In spite of poor phone connections and electricity supplies, people in poor countries are using the Internet in greater numbers than ever before.
It is inspiring to observe the great lengths to which they—and development professionals and civil society activists in particular—will go to get online once they have discovered what the Internet can do for them. What is remarkable is that many of these people are now using the Internet in much the way as people in rich countries are using it. Why is this remarkable? Because beyond the web there is also email.
A long-time precursor to the web, email is in fact a more appropriate tool for sending and receiving information, especially in poor countries where access to the Internet can be unreliable and expensive. Unlike the web, which requires your presence as you download information to your computer screen, information requested by email can travel at night, when rates are low, and comparatively slowly, yet it still arrives in your mailbox for you to read at leisure.
Although it can indeed be convenient to go on the web to read the latest news from around the world or find a phone number, it is often frustratingly time-consuming and expensive for people in poor countries to search online databases or find and download full-text documents from the web. The reason for this is that content-rich websites on the Internet tend to be created by and for people in rich countries. If they had been designed with poor countries in mind, they would be set up to allow people to use email as the delivery mechanism for information.
Thankfully, email delivery tools – or web-to-email tools – like www4mail go a long way to filling the gap. Organizations such as Bellanet, Kabissa and the University of Trieste offer, as a public service, web access to email users through www4mail. Thanks to their services, people in poor countries are able to retrieve web pages using only email (see homepage for a description).
Unfortunately, these services are not well utilized. Most requests to Kabissa’s www4mail server come from Russia and other former Soviet republics – not from our target audience in Africa. Sadly, the majority of resources requested are clearly non-essential in nature. Perhaps most telling of all, subscribers to our Pambazuka News social justice newsletter ( www.pambazuka.org) are reminded every week of Kabissa’s web-to-email service, yet very few www4mail requests are recorded. Instead, subscribers click on links and go online directly with their web browser.
This is a marketing problem. As opposed to web-based services, email delivery services are not widely known and are rarely explained in workshops and training materials. An additional problem is that, in their current shape, many (such as www4mail) are not particularly easy for non-technical users to adopt, especially in Africa, where the Internet is still relatively new and most people use cybercafes to get online.
To encourage web-oriented people in poor countries to make better use of their precious connection through web-to-email services, it will be necessary to improve the design of existing websites and email newsletters with them in mind. Meanwhile, products like www4mail will also need to be made slicker so that they can compete with the glamour of inefficient websites like Yahoo.