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

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By LC and Ian Howard for APCNews

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, 27 October 2008

Connecting rural TanzaniaConnecting rural TanzaniaFollowing the initial rush of Information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) projects in rural Africa, many did not yield the anticipated outcomes, and interest has been dying down. People then began talking about “sustainable ICT” projects, in which it was understood that projects would become self-sufficient after their initial donor-led investment and set-up period. But with the use of mobile phones gaining in popularity, popular rhetoric has begun to question the need of ICTs beyond the mobile phone. While mobile phones certainly have had a great impact in rural areas, a new study by Ian Howard commissioned by APC, through the analysis of two case studies, he argues that the need for telecentres and affordable internet connections exists, as such centres cater to rural and niche markets the way larger companies cannot.

What is sustainable ICT?

Beginning in the late 1990s, the use of ICTs in international development work expanded greatly. In part this expansion was due to the increased availability and affordability of ICT equipment, the simplification of use and support of equipment, improved access to electricity, more affordable internet and the growing use of ICTs by donors and NGOs themselves. A number of studies by the World Bank and other organisations also affirmed the importance of access to information for improved health and social well-being, and the role of communications in economic development. By 2004 almost all donors and NGOs were involved in some sort of ICT4D initiative.

Unfortunately, this interest has since subsided because too many projects were ill executed for various reasons: limited local buy-in, flawed economic models, inadequate training, and/or the use of inappropriate equipment. From the donor perspective, the most important failure of ICT4D initiatives was the inability of these centres to persist without the continued intervention and financial support of donor organisations. In other words, they were unsustainable.

In terms of ICT for rural development, the term sustainability as used by the international development sector, is most often described as the ability to maintain implementation beyond the intervention period. It is measured principally by the ability to remain economically viable, while delivering a social benefit; therefore, an ideal sustainable ICT initiative requires short-term incubation, but is then able to maintain its operations by local parties.

Unfortunately, such short-term interventions are not well suited for ICT-based initiatives that require continued operational support, both in terms of technical advice and funds. Consequently, as the many ICT4D projects have reached the end of their funding, earlier presumptions that local communities would take over ownership and responsibility of the initiatives have proved to be wrong. There are numerous telecentres and rural “micro-telcos” that no longer exist, or that only provide a fraction of the services they once did

Internet vs. mobile phones: Are rural ICTs sustainable?mobiles vs. wirelesssmobiles vs. wirelesss

While many rural ICT4D initiatives have not yielded the anticipated outcomes, the mobile phone on the other hand, has been circling above as a beacon of success, particularly on the African continent. Many places that lack telecom infrastructure, such as rural areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, now have thriving mobile phone networks. This success has come as a result of changes in policy and new adaptive technologies.

Popular rhetoric now suggests that there is no need for rural ICT efforts beyond mobile phones. As many rural internet projects have failed and mobile phone networks continue to flourish, many donors have abandoned their efforts in rural ICT4D, leaving the development of ICTs largely to mobile phone carriers. While there is some merit to this decision, it is somewhat naive. The failures of rural ICT4D projects were, as noted above, not because they lacked utility, but rather because they were poorly designed and implemented. It can therefore be argued that there is still a need for rural ICT development beyond mobile phones, but that the challenge is in making such development self-perpetuating.

While mobile phones can have a great impact on the lives of rural people in least developed countries (LDCs) especially grassroots ICT initiatives can fill the void that large mobile phone companies cannot. These new mobile-phone infrastructures are largely poised as oligopolies, protected from the threat of new entrants by high licensing fees and reserved frequency allotments. While they serve a large segment of the population and provide a great basis for ICTs, they are highly centralised and hierarchical and thus unlikely likely to serve smaller segments, remote areas or non-mainstream interests; nor can they provide specific local and rural solutions. This gap therefore opens up a multitude of opportunities in ICT4D, particularly in smaller rural markets.

Although mobile phones provide an effective tool for basic communication and information exchange, the need for grassroots ICT development remains. Mobile phone solutions are top-down, in comparison to bottom up internet ICTs, which can effectively serve smaller and niche markets. Thus, the need for continued intervention in ICT4D is perhaps even stronger than before. However, the question remains: Are rural ICT initiatives sustainable?

Is there still a need for wireless?Getting connected with wirelessGetting connected with wireless

In many ways, wireless networks were hoped to be the disruptive innovation that would unseat incumbents. This has not happened to the degree that was hoped, but in countries where wireless bands are permitted, they have driven demand and have persuaded incumbents to respond.

As internet-capable phones increasingly become mainstream, so will the demand for phone-based internet access and other internet appliances. This will be slow to develop in these smaller markets, particularly where incumbents have little incentive to provide these less lucrative services. Thus, the development of autonomous infrastructure is still required in order to meet the needs of rural communities. Moreover, there must also be the development of networks that tie together data and information that is local, regional and national. This will assure greater, cheaper and easier access to information and data that is most important to people in these areas. For this data and information to be available, however, it must be generated – hence the importance of telecentres.

The role of NGOs and donors, from a free-market perspective, is to intervene where there are market failures. As the development of this more local information and data is likely to be largely non-commercial, it will require support in order to avoid falling victim to market failures.

