The development of a society largely depends on the access to information. The Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) greatly facilitate the flow of information and knowledge offering the socially-marginalised and unaware community unprecedented opportunities to attain their own entitlements. ICT is a critical tool to tackle development issues in developing countries. Despite ICT’s massive potential, the current global information explosion has had surprisingly little impact on development activities and access to practical information for rural communities, local people and frontline development workers in developing countries. Kenya is one such country rolling within the vicious circle of deprivation and obstacles.
Country Overview and Background
Kenya is in the process of a transition from a predominantly agrarian economy to an industrial and service economy. Kenya's population remains predominantly rural where poverty is widespread.
In recent years the rural people of the country empowered significantly to warrant a renewed articulation of the strategies that they could employ to reduce poverty and improve well-being. The contribution of Agriculture in the economy of Kenya is still highest even with its old technology and ICT can directly contribute in commercialization and increasing value added services within the sector which ultimately tends to empower the rural communities.
The loop of low income, poor infrastructure, low education, poor awareness, poor governance, lack of political commitment, high bureaucratic attitude and non-availability of relevant and related contents make the ICT related development activities in Kenya complicated, particularly in the rural areas. The existing ICT services available in Kenya are not concentrating on the core elements like social awareness, physical access center, local and relevant content, enterprise development, alternate connectivity and capacity building.
ICT - An emerging development tool
The new Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is the most powerful tool among the driving forces of globalization. ICT is bringing people together, bringing the unprecedented new tools for development (like mobile phone, online citizen services – paying utility bills online, publishing public exam results on the web, distance education programs, telemedicine, online discussion forums, online business advisory and marketing information service, human right and consumer awareness through online forum, archiving of local heritage on the web, etc) through internet and CDs and have become a powerful tool to contribute in the development process. To empower the local communities with a sustainable approach, ICT is the most effective instrument. At the same time a real danger is mounting in the developing countries like Kenya and the poor communities of the society are being excluded from the emerging knowledge based global economy and the digital-divide is increasing among the rural peoples.
Poverty Eradication, ICT, Empowering the Rural Communities
Access to information is of fundamental importance to any development process. The flow of information from and to the rural communities is an essential pre-condition for the development of rural Bangladesh towards eradication of widespread poverty. The recent development of ICT is greatly facilitating the flow of information and knowledge, beyond the border of social and economic status. It is in this context, ICTs are now widely recognized as a critical tool to tackle development issues in developing countries.
Moreover, poverty is in part a consequence of the present growth and the delivery of education and health services becomes difficult due to population growth. It also revealed that poverty reduction cannot happen in an information-deprived environment (for example, earlier farmers living in the rural areas of Kenya had no access to market information and they were always deprived by the local middlemen who manipulate the prices of agri-products). Poverty reduction is possible only in an environment where publics and particularly the poor have information on the issues that affect their lives. Information empowerment is recognized as an important factor to stimulate debate and strengthen participation in the democratic processes.
Kenya has experienced a very successful model of connecting rural people through mobile phone service.
Multipurpose Telecenter (MPTC): The Kenyan Approach
MPTC has become a popular approach in many developing countries and offers integrated ICT services for the rural communities with accessibility in the net (For example, India – Information Kiosks and Knowledge Center, Thailand – Thai Rural Net, Brazil – Telecenter, Indonesia – Warnet, Albania – Public Information center, etc.). In the Kenyan model of MPTC, the focus should be on youth (Both professional and unemployed) and women community of the society. MPTC offers sharing ICT based services and knowledge. Alternate Connectivity is the strategic strength of MPTC which can be defined as the combination of phases: Collecting the relevant and local / global information and material available in any format (Hardcopy, Soft copy, CD version) with social and development aspect, Selecting the related and relevant content / materials for dissemination, Converting the materials into CD version (PDF/ Word/ Graphics), Releasing the CDs on periodical basis and disseminate to the target rural communities, Ensure minimum infrastructure (PC with CD Rom) at field level. Alternate Connectivity will open new channels that bring new knowledge and information resources to rural communities.The model in Kenya should have strategic partnership with private sector enterprises and are resolving some critical problems like connectivity, local content, SME advisory services, expert opinion, business network building, etc.The model should use both traditional media (like print media – newsletter) and new technologies (like the Internet, CD, mobile telephony) for disseminating information and advisory services. The major challenges for the model are addressing the less aware community (both grass root and policy makers), affordable connectivity solution, developing a Business Model and identifying universal service line.
Sustainability – A critical issue
The benefits of the rural ICT projects should be measured not only from the economic and financial aspects, but also in terms of the real benefits empowering the local communities, which should be considered primarily to assess the sustainability of the projects. Value of the benefits in long run towards poverty eradication and social empowerment, which are the ultimate goal of any social venture, should not be ignored. While just focusing financial sustainability may distract the very objective of rural ICT endeavors, it is important to concentrate on making the rural ICT efforts self-sustainable, through offering different income generating activities in addition to development and social services.
To overcome the vicious circle of poverty, bridge the digital divide and empower the rural communities, ICT can be utilized to build internal and collective capacity. In combination with various components and integration of services with focus to enterprise development, citizen services, social issues, MPTC will bring the benefits of modern technology for the rural communities of Kenya also applicable for other developing countries. To speed up the poverty alleviation in rural areas, policy and program efforts need to support, coordinate and link work in social services, agriculture, infrastructure, natural resources, finance and rural non-farm development. The MPTC approach can bring new window to challenge poverty in the long-run which requires integrating policies and programs in the field of rural ICT.