Since the past few years, there has been a growing interest on part of the governments, private sector, international donors and community organisations towards the use of telecenters to provide access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). In Africa telecenters have been seen as a means of addressing the lack of ICTs and providing universal access, to both telephony and other forms of ICTs. This paper looks at two types of telecenters.
Type A: Small, private sector telecenters
These centers started off with offering basic telephone services, but have expanded to provide even fax and Internet services. Operating a telecenter is profitable, as it generates a monthly income of approximately $200 per line. However, the small business centers have been successful in only some countries, and they require a supportive environment consisting of a legal system, taxes and helpful telephone operator. The Senegalese telecenters have performed well as sustainable small businesses with support from Sonatel.
Type B: Donor-Funded projects
These are very different and more expensive (up to $250,000) than the aforementioned micro-projects. This involved a partnership between the International Telecommunications Union, UNESCO, and the Canadian International Development Research Center (IDRC), and has established major centers in Mali, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa. These centers offer a range of telephony, computing, Internet and information services. Among these the most well known is the Nakaseke Multipurpose Community Telecenter (MCT) in Uganda, that opened in March 1999 and aims to introduce and test new technologies and applications and to demonstrate the impact of such technologies on development of rural and remote areas. The telecenter has eight computers, two printers, a scanner, a photocopier, a VCR/TV, a video camera, and a projector. In addition to phone, fax, and Internet use, there are a paper and digital library; computer training; and an interesting Indigenous Knowledge program whereby center staff are building a resource of local health and crop experience. However, frequent power cuts are a problem. The center has proved that ICT can be useful for development in a rural area. But what is required is sufficient local involvement, support, training, and finance.
However, none of them have shown a model that is sustainable. No major funded telecenter has been able to set aside money for depreciation of equipment, let alone generate money to repay the initial capital. Many of these sites are offering useful services in their communities, though most are so young that their impact is more anecdotal than demonstrable.
Role of multipurpose community telecentres in accelerating national development in Ghana
This paper gives an insight into the development, growth and potential sustainability of small business communication centres in cities in Ghana. It was the expansion of the electrical power grid in the 1990s, that facilitated the expansion of the communication infrastructure (e.g., the telephone system) in Ghana.
The Ghanaian telecentres centres provide single-point access to information and services, implying that they provide a narrow range of services, often located in a single room. By combining technology, trainers and users together at one location, these centres expect to reduce the traditional barriers to using any new technology. The expected result then is better performance in work, self-employment, vocational and life-long learning and communication. The idea behind this is actually to replace individual access to new digital tools with community access.
Telephone is one of the most basic services, and fax being a popular one. Most people send and receive faxes at telecentres rather than at their offices or homes. Photocopying is done on a small scale with a low-end and slow machine. Another service is video viewing for individuals and groups. Moreover, an increasing number of centres are providing computer-based services such as word processing, spreadsheets and graphics. Drop-in e-mail sending and receipt from a telecentre account is offered on a limited basis. Internet access fees start at US$1.00 per quarter hour. Some of the telecentres have existing contracts with non-governmental agencies to provide basic secretarial services, and some of the more advanced centres such as the cyberc@fes provide services aimed at the urban walk-in user, who seeks personal support rather than support for work-related activities. There are some others that provide Web site development for businesses and local agencies.
Due to poor connectivity, inadequate infrastructure and human resource limitations, most of the centres provide very limited services. Low level of communication infrastructure in the rural areas make it difficult for such areas to be linked electronically. There is a need for the government of Ghana and donors to foster markets for those services where there is a weak commercial demand. The extra attention, pilot programs, assessments, marketing of new services may stimulate awareness and demand. In such a case, later on the private sector could step in and provide the service. However, a fastest method would be to continue the public-private partnerships, such as the post office Internet services, in which public money serves to guide private initiative and resources to meet public purposes.
The Gaseleka telecentre, Northern Province, South Africa
The Gaseleka telecentre is located in South Africa’s poorest province, Northern Province. The area is very arid, and to go to the telecentre one has to travel along a 15 kms. of a bad road. There are nearly 34 villages surrounding Gaseleka, with a population of about 85,000. Unemployment in the area is about 60 per cent.
This telecentre is well networked throughout the area and is owned by the local branch of South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO), which has established a special sub-committee of 15 people to manage the centre. The local chiefs have given their support to the project and have established close links with the local government, to make free phone calls and photocopies. This usage is monitored on a monthly basis and has not been abused so far. This has not only made the telecentre very popular among the key local officials, but it receives its water and electricity free from the local authority.
On an average the centre is currently used by 50 people in a day, 60 per cent of whom are women. People come from up to 20 kilometres away to use the centre, and many on foot. Since the telecentre opened, a new RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) government housing development has been built nearby. This has brought 300 families closer to the telecentre and means that it has become the de facto community centre, a place to hang out and chat. Many organisations within the area make use of the centre. SANCO, the local schools, Community Policing Forum, Department of Health and Welfare, small businesses and local political groupings such as the African National Congress and the Communist Party, all use the telecentre. The telecentre has invested R4,000 (US$600) in a camera for taking ID photos and makes about R700 (US$105) a month from this service alone. The real success story of the centre has been its computer training provision. The training included use of the operating system, word processing (Ms Word) and spreadsheets (Ms Excel).
Gaseleka is one of the very few South African centres making an operating profit and paying a half-decent wage. But it is unable to meet the depreciation costs, nor repay the money invested in it. Yet, Gaseleka is one of the best examples out of more than 60 telecentres set up by the USA (South African Universal Service Ageny), where over half are non-functional for a variety of technical, managerial, competitive and financial reasons.
The Nakaseke multipurpose community telecentre in Uganda
The Nakaseke Multipurpose Community Telecentre (MCT) project was set up as a test bed for future investment in information and communications technologies (ICTs) for rural development. Uganda has a population of 21 million, of which 88 per cent live in rural areas and largely depend on subsistence farming. Nakaseke MCT serves two administration units, Nakaseke and Kasangombe, and a network of villages with a total population of 31,000 people (1991 census). Within the units there are 23 primary schools, 6 secondary schools, a university and a regional Primary Teachers’ Training College, all of which are dependent on the services of the MCT
The Nakaseke MCT became operational in March 1999, with the aim to provide a centre where the rural community could access ICT resources