In his report “Observations on sustaining rural connectivity initiatives in lesser developed markets” Ian Howard examines the case of two rural communities in Tanzania that exemplify sustainable ICT and justify the need for wireless connectivity in these remote areas. The report provides insight into how to build more sustainable rural ICT and gather observations and recommendations for implementers and donors.

This article was adapted from Unbounded possibilities: Observations on sustaining rural ICTs in Africa by Ian Howard for APC.

Photos: all photos by Ian Howard


This is a quality

This is a quality comment.As many rural internet projects have failed and mobile phone networks continue to flourish, many donors have abandoned their efforts in rural ICT4D, leaving the development of ICTs largely to mobile phone carriers.

Re: Stephane's comments - social mobile etc.


Thank you for your comments. Your view is shared widely, by me too. In the report I note that mobile phones are the most significant development to rural communication and information access. Moreover, to your point that much more can be done to leverage such networks, I also agree but I would add that without wireless and other locally controlled infrastructures (or at least the ability to create them) that even such innovations in the use of mobile phones can be thwarted by a hegemony by GSM providers. This certainly has been the case in markets where there are tight controls on telecoms — in many cases wireless/wimax and other technologies have stirred the incumbent operators into action. Thus, these local networks can grow and fill-in niches forgotten by the incumbent providers and in doing so create competitive pressures, or at least they can provide alternatives that are better suited to non main stream interests.

By the way, I have been involved in helping to develop a simple use of SMS for monitoring and evaluation of bug net distributions in Tanzania (using a simple code book to provide the data), as well as a number of other market information system projects. I am a huge fan of this, but I also still see an important need to have other media for communications than the mobile phone alone, as the economist and others, with the push of lobby groups keep promoting.

mobile phones for grassroot/ngo

Dear Mr Howard,

thanks for your great article, this is a very intereting discussion.
I would like to bring another view in the debate.
I agree with many of your points, particularly the view on the inability of top-down approaches to deliver services towards specific communities, or to meet specific needs. In that regard, it is clear that operators or generaly providers of development-oriented services at a global level (country or region wide) are not a sufficient answer to improve people ‘s lives. The role of local ngo/grassroot or even local entrepreneur is essential.
That said, the difference between local and global actors is orthogonal to the mobile phones/telecenters dimension.
The availability of mobile phone networks is a great opportunity for ngo/grass-root organziations to provide services toward their communities, without having to deal with the infrastructure. For now this potential is under-exploited, and most of development-oriented services on mobile phones are provided by operators, and now handset manufacturers. However, there are also a growing number of NGOs that are starting to develop their own mobile applications (most of the time SMS applications) in a completly decentralized model, without the need to deal with operators. This is a way to allow very small ngo to develop and deploy services in very small/remote/poor communities without the need to setup a telecenter, which is always a challenge, and requires a coordinated actions with different players.
As part of an EU FP7 project called Digital World Forum on Accessible and Inclusive ICT (, the World Wide Web consortium (W3C) has launched a new initiative in May 2008, to explore this direction about empowering and enabling ngo/grassroot to use the power of mobile networks/phones to deliver development-oriented services. This initiative is called Mobile Web for Social Development.
Some references:
A short, non-technical introduction and overview published by the economist last september:
Another article which covered our activities from the latest issue of Nokia Expanding Horizon:
(the article is “Public services can go mobile”)
A more in-depth description of our vision in a white paper i wrote last january:
The homepage of the group
The executive summary of the workshop we organized in june on the role of mobile technologies in fostering Social Development:

Stephane Boyera (

Some comments that I made in email correspondence on this topic:

“Generally I think that the telecentre as a commercial provider of ICT services is a weak model — the telecentre as an incubator, I believe is a much more beneficial model — though this requires that the ICT services are only a small part of a greater effort and that there is a longer commitment to support the incubator. This also requires that a community has some kind of economic potential that could be improved. Some communities are really quite destitute, but around Sikasso, there is much economic potential. Connecting a telecentre with farmers could be a very good idea, if the economic drivers are there. For cotton growers in Mali they have no influence on the prices, or in any part of the value chain so more info doesn’t assist them economically (I believe), but for Karite/Shea it would.

The other model, a rural wireless network, can work if tied in to strong anchor clients and if it is built in a very economical way, with local talent who is able to support it. Usually it is technical failures that lead to the demise of such networks. Again in this model too, the telecentre is not just internet access alone, for Sekiku in Tanzania he is able to provide consulting because he is connected. This model is completely dependent on finding the Joseph Sekikus out there, that is very difficult and thus it is best if we support them once we find them, or when they find you.

Rural telecentres are a great development tool, but a commercial model for them is rarely appropriate — they must be subsidized so that they can incubate activities in their pre-commercial stages or that support non-commercial but community value creating activities. The failure of most projects has been to try to impose a commercial model. In Vanga, Congo, their telecentre is supported by the hospital, as a means to keep their doctors happy (a human resources tool). In Karagwe, Tanzania, it is a service that supports a consulting and agricultural services business. In Segerama it serves to support government and school administration.” Thus access to the internet cannot be the purpose of a telecentre, but rather part of the plumbing in a model that supports other activities.

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