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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Partnership academy

February 16, 2007 § Leave a comment

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 2007: While the mainstage at last week’s Asian Telecentre Forum was interesting, there was also a great deal going on in the hallways and hotel rooms. Of particular note was collaboration amongst EUTA, the Philippines CECNet and others on the ‘world telecentre academy’ initiative. The idea behind the academy is to create an alliance of organizations working in the field of telcentre manager training. The alliance will provide a platform to share curriculum and develop a common quality seal amongst these programs.

While this effort is interesting in its own right, it is even more notable because it demonstrates how sophisticated telecentre networks around the world are becoming. The players involved in the telecentre academy initiative understand that they can move farther and faster with their telecentre manager training programs if they work together. They also know that a lightweight, flexible global alliance can lend alot of credibility to the capacity building work they do at a national level. It seems the spirit of (peer to peer) networking is really growing in the telecentre movement.

PS. Don’t surprised to see significant developments from this alliance over the coming year. There is a reat deal of promise here.

Telecentre times, two

February 16, 2007 § Leave a comment

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 7, 2007: A quick note to say: a new magazine on telecentre issues was announced last week at eAsia. This magazine will offer analytical articles and case studies from telecentre practitioners around the world. The magazine is a partnership between CSDMS and telecentre.org. The first issue will come out in August.

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The magazine is envisioned as a complement to the grassroots-driven Telecentre Times initiative, which focuses practical advice for telecentre managers and has shorter articles. Key members of the Telecentre Times community will be invited to be on the editorial board of the magazine.

Moving to the next level …

February 11, 2007 § Leave a comment

Hong Kong / Kuala Lumpur / Singapore, February 2007: With a week in East Asia behind me, a theme is settling int: moving telecentres to the next level. It was a week where almost every conversation was about building on existing telecentres … and not about building new telecentres.

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When I think back, the opening eAsia speech by Malaysian Water, Energy and Communications Minister Dr. Lim Keng Yaik played a key role in focusing these conversations. Lim’s ministry has helped to build almost 1000 telecentres over the past few years. Instead of trumpeting this as a victory, he says that Malaysia’s telecentres haven’t yet had the impact they had hoped for, and that infrastructure was not enough. Lim spoke of a next wave of effort by his Ministry will be to encourage the growth of value added services and content that make these centres into a real development asset (and also help with sustainability).

While the need to move beyond infrastructure and into services is not a new idea, you rarely hear Ministers making passionate, almost activist speeches on the topic. This put wind in the sails of other eAsia presenters: critics of Nepali government telecentres; social entreprenuers from Grameen Phone; telecentre.org partners working on the telecentre academy concept. All used the fuel provided by the opening speech to get creative about what telecentres can look like when we get beyond the access conversation.

This theme was not only at the conference. It was also central to my conversations with Malaysian telecentre managers during field visits and in meetings with Intel, Microsoft and senior Malaysian bureaucrats. More on all this as I catch up on my blogs in coming days.

Where to from here?

December 12, 2006 § Leave a comment

On a train to Ottawa, Benin – December 10, 2006: Benin is far away now. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the flip chart markers. See all the smiling faces. Feel the passion. But, eyes wide open, staring at this computer screen, I know that we need more than memories. We need action.

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Sylvia will be writing up a report soon summarizing all the concrete ideas and actions that were proposed at Songhai. In the meantime, I thought I should write down some of my own A-TLF action points before they are forgotten. Three things WE need to do include:

  • Follow up on the concrete project ideas that came out of the last two days of the event, especially ideas on social enterprise, training, wireless and content networks. The people championing these ideas should keep moving them forward and telecentre.org should put some modest resources behind at least a few of these ideas.
  • Continue to support emerging network leaders in Africa. As I wrote in another post, the number of telecentre networks in Africa is growing. I am really hoping that the friendships that emerged in Benin will provide major fuel for the leaders of these networks to help each move further faster. On the telecentre.org side, we need to do everything we can to keep these folks in touch and to facilitate their collaboration. We can find ways to do this through shared projects and smaller events.
  • Share the learning and (as Gunner would say) share the love. While the 80 people who cam to the Benin event are important leaders, they are only a tiny fraction of the overall African telecentre movement. Everyone who was there needs to take responsibility for sharing what they learned with dozens of others. We will do what we can on the IDRC to write up and share some of the best insights, but this only works if this is a collective task.

