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Without computer or fixed-line network
– by Andreas Mandler
© Antony Njugana / Reuters
Researching prices from a Kenyan corn field
Internet access has become a matter of course in many cities in developing countries. Internet cafés may often resemble gambling dens, but people use these facilities to interact with authorities, make purchases online, or look for jobs. In rural areas, however, it is a different story. This is where illiteracy is still widespread and, on top of that, both technical competence and equipment are in short supply. Most rural people are still far from surfing the web.
Nevertheless, modern communication technology offers them opportunities. Gadgets are becoming increasingly user-friendly and easy to manage, and so are the relevant programmes. Moreover, mobile telephony is reaching more and more villages. Thanks to handsets, it is no longer necessary to literally be “on line” via the fixed-line network. The consequences for rural communities are huge, as up-to-date information about market prices, the weather and other matters relevant to agriculture improve their income prospects. So far, farmers have mostly relied on social networks to stay informed. Their conventional information channels include markets, assemblies, advisory centres and radio.
On top of all that, rural people are increasingly using mobile phones, which open up additional opportunities when linked with other communication technology. Digital exchange has become possible even in places without computers or fixed-line network. The new options include financial transactions, which can benefit the microfinance sector.
Some web content can already be sent to mobile phones at very low cost. The relevant functions are easy to operate. On the other hand, PCs can hook up to the internet via mobile and satellite connections. For agricultural purposes, it has therefore become possible to use “Web 2.0” applications. “Web 2.0” stands for new forms of interacting digitally, using written texts, images as well as audio messaging (see glossary). Web 2.0 makes it feasible to research as well as publish information in a very targeted manner.
Web 2.0 options are more and more in use in developing countries. The Busoga Rural Open Source and Development Initiative (BROSDI) is an interesting case, for instance. This Ugandan organisation is helping to raise rural communities’ standards of living in a sustainable manner through information and knowledge exchange. It is a not-for-profit initiative with regional roots. In addition to sending out consultants on assignments, organising public events and producing radio programmes, it is today providing an extensive online service – knowing full well that only a few rural clients are able to take advantage of this service so far.
Nonetheless, it makes sense to disseminate the same information via several channels. BROSDI uses blogs, wikis, podcasts and RSS feeds (see glossary) to spread information on topics such as agriculture, health and education. BROSDI reaches a large share of its rural clientele through SMS on mobile phones. However, some relevant players in rural regions have internet access today, and there are, of course, city dwellers (like traders or consumers), who matter quite a bit to rural development. BROSDI is banking on Uganda’s phone network spreading similarly fast in rural areas in future as it did in urban settings in the recent past.
Commercial services such as the Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange (KaceKenya) or TradeNet in Ghana want to provide regional market information in a professional manner. TradeNet offers online data on 500 markets in 13 African countries, considering itself a platform for doing business. All information – including offers and inquiries – can be passed on by SMS on mobile phones. Correspondents at the local markets similarly use mobile phones to submit their information which is then made available on the website. At the “Web2forDev” conference in Rome in autumn 2007, TradeNet reported 5000 registered business users.
Especially promising, however, are projects that build on the work of well-established local institutions. Rural extension services often know the local realities well, and they possess locally relevant information more people could use than currently have access to. DealIndia, therefore, uses an online platform to interlink five agricultural advice centres in neighbouring districts with technical support from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. The joint website of the advice centres provides information about weather and soil conditions, agricultural produce and market prices.
Audio blog in Hindi
A promising innovation by DealIndia is the audio service “Kisan Blog”. Farmers submit questions via voice mail, and experts’ answers are published on the website as audio files. It is essential that all communication be conducted in Hindi, the language of the farmers. The expert knowledge is to become accessible by mobile phone in the course of this year.
India has been gaining experience with village-based telekiosks since the turn of the decade. It became apparent – in other countries too – that relevant local content is essential for success (see Niemann 2007). In India, a private-public partnership intends to set up 100,000 village telekiosks and around 4000 local radio station by the end of the year. Obviously, relevant local content can best be supplied by members of the target groups themselves. They must pick topics, organise their knowledge and discuss it. They are the ones who know the priorities, and it makes sense for them to share their insights in public.
Suitable content for target groups is at the heart of useful interactive services for rural regions. It makes sense to encourage the creation of local websites, which, in turn, document local knowledge, in order to boost local self-esteem and political voice.
To date, such projects are only feasible with support from towns, because that is where technology is available. However, communication with rural areas is in the urban interest. City dwellers, after all, depend on the countryside as consumers, traders or service providers.
Individual persons, however, can make a big difference. People need to know who they can turn to. Initiatives such as BROSDI or DealIndia are models, having created good local services and reaching out to more users through various media. It is essential to use the local language to enable understanding and help to build trust.
No doubt, rural development depends on building various infrastructures. Reliable power supply and fixed- line networks should make the use of Web 2.0 options easier and cheaper in villages. But it is no longer true that the digital divide fundamentally excludes remote communities. Mobile phones serve to access the web, and thus make digital information available to the benefit of rural areas.