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Creative Use of Wi-Fi to Reach the Poor

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

In 2003 former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for greater access to wi-fi, or wireless internet networks, as a mechanism to help poorer regions catch up with the pace of technological change in developed countries. Wireless networks remove the need to lay costly wires and can quickly bring fast and convenient internet access to large populations currently denied access. By removing the need to lay lots of cables to get communities online, wireless could help poorer nations narrow the digital divide and catch up with countries where the technology has already taken hold. Social entrepreneurs are stepping in to fill the gap between the promise of wi-fi and the reality.

A contemporary take on the mobile library, where a bus travels to remote or under serviced areas to lend books, is being used to bring wi-fi and web content to remote villages in India, Rwanda, Cambodia and Paraguay lacking internet access. United Villages and its subsidiary First Mile Solutions cleverly targets only the content the villagers really want and then provides it to them for a fee. Using a fleet of buses and motorcycles, they upload in the city before going to the countryside popular pages and pages previously requested. “There’s only 0.003 percent of the web that rural Indians care about,” founder Amir Hassan told the BBC. “They want to know the cricket scores, they want to see the new Aishwarya Rai photos, and they want to hear a sample of the latest Bollywood tunes.”

Once in the countryside, a small box with an antenna onboard the buses or a motorcycle communicates with the rural computers, sometimes up to six times a day. Special content requests can be made for a few rupees, and emails are collected and delivered. Not only do the buses deliver web content, they also act as a courier service, picking up and delivering products ordered via the web for the villagers. “We-re bringing e-commerce to rural India,” said Hassan.

“My objective is to show to the village youth that having a PC with connectivity is a viable business, so that more and more unemployed youth can take up this as a self-employment opportunity,” remarks villager Raj Kishor Swain, who helps with United Villages.

Green WiFi, based in San Francisco, has a simple aim: to provide children in developing countries with access to the internet. But the difference is that they have developed a solution to the biggest problem in most remote regions: reliable electricity supply. Their invention is intended to partner with the US $100 laptop computers being rolled out in the developing countries by the One Laptop Per Child Project. Green WiFi has developed a low cost, solar-powered, standardized wi-fi access solution that runs out-of-the-box with no systems integration or power requirements. All that is required is a single source of broadband access and light.

In a further boost to internet access in Africa, the World Bank is also funding US $164.5 million in high-speed internet access for Kenya, Burundi and Madagascar to boost regional competitiveness. Eastern and much of Southern Africa is the only region in the world not connected to the global broadband infrastructure.

Resources

  • The Wireless Internet Institute was launched in 2001 as an international think tank where stakeholders explore wireless Internet technologies, best practices and sustainable implementation models. W2i is a World Times, Inc. initiative addressing the regulatory, business and integration complexities associated with the deployment of wireless Internet technologies.
  • The World Dialogue on Regulation for Network Economies is concerned with regulation and governance for network economies. They conduct research, facilitate online dialogue and discussion among experts, and publish and distribute papers, reports and other relevant information.
  • I-Genius: I-genius is a world community of social entrepreneurs and seeks to inspire a new generation of social innovators. They hope to encourage partnerships across geographical and cultural boundaries, by building partnerships between social businesses and wider stake holders, governments, corporations, NGOs, investors and the media.
  • A blog linking technology and social entrepreneurs: Click here
  • Social Edge: a web portal for social entrepreneurs by social entrepreneurs
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Dynamic Growth in African ICT is Unlocking Secrets of SME Treasure Trove

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

A newly released survey of 14 African countries in 2006 has documented the impact of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) on private sector development and how it is contributing to developing a vibrant Small Medium Enterprise (SME) sector in Africa. It discovered how dynamic the SME sector is, how it has rapidly adopted mobile phone technology (96 percent have it), and how if used properly in concert with this new technology, extraordinary economic growth is possible.

The survey – Towards An African e-Index: SME e-Access and Usage in 14 African Countries – covered only businesses employing fewer than 50 people and took in the vast informal sector in the countries. It investigated if they had access to ICTs, how they are using them and if it was making them more productive. SMEs were especially interesting because they do not waste money (most people are just trying to survive) and they only use what is really useful to them to increase income. In the informal sector this has become the mobile phone.

The countries surveyed included Botswana, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. With most of the continent’s poor working in the SME sector, little was actually known about the impact of ICT and its link to profitability and labour productivity. And surveying only formal businesses would be telling half the story since about two-thirds of non-resource driven GDP generation is derived from SMEs, and a large share of that from informal ones.

“This is a sector that has no access to formal finance,” said Dr. Christopher Stork, a senior researcher at the Witwatersrand University in South Africa. “The mobile phones present an opportunity to tap into this market and offer finance, banking services, cash transfers – we see this already in Kenya – without the risks of other services. These informal businesses can build up a history, learn how to better control their businesses, and receive loans. Where the financial system is dysfunctional or overpriced, airtime credits can be the new cash form.”

