Three models, one challenge
February 16, 2007 § Leave a comment
Around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 4+5, 2007: Malaysia has over 1000 telecentres. Most of these have been set up with financing from the Ministry of Water, Energy and Communications. While in Malaysia last week, I had a chance to visit three of of these centres in the rural areas around Kuala Lumpur, each of which operated on a different model.
The first centre I visited was part of the Kedai.com program (‘kedai’ means shop). Located in a rural planned community / palm plantation the centre was run by a local tuck shop owner who had built a computer lab onto the side of his shop. The centre offered a mix of basic cybercafe services (Internet access, desktop publishing, copying) along with extensive training courses (mostly Office apps and Internet browsing). The young people I met in the centre seemed most motivated by MySpace and Friendster, which offered a good channel to socialize with people from outside the village. The centre is also busy during the time when the government publishes exam results online.
According to the shop owner, business has grown over the three years that he has been operating the centre. He pulls in about $25/day in revenue just from access, for which he charges 75¢/hour. He also charges $80 dollars for each month long training session. These sessions typically have about 10 people in them each month. He says that he makes a small profit once he pays for his training and other costs, but worries that the centre will no longer be profitable after the government maintenance and bandwidth subsidies end next year.
The next centre I visited was in one of Malaysia’s 600 rural libraries, almost all of which have been connected to the Internet. I had a wonderful conversation with the woman running the centre who kept saying: “I love to teach”. And so she did. The centre offered extensive digital skills training, most of it targeted at local youth and housewives. There is so much demand for training in this village that she wants to expand to offer courses on multimedia, but she doesn’t have the skills or software to do this herself. The three computers in the centre are available for Internet access when not being used for training, although this didn’t seem to be a big use. There were no services offered above and beyond training and access. The only revenue source other than government funding was a $3/one time membership fee.
The final centre that I visited was a Pusa Internet Desa, part of a program to build out telecentres on the same premises as post offices. This was the newest and largest of the centres (nine computers). Like the other two, it had incredibly strong infrastructure, training programs and management. The centre was also a part of the government’s community knowledge centre program, which aims to help centres add more value added services. However, it doesn’t seem these services have emerged yet.
It’s worth noting: the Pusa Internet Desa had the most ambitious and creative of the managers I met. When I asked what she saw in the future: “I really want my own building with two floors. We would have an access centre on the first floor and a training centre on the second floor.” As the centre is located in a small town that housed a teacher’s college, demand for her services is quite high. The centres probably could do well with the expanded approach she envisions, and might even become a self sustaining social enterprise.
Across all three of these centres, I saw exemplary rural Internet infrastructure and digital skills programming. This is a great accomplishment, and in many ways puts Malaysia ahead of other countries in terms of rural access. However, as the KTAK Minister noted in his eAsia speech, all of this great infrastructure is very much under utilized. After many millions of dollars, the question remains: telecentres for what?
The good news is that the Ministry behind these programs wants to increase the development impact of these centres by focusing on value added content and services. The community knowledge centre pilot program mentioned above is an indication that they are making efforts in this direction, but the content and services are not there yet. It is likely this process could be accelerated if they were to create a genuinely grassroots telecentre network that could capture and share innovative ideas from the managers who actually running the centres.