Connecting with the unconnected:Providing ICT in rural communities

Information is said to be the key to democratic participation. And, the advent of the Information revolution has made information available, through the Internet. This has changed the way people live, learn, work and relate to one another.

An explosion in the free flow of information and ideas has brought knowledge and its myriad applications to many millions of people, creating new choices and opportunities in some of the most vital realms of human endeavour.  In spite of this development, a sizable percentage of the world’s population remains untouched by the information revolution.

Fact is, ‘information poverty’ –the lack of access to information and knowledge that could improve earnings potential-is said to be the primary cause of poverty, especially in the developing world

Expanding internet access to rural areas has been a major challenge. Generally, rural ICT expansion has been based on the degree to which it will be a profitable and worthwhile venture for the communication companies involved.

And research documents those living in rural areas are over-represented among the poverty population. This explains why many rural communities and small towns lack affordable and reliable access to ICTs, including telephones, internet, fax, and computers. Without these basic infrastructure, development in these areas will lag behind.

Research in rural communities around the world document the potential of ICT in changing the lives of poor people living in rural communities.

Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in creating economic and social development from below, notes that ICT can change the fate of poor people dramatically by integrating the poor into the mainstream economy by expanding their market; bringing information, educational programmes, skills training and healthcare services to the most remote villages; and empowering the poor, particularly poor women, with a stronger voice that can be heard behind the borders of their village.

And, Roller and Waverman have demonstrated the positive effect of ICTs on income growth in developing and developed countries.

Current research from individual farmers and fishers in India supports the conclusion that ICTs improve incomes and quality of life among the rural poor. And, this underlies widespread policy initiatives to ensure equitable access to ICTs in all areas.

A number of governments in the developing world have recognised the equity implications of access to ICTs, and have adopted regulatory policies to enable the rollout of ICT infrastructure and the supply of services in rural areas.

And, several African countries have launched ICT for development ((ICT4D) initiatives, and the focus of some of these initiatives have been aimed at poor people (ICT4P), to create awareness, provide access, and use ICT in several creative ways to reduce poverty.

This is based on the conviction that exposing poor people to information and knowledge will provide them with a powerful weapon to deal with their situation.

South Africa has made significant progress in providing its poor population living in rural areas ICT services through universal service access initiatives. The telecentre approach has emerged as the most promising model for supporting universal access in poor communities.

In designing ICT systems for rural communities, it is critical to implement measures that will address the power problem confronting most rural communities.

As has been well documented, national electrical grid in most African countries covers a percentage of the population, mostly urban populations.

In Ghana, for example, the grid system reaches 60 per cent of homes. This means about 40 per cent of Ghanaian households lack access to any means of conventional power. Even in the urban areas where there is national grid, the quality of the service is an issue due to, incessant power outage and at times no power for a considerable length of time.

It is difficult to provide Internet access and other communication services to areas not connected to the electrical grid. This is a major limitation to development and the spread of ICT in rural Africa.

One solution to this problem is to develop an Off-Grid, Digital, Electronic Network (OGDEN) as an initial communication and computing network for off-grid users in rural Africa.

This network could be based on solar energy solutions to the power problem.

Solar energy uses and array of photovoltaic cells and its use is becoming widespread in several African countries.

They are not unduly expensive if no more than a few kilowatts of power is required.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has recognized the need for off-grid power solutions for ICT facilities and has developed an Energy Solutions Toolkit to address this problem.

The toolkit provides information about using locally appropriate ICT and energy choices. This is to ensure that off-grid communities are not excluded from the benefits of the information society.

ICT is a powerful enabler and its judicious application to the plight of the poor could help move poverty to the dustbin of history. Policy makers and donor communities should do all they can to provide access to ICT for the poor. The current digital disconnect isolates a sizable proportion of rural people.

Ideas pioneered by people such as former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade around “digital solidarity” should be widely embraced and supported.

As proposed, countries who subscribe to this notion should sign on to a digital charter, committing itself to “a specified, quantified action for the benefit of countries where the rate of Internet access is lower than a given level,” explains ex-President Wade.

He proposes the establishment of a Digital Solidarity Fund. These are great ideas that could bring the benefits of the information revolution to the greater majority of rural people who lack access.

ICT is a powerful enabler and its judicious application to the plight of the poor could help move poverty to the dustbin of history. The current digital disconnect isolates a sizable proportion of rural communities.

Dr.Osei K. Darkwa

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