When I look at this list, it’s actually not that complex. We simply need to continue what we started at Songhai. We need to follow through and involve many others in this follow through. It can happen, if we all commit to doing just a little bit to take it forward. I can’t wait.

Partnership, from the ground up.

December 11, 2006 § Leave a comment

Porto Novo, Benin – November 27 – December 2, 2006. While the primary point of telecentre.org is promote grassroots networking, it is also a very interesting experiment in collaboration amongst social investors (aka ‘donors’). IDRC, SDC and Microsoft all take a slightly different angle on telecentres and community technology. Yet, we all believe that networks are key to the success of grassroots tech initiatives. We also think that other social investors should be thinking about networks, both as a way to increase the impact of their investments and to help to coordinate with their peers.

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This kind of collaboration really comes to life an event like the Africa Telecentre Leaders Forum, offering a chance to work with both existing and emerging partners in a very hands on way. Some highlights from the Benin trip include:

  • Getting to know Ntutule Tshenye, the Microsoft community affairs lead for sub-Saharan Africa. I was blown away by Ntutule’s sophistication and practical approach to the telecentre movement in Africa. The 10 years he has spent in this space shows.
  • Working with SDC’s Veronika Roos, who fit in immediately as one of the telecentre.org team (which she is, really). Veronika was particularly amazing as a set of engaged eyes and ears, offering us real time feedback on where key groups of participants were headed.
  • Hanging with Ian Pringle from UNESCO. Ian is a bit of a visionary, trying to bring together that large number of (often disconnected) community media and access initiatives spread far and wide within UNESCO. He also brings a tremendous commitment to networks and collaboration, and an amazing sense of fun.
  • Meeting IICD’s Francois Laureys, who heads up their knowledge networking initiatives in West Africa. Francois provided both insight into the work of IICD partners and invaluable insights into the ICT4D terrain in the region. He also did an amazing job pushing forward key networking conversations during the Forum.

Spending time with these people not only helped build relationships, it also gave us the chance to discover and define new opportunities to work together. There is a great deal of synergy between our thinking and Ntutlue’s thinking on social enterprise. Francois has an interest in expanding networks in Burkina and other parts of West Africa. Ian wants to integrate networking and collaboration with outside initiatives into UNESCO’s community media work. All of this will lead to new and very concrete collaborative activities with these partners.

Content. Content. Content.

December 11, 2006 § Leave a comment

Porto Novo, Benin – November 27 – December 2, 2006. Content is one of those perennial issues. It’s important enough generate a great deal of conversation, and tough enough that these conversations rarely generate new ideas. Happily, this wasn’t the case at the Africa Telecentre Leaders Forum (although I was worried at certain point). A number of compelling networks + content ideas emerged from the discussion.

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The idea that caught my attention most was using national networks (and networks of national networks) as a channel to help large international organizations who need to distribute development information. This includes orgs with health info, agricultural info, economic development, HIV info – orgs that basically have a tough time getting their message out to the grassroots. These international organizations would finance telecentre networks (and, indirectly, telecentres) to reach out with their information. This would help with telecentre and network sustainability, contribute to local information management capacity and, eventually, cross subsidize the production of local content. An interesting idea if you can get it to work, which may be possible with the right network players.

There was also a great deal of conversation on capacity building to help people with the production of local content. This is something that UNESCO may champion.

