|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East I 2003|
|Topic:||ICTs and African Communities in Uganda and Senegal: Meeting their Expectations?|
|Title:||Team Leader, International Development Research Centre|
|Organisation:||Acacia Programme Connections|
Laurent Elder is the Acting Team Leader of the International Development Research Centre’s Acacia programme initiative. The Acacia programme is a Pan-African research programme, which supports research that demonstrates how ICTs can benefit African communities. Laurent has been working in IDRC’s regional office for West and Central Africa in Dakar and Senegal for over three years. Prior to this, he was based in IDRC’s headquarters in Ottawa, Canada. His academic background is in the social sciences (MA History) and management (MBA).
Have African Communities benefited from ICTs? Currently, there is little hard data and no simple answer. The IDRC’s Acacia programme is working to document African expectations and the perceived results when ICTs are introduced. Generally, communities expected ICTs to make positive changes in their jobs, education, health, agriculture and the environment. The key benefit, it turned out, was new skill development, which interestingly, had not been an “expected” outcome. ICTs, though, did not immediately improve incomes, as many had hoped.
Introduction Have communities in Africa benefited from computers, telephones, cellphones and other information technologies? There is no simple answer to this question. Even if we could be clear about what African communities expected from information and communication technologies (ICTs), it is both difficult to measure the outcomes and to say for sure whether people’s expectations have been met. But it’s worth a try – and try is what the Acacia programme has done. Acacia is the African arm of an ICT research programme, which is supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Acacia is currently in the process of publishing the results of five years of study and experience related to the introduction of ICTs in African communities. The types of projects Acacia supported ranged from piloting the development of multi-purpose community telecentres in rural areas, to experimenting with ICTs in African schools. The results of these project experiences have been put in the form of three Pan African evaluative studies, which focus, respectively, on community-based development and ICTs, telecentres and school networking. This article will discuss what certain communities in Africa expected from ICTs and then determine to what extent their expectations were met, based on evidence collected from the aforementioned evaluative studies. The article will also essentially focus on livelihoods and income-generation issues, which are, of course, key concerns for these communities . ICTs, African Communities and Expectations As can be imagined, ICTs gave rise to many expectations among the communities that were the subject of Acacia’s research. This suggests that Africans, even in rural communities, have started to be aware of the role that these instruments can play in economic and social development. A survey was undertaken at the early stage of the projects, before ICTs were introduced, to determine what the expectations of ICTs were from the community’s perspective. The results from these surveys show that the effects or changes that individuals expected from ICTs were quite variable (Tables 1 and 2). Generally they expected ICTs to make positive changes in their jobs, education, health, agriculture and the environment. Interestingly, the tables show that in Uganda, female entrepreneurs rated “communicating” as the most important potential role (40 per cent), whereas in Senegal “information” was cited most often after “development tool”. Hence, for the majority of respondents, the importance of ICTs lies mostly in their role as a tool to convey information or communicate. In general, community expectations directly correspond to the level of understanding that communities have of the relationship between ICTs and the improvement of their living conditions. In their view, ICTs should facilitate business development through improved access to information on product prices (inputs and outputs), on markets and on various other resources. Therefore, in agriculture, African farmers expect ICTs to facilitate access to high-yielding varieties at competitive prices, input suppliers or credit institutions and access to information on how to improve their farming practices to increase crop yields. For example, farmers in the Ross Béthio region of Senegal expected ICTs to provide access to new knowledge on irrigation techniques and rice varieties for irrigated farming because they would like to shift to cash crops that provide better economic returns. In Uganda, the people in Rubaya and the East and Central African highlands, hope to gain access to information and knowledge that would enable them to improve their agricultural production techniques and their income. “In their view, ICTs should facilitate business development through improved access to information on product prices (inputs and outputs), on markets and on various other resources. Therefore, in agriculture, African farmers expect ICTs to facilitate access to high-yielding varieties at competitive prices, input suppliers or credit institutions …” With respect to trade, an oft-mentioned potential benefit of ICTs is that they should facilitate communication and reduce the time needed for transactions. In the main production areas, producers, in the absence of any information on prices and potential outlets (notably, on the local markets), are often at the mercy of middlemen (who generally do not create any significant “value-added” in production networks). The producers who are using the services of one Acacia project, Trade Point Senegal (TPS), hoped to meet new partners with whom they could set up