[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
AFRO-NETS> Telecentres - the key to wider internet access?
- Subject: AFRO-NETS> Telecentres - the key to wider internet access?
- From: Carl Webb <email@example.com>
- Date: Sat, 23 Sep 2000 06:06:56 -0400 (EDT)
Telecentres - the key to wider internet access?
The experience of telecentres may offer the key to ways of providing
wider internet access in Africa. They can offer the opportunity to
use its services without an individual needing to buy a PC. Telecen-
tres come in two flavours: largely small, private sector companies
and donor-supported facilities. The private sector is flourishing but
provides service at the price the market will bear. The donor-aided
sector seeks to meet social needs beyond the marketplace but suffers
long-term problems of sustainability. Peter Benjamin looks at what
the experience of each of these groups of providers can tell us.
Discussion of telecentres is always confused by the fact that the
word covers different types of project, and many other terms can be
used. This article will cover two types: largely small, private sec-
tor telecentres and bigger donor-funded telecentres.
* PRIVATE SECTOR TELECENTRES - THRIVING IN THE MARKETPLACE
Over the last few years several countries have seen a proliferation
of small phone shops. They are primarily run by small entrepreneurs
and are generally quite successful (if they weren't, they would close
down). These centres started off by offering basic telephone ser-
vices, but several are now moving into fax and even internet ser-
vices, as the market develops.
Senegal is the African country with the largest number of telecentres
- over 9,000. They have been supported by Sonatel, the national
telco, which has supported these 'telecentres prives' instead of pay-
phones. Since starting in 1992, there are now around 6,000 in Dakar
(almost on every street corner) and increasingly in rural areas. Te-
lephony is overwhelmingly the main service. However, other services
are offered, especially fax and photocopying, with 1% of revenue com-
ing from Internet use. The telecentres are profitable. Operating a
telecentre generates a monthly income of approximately US$200 per
line. It is estimated that the telecentres contribute around 0.5% of
the GDP. The Senegalese telecentres have performed very well as sus-
tainable small businesses with support from Sonatel. There is fierce
competition (especially in Dakar), and market demand is encouraging
the introduction of other services slowly, such as Internet.
A different private sector model comes from Africa Online. It is an
internet Company and has set up 261 E-Touch centres in Kenya (mostly
in Nairobi). These centres offer email, internet, fax, photocopying,
printing and telecommunication services. They give users a free email
addresses and charge for usage. Each piece of mail costs around US$
0.50. Surfing the web costs around Ksh 7 (US$0.10) per minute. There
are about 30,000 user accounts in the country, 10,000 of which are
active. The E-Touch centres are reasonably successful small busi-
nesses in Kenya, but their costs make their services out of reach for
most Kenyans. However, some businesses and larger NGOs are benefiting
from the Centres.
African Online is also active in Ghana. In 1997 it launched the pro-
ject "Email for Everyone" which worked through Communication Centres
(similar to the Senegalese Telecentres Prives). Unfortunately, after
much initial enthusiasm, most of the Centres closed down due to poor
telephone line quality in some areas; the emergence of free email
services such as hotmail.com; and the market was small as computer
literacy was low. Africa Online also went into a joint venture with
the post office to provide email services. The email accounts were
free to users, and in 3 months 30,000 Ghanaians signed up. Again, af-
ter the initial enthusiasm, the active user numbers have declined,
but it still is providing an effective service to many, mainly in the
In South Africa, Vodacom has established 1,800 phoneshops. These are
metal shipping containers with usually 5-10 phone lines, costing
R24,000 (US$3,500) to set up. They are run as franchises, and are
very profitable. A few are starting to offer fax and even internet
* DONOR-AIDED TELECENTRES - MEETING SOCIAL NEED AT A PRICE
Very different from these small-scale, private sector initiatives are
the donor-funded telecentres. The main programme has been a partner-
ship between the International Telecomms Union (ITU), UNESCO and the
Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) that has
established major centres in Mali, Uganda, Mozambique and South Af-
rica. These centres tend to be much more expensive (up to US$250,000)
and offer a range of telephony, computing, internet services and in-
formation services. These projects stress community participation and
sustainability, but to date none have proven that they can be self-
sustaining after external funding. Most of these centres are sup-
ported by foreign donors, though the national programmes for telecen-
tres in South Africa and Egypt can be included in this category.
Perhaps most well known is the Nakaseke Multi-purpose Community Tele-
centers (MCT) in Uganda. It opened in March 1999. It aims to intro-
duce and test new technologies and applications, and demonstrate the
impact of such technologies to development of rural and remote areas.
A baseline survey was conducted to establish the nature of informa-
tion needs of the community and the services. 60% of funding came
from international donors, 40% from national government. In 2001 a
'School tax' of US$0.59 is planned for all 8,000 school children in
Nakaseke to subsidise the centre.
