I read posting about community centers and wanted to share some
of the experience in Africa.
Community-based Internet service is an incomplete and good thing.
It is incomplete because, there are few connections available and
few users know what is all about and how it works. IP connections
in many African countries are full of bureaucratic and policy
steps. This must be sorted out within the next two years.
Community information access is a good thing because community-
based communication systems have existed for years. Other forms
of community information systems are not new to Africa and they
worked successfully worldwide. India is perhaps the best example.
Rural telephones in many countries in Africa existed in this
form. Therefore, it is evolution or extension.
Once IP connections are available community Internet information
network is a "fifteen inch" extension of connectivity to make IP
useful to all. In reality it is not as easy as that in Africa.
There are at least three ways of doing community information
access points using networking tools.
- Community-based web and BBS service (stuffed with all sort of
data including local government activities, vital weather,
agricultural, health and business information, downloadable files
etc). Access is via dial-up link.
- telecenters (different flavors similar to Indian teleshops
(run by family entrepreneurs), Peruvian local IP access centers
(run by local ISP) or a developing country version of cybercafes
(Jeff's suggestion) may be in hospitals, or market places, run by
governments or business. Here local users visit the shops to send
mail and browse for information.
- Intranets : these are not existing at the moment in Africa. In
the future best options to wake up large inefficient and
Community-based web access points are now possible in urban
centers where full access to Internet is limited and to those
that cannot afford paying for international and national phone
bills. We have tried this in Ethiopia before having IP
connection. It works. Here are some of the problems we faced with
the Hornet a community web information resource in Addis Ababa:
- technical: Some different software platforms (DOS, Windows 3.X,
Windows 95, Mac, etc.) create difficulty in supporting and
maintaining SLIP, PPP connections.
- training: Many users have no idea what is all about, how it
works, how to publish their information. Regular training (how to
configure Winsock, load and use browser, HTML, etc.) and then
- up to date information: the major hurdle is making the BBS and
local web information alive. We need support personnel with a
good information management and networking background. Then
information supply from local and international sources via CD-
ROM or other means. Regular survey and user needs study to make
it relevant and useful. Making information available is the
- expansion of access: our users are only those with good
knowledge of the PC environment. Many do not know it exists. We
are marketing it in various forms. It cannot market itself;
networking clock is slow in developing countries. Others do not
bother with technical problems and withdraw quickly. Others feel
local information is inferior...
-communication technology: bad phone lines. We face bad phones
dilemma for those outside of Addis Ababa. (Here we are looking at
alternatives to reach some of the users in the field). There are
no good solutions for the "last mile" as yet. May solutions exist
but technically not friendly to local standards.
The second form (Telecenter type of Internet access) needs full
IP connection. Then the question of making it useful to local
needs, settings etc. That means development of new user
interface and language translation.
Intranets are just nonexistent. We are trying in some big
institutions whenever LAN is available. Results are exciting.
Given the above it seems premature to think of community network
for information exchange. We found it exciting for those who
access it. It brought all kinds of nice things (learning TCP/IP
tools, access to news, debates, data on health, commerce,
research info, etc.) We encourage all who want to do it. Think
small and scale.
The vicious circle question always remain. How can Internet tools
help local community? Can developing countries bypass some of the
mistakes made by developed countries such as making access to
external users before building internal information resources, or
continue working on "linear data bases" in a place of narrative
or hyperlink type of information? Can we forget community based
Internet access, because many Africans are farmers? Or help the
two layers ((civil servants, international, NGOs, urban business)
+ development workers that bring farmers and governments closer)
start ahead with these new tools?
The problem is simply getting the right and skilled local experts
to turn ideas to reality.