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Empowering Rural Communities with ICT PDF Print E-mail

 By Musinguzi Bamuturaki


AS SHE browses the Internet at the Nabweru Community Multimedia Centre (CMC) computer lab, Lovincer Nabanja recounts how the facility has enabled her to acquire computer and business skills leading to better management of her restaurant.


"The center has uplifted me very much in that I can use it to run my restaurant and outside catering service," Nabanja pauses to tell me. "With the Internet I learn new ideas on the day to day operations of my business, customer care and log on the foodnet.com to know the current prices of fresh food items for the restaurant, besides savings skills," the 46-year-old single mother said.


Suleiman Senyonga, another beneficiary of the centre and owner of Senyonga, Sendegeya and Sons Metal Works says the centre has enabled him acquire computer and business management skills and making friendships over the Internet with metal workers across the global with whom he shares the same trade to exchange business ideas.


Seated in his office in the busy Jua Kali section of Katwe suburb in Kampala, Senyonga said: "The centre has helped me in various ways. There is a time I thought I was independent and self reliant, but when I joined the centre in 1999 I later learnt that two heads are better than one. If we can work together and collaborate with our counterparts with better technology in South Africa and India we shall realize development."


It's at the centre that Senyoga developed the idea of forming the Katwe Small Scale Industrial Development Association (KASSID) of which he is the chairman in 2005 to bring all the Jua Kali artisans together to have one voice. KASSID now boosts of 230 members. "We all need each other for an integrated business strategy in Katwe," Senyoga said.


Senyoga also says he still uses the facilities at the centre to receive his fax messages and typeset his documents related to his metal fabrication business. His sales have gone up as a result of learning new business ideas.   "Before I joined I made a profit of Ushs1 million ($571) every six months and now I take home Ushs5 million ($2,857) every six months. My clients are mainly individuals who buy my fabricated windows, doors, gates, brick making machines, fences and many others," he revealed.


"I can also use the facilities at the center to personally typeset and print the receipts and orders of my restaurant (Ssenga and Sons Restaurant)." "Before I joined the center I would waste a lot of money to transport the daily supplies of the restaurant but now I just pick my mobile phone and they are delivered here at the current prices," Nabanja says.


Nabanja whose daily struggles have seen her expand her business by opening an outside catering service for all kinds of parties has managed to see her three children through tertiary education as a result of her hard work.


"Before I joined in 2002 as an adult leaner my children had almost failed to finish university education because I did not have enough money for tuition, through Nabweru CMC I have had them finish and I am now paying school fees for my grand children. I used to make a daily profit of Ushs.5, 000 ($2.8) per day compared to Ushs25, 000 ($14) that I earn today of which I save Ushs10, 000 ($5.7) on my account in Allied Bank," Nabanja revealed.


Senyoga decried the current power cuts. "The power cuts have affected my wielding machines and I can't afford an industrial generator, so our business is low at times." His advice to the Uganda National Bureau of Standards is to see that the bureau enforces the metal works specification standards. "At the end of the day it is important for us to maintain standards and trust of our customers," Senyonga said.


Nabanja and Senyonga are among several of the Nabweru CMC beneficiaries that have acquired Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) knowledge on improved farming techniques, child rights, entrepreneurship skills, and computer training, and indicated that they have been able to put this knowledge and skills into use and practice which has greatly improved on their performance.


Education in the areas has been positively impacted with evidence of better performances in schools. Reference materials for teachers are more readily available, as more and more teachers and students gain access to the centres for research purposes. Some resource centres have triggered a reading culture especially among the very young and school going youth.


The library services are normally offered free of charge. Studies have shown that the impact has been that several of the school going children have seriously taken the opportunity to use the centres as a reading place as well as meeting points. Parents have taken the initiative of registering with the resource centres to personally borrow books for their children.


On the political scene, all CMCs have aroused several reactions in the community. "Communities that were apolitical have now picked up interest in the governance and management of their areas and resources. Women have evidently been influenced into taking up more active roles in the management of their communities with several reports of the women taking up local council positions – status that was previously unheard of," an Evaluation and Impact Assessment Study on the pilot project for the establishment of the National Network of CMCs in Uganda carried out between December 2005 and January 2006 observed.


It's now evident that teachers, students and community members have more access to information moreover cheaply. "Most users were satisfied with the information they received from the CMCs and felt that it was appropriate to their needs," the study adds.


