Fighting poverty from telecentres in Mali and Colombia

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By Dafne Sabanes Plou for APCNews

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, 30 March 2009

I walk into the community centre in the town of Kati, a few kilometres outside Bamako, the capital of Mali. The heat and dust made the trip here unbearable, but as I walk up the wide steps and enter the telecentre, bathed in a soft natural light, I immediately feel cooler and calmer. I am welcomed by Alima Traore, the young woman in charge of the telecentre, who shows me around the facilities and tells me about the kind of work they do here, introducing me along the way to the people who have come to use its services.

It is mid-morning, and the telecentre’s computers are being put to heavy use by the reporters and producers from Radio Belekan, a community station that operates out of the same building. The station’s staff gather information directly from their email inboxes or through internet searches. The latest news from around the country and around the world, together with the current market prices for fruit, vegetables, sheep and goats – the area’s economic mainstays – make up the most sought-after information in a town where communications have been revolutionised in recent years through information and communications technology (ICT).

Telecentres, mobile phones and community radio

Throughout Mali, the use of mobile phones, the services offered by telecentres established in different parts of the country – thanks to agreements between local organisations, companies and cooperation agencies – and convergence with local radio stations, are opening doors that were unimaginable just a few years ago for people cut off from the flow of information and communications.

Alima tells me about a young woman from Kati who has just been hired as a secretary at a local organisation thanks to the computer courses she took at the telecentre. She also introduces me to a thirteen- year-old girl who is the president of the telecentre’s teenagers club. These clubs are a major source of support for the telecentre’s work and help attract more young people to come in and learn how to use ICTs. In this country where girls as young as thirteen or fourteen are “given away” by their parents in arranged marriages, I think of the opportunities that can be opened for them through access to knowledge and tools that could prove extremely useful in their future lives.

A new way of doing research in Colombia

On a whole other continent, thousands of kilometres away, I hear similar stories of the positive impact of telecentres and ICT use in towns located far from industrial and tourism centres. Derlly Pantoja is a facilitator and instructor in ICT-for-development programmes and GEM for telecentres in the region around Cali, Colombia.

“Most of the areas where we’ve done field work are facing serious economic difficulties,” she tells me, “and when an ICT project comes to a community that is desperate for employment, people wonder what’s the point. But when you look at it properly, you can see that it can be extremely useful, because one way to overcome poverty is through training, and that’s why it’s important to acquire knowledge that can help to earn a livelihood,” she explains.

“At the telecentre, through the use of ICTs, everyone who needs it can receive training in accordance with their own particular activities, needs and preferences. There is one thing that is very important to keep in mind here: our role is to teach people how to fish, not to give them fish. Acquiring knowledge through ICTs, like accounting, secretarial skills, university courses through distance education, seeking opportunities for scholarships, etc., is a way of looking beyond the horizon, and improving the quality of people’s lives improves the situation of the region as a whole,” she adds.

Mothers and children

Derlly’s first contact with ICTs was nine years ago. She learned how to use a computer and navigate the internet at a community telecentre. Now she is enrolled in a training programme to become a social worker, the culmination of a lifelong dream. Her youngest son has also taken advantage of the ICT access opportunities at the local telecentre to explore different software programmes and internet search engines. As a result, he has accumulated considerable expertise in programming and internet navigation, which are opening up interesting employment options.

However, Derlly believes that ICTs not only provide opportunities for individuals, but also for entire communities. “From what I’ve been able to deduce from my first-hand experience telecentres are the first port of call for students, both children and adults who need to carry out research.

At the La Habana telecentre in Buga, the administrator takes a great deal of interest in the community and its needs, and keeps them posted on opportunities for projects, working in conjunction with community leaders and a foundation. I was especially impressed by the motivation and the desire for self-improvement of the women in this area. They were the ones who answered the call when we started up the GEM adaptation project we are currently working on.”

Increased marketing opportunities

Another Colombian facilitator and instructor, Aura Elena Plaza, highlights the way ICT use can open up new opportunities for marketing local products, motivating communities to organise and make better use of technological resources. “Training in ICT skills gets the community to start thinking differently and to consider the sources of income available to them more clearly.

From a commercial standpoint, they become aware of the fact that their products have to meet certain standards of quality in order to be sold at higher prices. They also see the need to join together, because if the harvest is poor, by working together they can gather up a large enough quantity to sell, and they can search the internet together to find out where they can get the best price for their products,” she explains.

“From an educational standpoint, they are beginning to see ICT training as a means of progress, and are searching out organisations that can train them to increase their productivity, for example. In the town where I work, regular training projects involving dressmaking and journalism or social communication have had good results,” she comments.

Through her experience in ICT training programmes in community telecentres like the one in Villa Paz, an Afro-Colombian community in the Cali region, Aura has seen first-hand that one of the fundamental development opportunities created for these communities is the possibility of sharing knowledge of their region, their people, their products, their culture, etc.

Local organisations are able to “show off” their communities through websites, videos, interviews or radio broadcasts from events where they are invited to participate. In Villa Paz, a group of young people are using mobile phones to make short films, an initiative that develops their potential while combating prejudices in a markedly racist society.

“From my point of view and based on all of my experience working with communities and ICTs, I believe that ICTs contribute to development and progress in every sense,” says Aura. “A well-organised telecentre can place a community at the cutting edge of ICT use,” she adds.

Related article: Rural communication: Is there still a need for telecentres now that there are mobile phones?

More information on APC WNSP’s Gender Evaluation Methodology

Photo by Guaka, used under the Creative Commons license

(END/2009)

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