cooperative in Ethiopia.
ICT services require a high initial investment to buy equipment and set up a stable internet connection in a secure, accessible building. By forming a cooperative, however, BICTC raised money by selling shares to its members. Individuals could contribute small amounts of money towards their shares which entitles them, as shareholders, to participate in member meetings, be elected to the board of directors, and take decisions on how the cooperative is run. Members of the 52 associations represented by the two larger investing cooperatives are, therefore, also members and can use the ICT cooperative’s services.
So far, BICTC has established a centre where people can come for ICT training or to use the services. The centre has 15 computers and provides internet services, computer training courses, fax machines, photocopiers and printers. To ensure the centre is financially sustainable, users pay for the training courses and other services. After four years, BICTC now generates sufficient funds to support the business.
Butajira has a secondary school, two elementary schools and a technical training institute. Their students are the primary beneficiaries of the training courses. Demand for training is high and the centre also runs training courses at weekends.
The centre currently provides internet services through a dial-up system via the telephone landline. Ultimately, BICTC hopes to work with the state-owned Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC), the only telecommunications operator in the country, to provide internet services. The cooperative could then act as a local internet service provider and deliver internet services directly to homes and businesses in Butajira and the surrounding area.
ETC currently provides a few landline telephone connections in the town, but these do not yet extend to rural areas. BICTC therefore developed plans and sought permission to build a transmission tower, with repeater devices to extend the signal, to provide a wireless telephone service across the area. With a small antenna on the outside of their building, businesses and individuals would be able to connect to the service and have a telephone in their offices or homes.
By raising funds from its members and grants, BICTC would make the initial investment to develop the infrastructure to extend ETC services into the area, and deliver the service to more than 250,000 people. The cooperative would buy services wholesale from ETC and sell them on to local customers, making it a beneficial situation for ETC, BICTC and the people of Butajira.
Smaller cooperatives based in communities outside the town would benefit too, as they could then call to get updated market prices directly from Addis Ababa. They would be able to communicate with other cooperatives and farmer associations, and give their members the chance to call them with any questions, or provide telephone access to those who did not yet have a phone at home.
BICTC has been waiting for government approval for either a provisional or permanent ‘providers licence’ to run the wireless telephone service. The project team recognise that there is still a lot to be done to provide connectivity to people in the Butajira area, and they are committed to making this happen.
Delivering ICT services through an organisation run on cooperative principles makes it easier to promote the project to existing agricultural, marketing and savings and credit cooperatives. These cooperatives can use the services to promote and expand their own work. Also, since a cooperative is run by the community, the members decide exactly what services they need and when they need them, rather than having to adapt to the services provided by other companies, or waiting for outside agencies to develop the communications infrastructure.