The availability of secretarial services at the CMCs has aided and improved working conditions in several nearby institutions. The centres established in their localities have checked the costs of traveling longer distances. Several other copycat business services have also been started; the demand however is still high and can accommodate all the new comers comfortably.


According the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), Communications Sector Comparative Figures for the period December 1996 to December 2006 there were only 17 Internet Service Providers by September 2006. There were only 129,863 fixed phone lines compared to 2,697,616 mobile cellular subscribers by December 2006. While Internet or email subscribers stood at 8,000 in September 2004.


A survey by UCC conducted on Internet Development in Uganda carried out in the districts of Jinja, Kampala, Lira, Mbale and Mbarara in October 2005, showed that 97.7 per cent of the respondents who use the Internet have benefited from the technology.  


Most of the respondents from education institutions said they use the Internet for research. For others, the Internet is popular for games and accessing personal e-mails.  As far as attitude towards the cost of using the Internet is concerned, 63.7 per cent are not satisfied with what they are paying their service providers for their Internet connection and most of these feel it's expensive. 


On access habits, the survey found out that 46 per cent of the respondents use the Internet daily, 42 per cent once a month and 11 per cent never. It was also disclosed that most people access the Internet through Internet cafes (80 per cent). Other sources are home connection (8 per cent), friend's place ( 6.4 per cent) and hotspots (5.7 per cent). 


On the public perception of services offered by ISPs, 41 per cent of the respondents felt the link was slow, expensive and not reliable, characterised by frequent break downs and poor connections. Others were lots of junk mails, password problems and narrow bandwidth hindering transfer of large data files. 


The Nabweru CMC located at Nabweru sub county headquarters, Kasangati in Wakiso district is about 10 Kilometers from Kampala. As non profit organisation it was implemented by the Uganda National Commission for UNESCO with the financial from the Belgian government in collaboration with the International Development Research Center of Canada (IDRC) to empower rural community members through use and application of ICTs.


The CMC project, a component of the African Information Society Initiative (AISI) and the UN System Wide Special Initiative on Africa was piloted in six districts of Uganda; Nakaseke, Wakiso, Mpigi, Kabale, Kibaale and Apac. AISI is an action framework that has been the basis for information and communication activities in Africa since 1996. AISI is not about technology. It is about giving Africans the means to improve the quality of their lives and fight against poverty. 


The CMCs are regularly turned into virtual offices. The CMC does not only aim to facilitate access to useful activities such as job-hunting or checking the price of agricultural goods in town, it also seeks to encourage the creation of locally relevant content. The development of a community's own resources, particularly data banks, audio and video archives, posters, brochures and CD-ROMs, are also part of the CMC's mission.


In the most remote regions, users of ICTs connect with the rest of the world through CMCs. This UNESCO programme, which seeks to bridge the digital divide, gives the most destitute and isolated communities in the developing world access to ICTs. At present, 30 CMCs are operating in 16 countries spread out over three continents of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. The CMCs integrate community radio stations with the infrastructure of community telecentres, for example computers linked to the internet, printers, faxes, photocopying machines, photo equipment, scanners among others.


Illiterate people also come to the CMCs where instructors help them browse the web. The monitors write e-mails and also read back the answers. As for semi-literate people, they learn to spot certain reference points as they browse. "Though the digital divide is far from being bridged, the CMCs prove that when people have access to ICT, they know exactly how to benefit from it, adapting it to their own needs," UNESCO observes.


Nabweru has a telecentre component that provides a range of services such as computer training, email and internet, scanning, photocopying, library, typesetting, video recording, local content that address community information needs among others. It also operates a community radio (Nabweru 102.5 tiger fm) that is used to disseminate both local and international information content to community members in their local languages.


Besides phone-ins, emails, letter writing, community participation is also encouraged through community involvement in programming and production. The objectives of the radio include developing an economically sustainable, community owned and community managed center that provide information and communication services by combining new and traditional technologies.


Complementary technologies, such as radio and internet, set the CMCs apart from traditional communications projects. "The CMC is an integrated association of technologies, of which the internet is a component. The radio is a means to broadcast information in the local language to the heart of communities. 'Radio-browsing' helps to bridge the generation gap, because parents can become familiar with the internet and not feel out of their depth when their children talk about downloading documents, for instance," UNESCO says.


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