Africa has a high proportion of entrepreneurs because people have next to no social supports to fall back on and need to do business to survive. Most fall into the informal sector where they can avoid paying tax, pay low wages, and keep overheads down. According to Stork, if governments are serious about dealing with poverty, then the best approach is to acknowledge this sector, and rather than crush it, draw it in to become more sophisticated and efficient. He sees the mobile phones as key to this strategy.

“Innovative technology can help these entrepreneurs to acquire the tools they need to do business better. There is a lack of skills in all areas, a lack of accounting skills, a lack of basic financial management. This is where ICT can overcome this. SMEs can get a monthly statement with all their business transactions, making it easier to manage things. This would be a great way to distribute micro-finance. Savings clubs could store cash on the phones.”

The e-Index also noted the trend for mobile phone providers to consolidate and offer common regional services. This could fuel an explosion in cross-border trade as it becomes cheaper and easier to communicate via mobile phone for business. The e-Index also found the ever-growing importance of internet cafes remains. They continue to evolve into multi-purpose business centres offering a wide range of services, from post to word processing. At present they still remain the main means of accessing the internet. And with broadband still minimal and very expensive, it falls on mobile phones to offer internet access, though this will remain mainly in the continent’s capitals.

The survey’s sponsor, Research ICT Africa! (RIA!) network, seeks to build an African knowledge base in support of ICT policy and regulatory design. The network emerged out of a growing need for hard data and analysis to help the continent join the information age. Throughout 2007 it is conducting household surveys on e-access and e-usage and will present the findings in 2008.

You can download for free the entire report Towards An African e-Index: SME e-Access and Usage in 14 African Countries here: Click

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Computing in Africa is Set to Get a Big Boost

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

The image of Africa as a technological laggard is set to be seriously challenged as a number of developments converge in 2007. Alongside the booming African mobile phone market – itself now getting global attention for innovation – the African computer scene will soon have both the software and hardware that acknowledge the continent’s unique needs while being affordable. Further challenging stereotypes, the continent’s burgeoning and dynamic open source software movement is the subject of a new film by a Danish filmmaker, and the African-made Ubuntu, Linux-based operating system now has a new user manual to help it attract new adherents.

African technological innovation rarely makes headlines in the West. But a Danish filmmaker is changing these perceptions with his film showing the dynamism and enthusiasm behind the open source software movement in Africa. The yet-untitled film, directed by David Madie, is from Eighty Days Productions and is due for release in the spring of 2007. It follows a young computer entrepreneur, Wire Lunghabo James, from Uganda’s Linux Solutions in Africa, who has been instrumental in building the Web’s presence in the country and in East Africa.

“This film will show the characters fighting for what they believe in. This happens to be Open Source, which I think is an important agenda,” director Madie told Tactical Technology Collective ( www.tacticaltech.org), a website “demystifying technology for non-profits.”

Unlike off-the-shelf software, open source software has many advantages. It is free, and no licence fee is required, so as many copies as necessary can be made. It is fully customisable, so local languages and cultural conditions can be taken into consideration. It is a universal language (the most popular is Linux) and thus it is easier to understand how a specific application works. For developing countries, it has the advantage of empowering local programmers and dymistifying computer programming, removing it from the domain of private companies and large government agencies. In 2005 the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) urged African countries to embrace open source software to encourage the growth of indigenous software development.

“I think he (James) is also a role model in the sense that he combines doing a business, with doing social work. To him these things are not opposites: these are things that can perfectly work well together. You can do business in a social manner,” Madie said.

The Ubuntu software programme is a complete, free operating system that emphasizes community, support, and ease of use while refusing to compromise on speed, power, and flexibility. Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning humanity to others, and its software version is described as Linux for human beings – designed for everyone from computer novices to experts. Ubuntu is the most in-demand Linux system in Africa, and the official guide is aimed at NGOs, home users or small businesses.

One Laptop Per Child Project (OLPC)

In another development, the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC) has announced the release for general sale of its durable bright green and yellow laptops ready loaded with Linux-based operating systems. Customers in wealthy countries will have to buy two laptops, with the second going to a developing country. Five million will be delivered to the developing world over the summer of 2007. The eventual aim is to sell the machine to developing countries for US $100, but the current cost of the machine is about US $150. The OLPC laptop’s software has been designed to work specifically in an educational context. It has built-in wireless networking and video conferencing so that groups of children can work together. The OLPC project is working with the search engine Google, who will act as “the glue to bind all these kids together”. Google will also help the children publish their work on the internet.

The One Laptop Per Child project (http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Home) has struck its first deal with Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame to provide every school pupil with a laptop computer within the next five years. The laptops and all the support costs will be covered by OLPC.

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