Feedback loops

December 11, 2006 § Leave a comment

Porto Novo, Benin – November 27 – December 2, 2006. It’s worth a small blog posting to note that last week’s Benin Forum included three sessions gathering feedback on the telecentre.org community web site. Led by Esther Nasikye from Ugabytes and Leonce Sessou from Songhai, these sessions let people know about the site and asked them how it could better meet their needs. Unsurprisingly, many people wanted to see more of a focus on e-mail and simple tools. There wasn’t much demand for fancy tools like podcasting, as far as I can tell. Esther and Leonce have now taken on roles as part time editors for the telecentre.org community. In these roles, they will be able to do something with the feedback they received … and also get other African telecentre leaders involved in bringing the online community to life. There seemed to be a fair bit of commitment and interest on this last count.

Networks scale sideways

December 11, 2006 § Leave a comment

Porto Novo, Benin – November 27 – December 2, 2006. We often talk about scaling up. Yet, in many cases, the thing we’re really looking for is scaling sideways: the process of good ideas and practices spreading from place to place. This is sideways scaling is exactly what we are seeing with the idea of telecentre networks in Africa.

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When we did our first telecentre.org consultations in Ghana back in 2005, there was maybe one formal network on the continent. Now, there are three countries with solidly established networks (Mali, Mozamnique and Uganda) and at least seven countries with emerging networks (Burkina Faso, Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania). Collaboration and cooperation amongst telecentres in Africa is clearly an idea that has legs. But where do these legs take us?

We have started to see early signs of success with the African networks that telecentre.org has supported financially. Ugabytes has set up an online help desk service. Afrilinks is offering training. CIEUM has a tech support hotline set up. Still, progress is slow and even these organizations struggle with challenges of building a real network where all stakeholders are truly engaged in the network.

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The challenges will be even greater for the emerging networks. Resources will be scarce, with telecentre.org doing what it can to avoid spreading things too thin in Africa and with few other funders interested in networks. Also, many new networks are located in small countries, or countries with a small number of telecentres. This makes it tough to get critical mass.

Of course, where there is passion (and utility), there is also great hope. Telecentre leaders attending the Benin Forum brainstormed, sketched ideas and talked well into the night thinking through ways to move their networks ahead. Unsurprisingly, one of the most common (and powerful) ideas was concrete collaboration amongst networks: established networks helping newer ones;  networks fundraising together; collaborative content / enterprise / connectivity projects involving multiple networks. The concept of small network projects involving multiple funders was also floated (IICD and telecentre.org will likely do something along these lines in Burkina). Finally, the idea of telecentre.org and national governments co-funding networks came up as one possible way forward. Rwanda and South Africa are places where this might work.

There is no question: African telecentre networks face challenges ahead. But there is also a great deal of passion, ingenuity and sharing within the movement. With this, anything is possible!

Social enterprise: ready to go

December 7, 2006 § Leave a comment

Porto Novo, Benin – November 27 – December 1, 2006: The Benin workshop marked a departure point: ‘social enterprise’ became a central part of the conversation on sustaining the work of telecentres in Africa. The younger crowd in particular – people like Hilton Theunissen, Gbenga Sesan and Esther Nasikye – championed the idea. They were arguing that the way forward for African telecentres was a commitment to social change combined with an entrepreneurial spirit.

On the second day of the workshop, a small group formed to talk about social enterprise issues. They came out with a number of diagrams aimed at helping other participants understand their way of thinking:

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This small group attacked the question of sustainability head on, saying that both social impact and financial sustainability were important. They pointed to the potential of offering services like education, health care and e-government that communities need but would also pay for.

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On days three and four of the Forum, this social enterprise group got down to brass tacks to design practical projects to work on together. They came up with a number of ideas including a social enterprise training institute for African telecentres and the development of new services that African telecentres could offer to communities. The idea of creating a ‘social franchise’ that offered social enterprise packages was also floated. This group agreed to follow up quickly after Benin to put some of these ideas into motion.

Note to Hilton or Gbenga: tell me where your social enterprise think paper is so that I can link to it from this blog. I’ve seen it circulating in mailing lists but not on the web.

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