Rural gateway to the future

How do you introduce first world computer and Internet technologies into the rural heartland of a developing country? You don’t. You introduce appropriate technology to suit the circumstances and the users.

In Mogalakwena municipality, in Limpopo province, this is the guiding principle behind the successful launch of a wide-ranging initiative, the HP i-community, which celebrated its first anniversary on Sunday and was praised by President Thabo Mbeki for its achievements.

The i-community is a unique example of cooperation between the private and public sectors - it is a three-year public- private partnership (PPP) between computer giant Hewlett-Packard the Mogalakwena Municipality and Limpopo province - and was launched as HP’s legacy project from the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, for which it was the technology sponsor.

The objective is to find breakthrough models of social and economic development by linking the region’s towns, villages, organisations and people via a comprehensive information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure.

The principal centre compromises a business resources centre, e-government gateway, a PC refurbishment centre, a call centre and training facilities. It is based in Mahwelereng, just outside Mokopane (formerly Potgietersrus).

But the whole project is as comprehensive as the sprawling education centre it now occupies a wing of.
There are a further 20 community access points in three geographic areas and it has already trained over 1000 people in how to use computers, which is seen as a first step in developing other skills and knowledge.

“The i-community project is unique in its holistic approach to the role that ICT innovation can play in enabling sustainable development,” says Clive Smith, the i-community project director and a director of HP’s emerging market solutions group. “The goals of the i-community were very specific: to make breakthrough using ICT and to create a model for replication.”

One year into its three year plan to achieve self-sustainability, the project appears to have made a good start.

Mbeki was lavish in his praise when he toured the facilities last Sunday. “What we do here is respond to the needs of the people,” he says. “Clive made a very interesting comment: what might be taught at business schools around the country where people go and get MBAs, is not the training can be transferred to what is being done here.”

Indeed, while computer training and overcoming technophobia is the necessary first step - the centres have trained over a 1000 locals to use computers, including all 62 municipal councillors, in the past three months - the i-community is aiming to foster skills in everything from small business management to tourism.

“The intention is not just to create IT workers. The intention is to bring about social and financial development,” says the i-community’s economic development head, Asma Hassan, who was brought up in the town and whose brother still lives there. “I think it is important that people get familiar with IT because other learning takes places.”

Many of the locals who were trained in basic computer use, including accounting software, have been able to use it to create budgets and send their children in urban centres email. “Sixty percent of people had never touched a computer before because they thought they would break it,” she adds.

Obviously building ICT capacity has been an important first step, not just in skills but in providing the appropriate technology, says HP’s Hayward Rose, who has been responsible for building up a network of computers and Internet access every bit as complex as that created for the summits thousands of visitors. Innovative solutions include portable solar-powered units (in suitcases on wheels) for using laptops and digital cameras in remote villages.

What has been accomplished in a year is remarkable, say many of the organisers and participants, due in no small part to Smith’s passion and determination. The South African has consulted on technology for many years in States before returning to head HP’s World Summit project and to launch the i-community, which is only the third such initiative the technology company has made.

He says the scale of the problem in developing countries of lack of access to computers, the Internet and the benefits of ICT require what HP calls a “breakthrough” or “intervention”. In essence something powerful and radical is needed to introduce these benefits.

A year ago there was no municipal website, no public access to PCs or the Internet for the area’s 360 000 people, no computer access, no business resource centre, no computers in 22 health clinics and only seven out of 262 schools had computers. The largest law firm had 11 computers and 11 printers because they didn’t have the capacity to network the computers in order to use one printer.

But a year later, the i-community is up and running, 20 community access points in schools and libraries are active, there several business resources centres (which train locals in appropriate business techniques and provide access to technology), a technology support call centre (where people are trained how to do computer support in clinics and schools) and both the municipality (www.mogalakwena.org.za) and i-community (www.hpicommunity.org.za) have websites, available in three languages.

Another key feature is the PC refurbishing centres, which Smith says takes computers from corporate companies, fixes and refurbishes them and supplies them to schools. They also plan to sell these to the public at low prices in the future.

“People who would usually have go to Gauteng to get a job at a dot com are staying,” says Hassan. “People are seeing the potential to stay here. We are contributing to reversing the brain drain.”

Both Mbeki and Smith believe the i-community may pave the way for similar such projects.

“It is a model. We are trying out something that might be relevant for other projects in South Africa and other countries,” Mbeki says.

For more on the HP i-community, see www.hpicommunity.org.za.

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