The Telecenter has 8 computers, 2 printers, a scanner, a photocopier,
VCR/TV, video camera and projector. However, frequent power cuts are
a problem. As well as phone, fax and internet use; there is a paper
and digital library; computer training; and an interesting Indigenous
Knowledge programme where centre staff are building a resource of lo-
cal health and crop experience. The centre has proved that ICT can be
useful for development in a rural area. The centre is just about cov-
ering operating costs (subsidised by the community) but there is no
expectation that the centre could generate enough income to replace
equipment in a few years (depreciation) let alone repaying the major
capital investment. This centre required great external support (fi-
nancial and organisational) and so is unlikely to be a model that can
The first of the major funded Multipurpose Community Telecentres in
Africa was established in Timbuktu in Mali in May 1998. Sotelma, the
national telco was the main local implementor, with other main part-
ners being the ITU, ORTF (TV Mali), UNESCO and IDRC. The majority of
the funding of around US$200,000 has come from the external donors.
The pilot telecenter is equipped with 11 computers. It offers copy-
ing, telephone, fax, and Internet services. A major emphasis of the
telecenter is to provide training to artisans to set up their web
page to sell their handicrafts. The telecentre has proved to be par-
ticularly useful to the tour agents organising visits to Timbuktu.
The services are subsidized and offered at fees decided by the steer-
In Mozambique, two pilot telecentres were established in 1999 in Man-
hica and Namaacha (both in Maputo province), funded by the IDRC. They
each have 4 computers, an Internet hub and modem, 2 printers, backup
equipment, 1 public phone, 1 fax/phone, 1 external cardphone, 1 pho-
tocopier, overhead projector, whiteboard, TV with video, radio and
binder. Current operating costs are just being met by operating in-
come, except the phone bill. Initial conclusions are that long-term
economic sustainability depends on the existence of a critical mass
of users and the adoption of computer-related services (over-reliance
on phone and photocopy services for income means vulnerability to in-
evitable future competition and that the major "telecentre" invest-
ment is not justified); Technical support, backup and continuous
staff training are essential, especially for encouraging the develop-
mental and information services; Good communications channels with
local authorities and community leaders, and maximum transparency and
information regarding the project, are important to success.
In South Africa, 62 telecentre have been established by the Universal
Service Agency. These cost around R200,000 (US$ 30,000) and most have
4 computers, 4 phone lines, printer, copier and TV. Most are in rural
areas. Only a few are economically sustainable, mostly through run-
ning computer training courses. There have been many technical, fi-
nancial and managerial problems.
* LEARNING HARD LESSONS
These two models show different lessons. The small business centres
have been very successful in some countries, and they require a sup-
portive environment (legal system, tax and helpful telephone opera-
tor). Some are starting to move beyond telephony into ICT services
but only when there is an economic demand (local content creation is
unlikely). They increase access to internet and ICTs, but primarily
for those who can afford rates out of reach of the majority of the
population. The majority of the centres are in the main cities (Da-
kar, Nairobi). There is usually no explicit commitment to wider de-
The larger funded telecentres show that ICTs can be useful in devel-
opment when there is sufficient local involvement, support, training
and finance. However none of them have shown a model that is sustain-
able. The more realistic projects, such as in Mozambique, have busi-
ness plans that show that the centres will take at least 4 years to
be self-sustaining (and only then with the capital written-off).
At best these centres cover operating costs (sometimes not including
phone bills or salaries). No major funded telecentre has been able
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. In most cases there
have been greater technical problems than anticipated (power prob-
lems, telecomms, computer crashes, theft and lightning strikes). Many
of the externally funded telecentres have been very top-down pro-
jects, certainly with participation, but within the guidelines of the
Whilst there is now experience in the usefulness of ICTs in develop-
ment, none of the existing funded Telecentres could be rolled out in
any largescale way - so far they do not present a model that is use-
ful for Universal Access as opposed to individual projects.
Some lessons can be drawn:
- Centres are managed better where the owners have a stake in them.
In some projects, donated equipment is lying around unused. The en-
trepreneurial instinct is a strong force in making a centre effec-
- There is a great demand for telephony. ICT use can be built, but it
takes time, training and local adaptation.
- Simple business models are more likely to be successful than com-
plicated ones. The idea of a multi-purpose telecentre is ambitious.
Without extensive training and support, many of the wider aims of
telecentres are difficult to reach.
- Computers by themselves are not an information service. Few centres
use IT systems to provide information for local use.
The small telecentres have shown there is a greater demand for te-
lephony than had been thought, and a market is growing for ICTs. The
larger centres have shown that ICTs can be of use in rural areas, but
currently are not economically sustainable. Purely market-driven ini-
tiatives are likely to increase the digital divide within Africa, and
we do not yet have a model for sustaining community access centres
that can provide access to the majority.
Peter Benjamin would like to thank the following for their input:
Meddia Mayanja, Polly Gastor, Margaret Ndung'u and Eric Yankah.
Send mail for the `AFRO-NETS' conference to `firstname.lastname@example.org'.
Mail administrative requests to `email@example.com'.
For additional assistance, send mail to: `firstname.lastname@example.org'.