large-scale farming and gain new markets for their production. This would help them overcome constraints related to the narrowness of the local market in their farming area. Female entrepreneurs in the Buwama and Kampala regions of Uganda hoped that ICTs would give them access to information that would help them improve the financial position of their businesses. It is important to note, however, that some potential users of ICTs did not see a link, or even a remote relationship, between the use of ICTs and the improvement of their economic and social conditions. A comment made by a community leader in Maka Coulibantang, in Senegal, is quite revealing: We want to know how the computer and Internet can improve our living conditions. We know that with a well we have access to water, which we use for our market gardening so we can make more money to buy food and also improve our food diet. But as far as ICTs are concerned, you need to show us how this is possible. This same issue is described in Uganda, where many potential users do not always see the usefulness of ICTs: For the small business that I’m running, ICTs do not mean anything…these sophisticated machines are not made for people like us. How can those machines be of any help? They are maybe useful to educated people who have big businesses to run (A Woman in Uganda, November 2000). ICTs remain a mystery for the majority of the people…they do not understand things like computers, Internet, email and other modern means of communication. This might be explained by the fact that they are ignorant or that these technologies are beyond their reach; however, it could also be explained by the fact that they attach little importance to information compared with other more urgent problems such as poverty, healthcare, children’s education and marketing of agricultural products (Community Leader, Kabale District, Uganda, November 2000). However, some officials who have been made aware of the potential role of ICTs for development foresee the positive transforming effects of their use: Our farmers are facing numerous agricultural problems. Information is the key to solving part of these problems, and hence, to development. An ICT project would be useful if it meets farmers’ expectations and needs in terms of information. Information is an essential resource for the modernisation of agriculture (Director of Production and Marketing, Kabale Local Committee, Uganda). How African Communities Actually Used ICTs Once ICTs had been introduced and usage of them made by these same people, our researchers went to study how and for what purposes they had been used. Essentially, we needed to find out if the technology had really had an effect on these people and had met their expectations. The major areas where changes were observed or described can be summed up as follows: capacity building, better sanitary conditions, better educational conditions, higher income, employment generation, higher production, greater involvement in community matters, greater involvement of women and youth in productive activities, improvement of contacts with family members, access to information and introduction of new values. However, as mentioned earlier, we will focus on the areas related to income generation and livelihoods for the purpose of this article. Numerous respondents mentioned that they had developed new capacities with the help of ICTs, notably through the training programmes on data processing and other areas that were part of the accompanying Acacia projects. In Uganda, women who were involved in a project run by CEEWA were able to start up economic activities after they received their training. In fact, 69 out of the 90 women surveyed were trained in management of small and medium-sized enterprises: 53.6 per cent of them acquired the capacity to calculate cost and benefits; 24.6 per cent the capacity to monitor their activities; 10.1 per cent developed skills in customer service; 4.3 per cent learned to keep statistics and 11.6 per cent became personally more experienced in their work. In addition, 78 per cent of the women who were trained also trained their children, partners, neighbours, or relatives and acquaintances. With their acquired skills, numerous Ugandan women told us that they began to achieve higher incomes and find new markets for their products. In the trade and commercial areas, time-saving seems to be the most important result achieved. These savings are mentioned by entrepreneurs who maintained business relations with partners scattered inside and especially outside Africa. These people use the telephone and email most often and said that they now feel closer to their partners and have been able to increase the outlets for their goods and services. The following examples, which are extracted from interviews with entrepreneurs and ICT users, illustrate how ICTs have been used: Through the Trade Point project in Senegal, a few entrepreneurs have been able to enter into partnership with foreign operators through the Internet to expand their economic activities. For example, the leader of a Podor-based enterprise known as “GIE Sahel Agro-Enterprise” established a partnership through the Internet. He received samples of pesticides and introduced them to farmers for testing. He now fills regular orders from farmers at competitive prices, and reported that this activity had become prosperous In another example, a baker, who happened to share the same building with a Trade Point telecentre unit in Joal-Fadiouth (Senegal), frequently visited the centre to ask the managers for information. He finally acquired a computer and has now computerised his business management system, although he only has an intermediate-level education Through the national TPS network, a market for local agricultural products has been organised to link surplus and deficit areas. Onion producers in Podor (Saint-Louis region) were able to use the TPS