A study group from the Southern Africa Telecentre Network visited Botswana to see how public–private partnerships have changed the country’s telecentre development programme.
The picturesque village of Sikwane is situated in the south-western corner of Botswana, around 50 km from the capital, Gaborone, and close to the border with South Africa. The village has fewer than 2,000 inhabitants, most of whom are livestock farmers. And, it has a telecentre, developed as part of the country’s rural infrastructure development programme, Ntseletsa, the Tswana word for ‘call me’.
The government of Botswana financed the first phase of Nteletsa, with Botswana Telecommunications Corporation (BTC) charged with developing the rural centres. For the latest phase, Nteletsa II, the government entered into public–private partnerships to establish around 200 centres around the country.
The Nteletsa II telecentres are managed by the local village community, through village development committees (VDC). The Sikwane centre employs three people: a supervisor from the VDC, and two young people who are paid on a commission basis. The centre is housed in a specially converted container, and has three desktop computers, a fax machine, a printer, a photocopying machine, a community payphone, and is connected to the internet via the cell phone network through a 3G router.
The centre provides office services, including photocopying, faxing, laminating and document processing, as well as telephone services, cell phone charging, SIM card and cell phone airtime sales, and internet access. BTC provided the initial stock and equipment, continues to cover electricity costs, and gives technical support, such as equipment maintenance and repair.
Like other Nteletsa II telecentres around the country, the centre in Sikwane faces a number of challenges threatening its sustainability, mainly because few people make use of its services. The main economic activity in the area is livestock farming, and the majority of the population is elderly since many young people have migrated to the main urban centres for work.
In 2011, a study group from the Zambia Telecentre Network and Southern Africa Telecentre Network visited Sikwane to investigate the long-term viability of the centres and to consider possible improvements for sustainability. The group spoke to the Nteletsa II centre’s supervisor, who explained that revenue was too low for the centre to cover its costs, and that employees often had to work without pay.
The supervisor was concerned that people did not visit the centre because it did not offer sufficient services for customers. She suggested that the centre could expand its services to provide the sale of prepaid electricity tokens, stationery and other related goods to attract more visitors and increase revenue.
The study group also found that local farmers had a clear need for information on subjects such as climate change adaptation, weather services and agricultural training. In rural villages, like Sikwane, where the majority of people depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and where land overgrazing and desertification are critical issues, provision of such information services would enhance agricultural production, improve food security and increase income. Residents would also benefit from information about other important industries in the country, such as mining, which can have a large impact on their area and environment.
To provide this kind of information and, more importantly, to make it relevant to local residents whether they are in Sikwane or any of the 300 plus villages covered by the Nteletsa II centres, the study group recommended that the content be produced locally with consideration for the needs of the surrounding population. This means the relevant information has to be gathered and repackaged for each community.
Developing local content cannot be left solely to the staff of the individual telecentre or ICT specialists. Instead, the production of information has to involve people from all involved sectors, including education, agriculture, health, meteorology, mining, with input from social and economic experts. Agricultural researchers and extension officers need to work together with the village development committees and other supporting partners to develop content and information services relevant to the economic activities of the villagers.
With information available that is relevant to their specific area and livelihood, people living around the telecentres will visit more often to make use of the services. This, in turn, will increase the revenue for the centre, helping it to become sustainable and invest further in improving services and products, and adapt to future developments as the needs of the community change. And, the circle is completed as villagers benefit from a suitably resourced telecentre.
As the telecentre model in Botswana, and many other countries, changes from government and donor-funded initiatives to closer collaborations involving businesses and community organisations, village-based centres will be able to provide more locally relevant content. The study group concluded that the public–private partnerships of the Nteletsa II programme would certainly help the centres increase rural communities’ access to information in a way that can be sustainable for survival and adaptable to future developments.