Q&A: Multipurpose community telecentres in Africa

Gaston Zongo

Can you give a short description of MCTs?

MCTs are shared information and communication facilities for people in rural and isolated areas. They usually offer basic communication services such as telephone, fax, typing, photocopying, printing, training in the use of computers, email and electronic networking.

What is the background to MCTs?
MCTs are key strategic interventions by international donors to help bridge Africa’s digital divide. The main programme in this area is a joint initiative co-funded by ITU, IDRC/Acacia and UNESCO, in partnership with local NGOs and the national telecommunication operators.

The countries that have benefited from the programme’s pilot phase include Benin, Mali, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Many other international aid agencies have joined the movement, including USAID-Leland, the I-Earn-supported Songhai Centre in Benin, the francophone Multimedia Centres, and the WorldLinks for Development initiative in Zimbabwe.

What is the rationale behind MCTs?
It’s a commonly shared vision by researchers that integrating rural development and universal access to ICT tools can empower disadvantaged communities and address sustainable development issues. That’s why evaluating the impact of MCTs on the social and economic development of communities is so important. The Evaluation and Learning System for Acacia (ELSA) has been instrumental in this respect, leading to the definition of various indicators and evaluation guidelines, the organization of seminars and workshops, and ongoing online discussions and forums.

What has been the outcome of evaluations so far?
Many pilot MCT projects have failed because of common problems such as illiteracy, language barriers, low incomes, and the lack of or expensive power supplies. Another key problem has been that various projects have focused on the technology and infrastructure rather than on the content. This is not surprising considering the selected areas are usually under-served by national telecommunication networks and require an investment of more than €500,000 per MCT. That’s way above the annual GDP of the MCT’s service area—and beyond the management capability of the targeted community.

Also, using a philanthropic rather than maket-oriented approach, developers have not paid enough attention to the scalability and cost-recovery aspects of MCTs. It would have been better to apply the ‘village bakery’ model, in which investors from African villages build local, scalable bakeries and set a price for the bread that local people can afford. MCTs that have been designed to deliver specific services to a given community, and are operated by the community, have proven to be the most successful. Examples include ENDA-Ecopole’s Cyberpop projects, in which community access is designed to help women with their fishing business.

A final stumbling block has been African governments. Contributions from governments have rarely gone beyond the provision of premises, and no important long-term measures have been taken to support MCT initiatives. The sustainability of MCTs has also been dramatically jeopardized by the recent reforms of the telecommunication sector. They have reduced the financial capacity of the incumbent operators to invest in rural areas or to do something about the high costs of line subscriptions and connection charges.

Where have MCTs succeeded?
They have helped raise awareness at various levels, resulting in a greater commitment of African governments to bridge the digital divide. Africa is strongly backed by donor agencies and the international private sector. There is a clear global trend to enhance community access to ICT tools through software with low access costs. The Indian Simputer, a low-cost, hand-held computer based on Open Source software, is a good example. It is an alternative to the PC that allows people to use simple icons to get information via the Internet, and thus overcomes problems such as language barriers and illiteracy. Many African countries have already indicated their interest in introducing the Simputer for disadvantaged communities.

In countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda, private cybercafé owners are moving into the rural areas because of the fierce competition in urban centres. Meanwhile, many post office companies are planning to transform their rural premises into cybercafés, emulating countries like Brazil and China. These positive developments are supported by continuing World Bank funding for rural telecommunications and new services like Uganda Telecom’s Freenet, which makes every landline an Internet line without the need for subscription fees or registration.

In short, there are tremendous opportunities for the development of sustainable community access in Africa. The African governments are starting to define their e-government, e-governance, e-democracy and e-education strategies. And to ensure that most people will fully participate in these initiatives, the governments have started to draft new, nation-wide telecentre programmes to be implemented in partnership with the private sector, or at least using business-oriented models.

 

Gaston Zongo , former Executive Director of the Acacia Initiative, explains why multipurpose community telecentres (MCTs) have succeeded or failed, and where they are headed.

26 February 2003

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