infrastructure to dispose of their surplus production by selling it to traders based in the Thies region who had expressed their need through the TPS website. Nevertheless, some users are growing impatient to see results from the use of the Internet and feel some bitterness: the leader of an organisation based in Thiès (Senegal) declared: I subscribed to the unit and always pay money to connect to the Internet to find partners who potentially can help me take out a patent for my inventions. I was made to believe that I could easily find partners on the Internet with whom to do business. Yet, I am more and more tempted not to spend my money anymore by connecting to the Internet knowing that so far I’ve not had any results. The surveys in Uganda and Senegal (Tables 3 and 4) illustrate that many people in Uganda perceived the improvement in communication with family and friends as a significant benefit of ICTs. This was mentioned by an important number of respondents in Senegal as well (21.3 per cent). Moreover, in Senegal, most people (32.6 per cent) cited “individual capacity building” as an important change that occurred, which also ranked highly in Uganda (20 per cent). The surveys we conducted also seem to confirm that income generation activities, which were high on the list of expectations, did not rate highly on the list of changes actually occurring. Nevertheless, ‘job creation’ was cited by an important number of people in the Ugandan communities, but this can be explained by the creation of jobs related to managing the telecentre, which could be considered as project specific and therefore not actual job creation. Conclusion The question remains : did the introduction of ICTs into the African communities have an expected positive effect on the lives of people in these communities? Communities in Uganda and Senegal generally expected ICTs to make positive changes in their jobs, education, health, agriculture, and the environment and, consequently, act as a “development tool”. The majority of respondents also assumed the importance of ICTs lay mostly in its role as a tool to convey information or communicate more effectively. However, it is interesting to note that several community members had very few expectations from ICTs and either didn’t feel they would be relevant or perceived them to be beyond their reach. It is therefore remarkable to compare expectations with the changes that actually happened, according to the community members themselves, when they were introduced to computers. The key benefit that accrued to them was the development of new skills, which, interestingly, had not been mentioned as an ‘expected’ outcome. We suspect that before people in these communities had been introduced to ICTs, they could not imagine the sense of empowerment they would get from learning how to use this type of tool, often perceived as being ‘out of reach’. Two other key changes wrought by ICTs were that people had greater access to information that could help them in their daily lives, also people were able to communicate more easily with friends, family and business associates. Both of these changes had, to a certain extent, been anticipated. However ICTs were not perceived as having had a widespread role in immediately improving incomes, as many in the communities had hoped. The effects, as we mentioned, were more on the scale of skills development, better information and easier communication, which are all, as we know, important elements of development, but need to be viewed as having a long-term effect on livelihoods. A few stories of women in Uganda and an onion trader in Senegal are encouraging though. They prove that these communities need to be revisited regularly, in order to appreciate if these types of stories are becoming more common, and to uncover the long-term development impacts of ICTs. The Acacia programme is actually focused on trying to understand how ICTs benefit African communities so that development organisations and African governments can understand how best to utilise ICTs for Africa’s development. This article was limited to understanding the changes that occurred due to ICT projects, however the publication this article is based on (see footnote on page 19) also describes the key elements governments and development organisations should take into consideration if they want to ensure the communities they represent have access to the full potential ICTs can offer. We thought we should therefore end this article with a summary of them: 1. There is no single process of introducing ICTs. The process is dynamic and consists of several stages, including raising awareness about the potential of ICTs for community development; encouraging basic use of ICTs and providing specific products and content to meet local demands (e.g., materials in national languages and products tailored to the needs of specific sectors of the population, such as disabled people). 2. Participation is a crucial problem in the process of introducing and promoting the use of ICTs. In the communities surveyed, ICTs were generally introduced through projects and community participation was often limited to complementary contributions. The research findings demonstrate that appropriation mechanisms have been initiated within the communities, but finding ways to involve large segments of the population still constitutes a real problem, even when people are aware of the potential usefulness of ICTs. In-depth studies must be carried out to understand the decision-making mechanisms of the different community actors with regard to ICTs. It is equally important to try to better understand the attitude of communities toward changes, so as to identify the factors that underlie the adoption of ICTs by poor rural communities. 3. Adaptable and affordable alternative technologies (e.g., 802.11b or WiFi) as well as alternative business models are needed to ensure universal access to ICTs.