Blogging from the bush: How ICT-led development is working in rural Zambia

Like many teenagers, Hantimba Mzundu spent his Christmas break studying for exams. However, few of his peers and predecessors in the rural Zambian chiefdom of Chikanta were hoping to qualify as an IT technician in the new year. “I never even expected to see a computer, let alone work with them,” Hantimba says. “I thought I would just be settled here as a farmer for the rest of my life.” Hantimba‘s modest ambition is unsurprising. The center of Chikanta, in the south of the country, is 45km (28 miles) from the nearest asphalt road. There’s no electricity or running water, and the majority of its residents are subsistence farmers.

Between a small group of thatched huts and the incongruously suburban-looking chief’s palace, there is a large blue shipping container with a giant satellite dish protruding from it. This is the new internet cafe, the inspiration for Hantimba‘s career choice, My Update Studio. Inside the container is a single PC that shares its 256Mbps internet connection with nine terminals powered by four solar panels on the roof. It is one of three similar containers shipped from the UK by Computer Aid International, based on an idea and design from the Zambian NGO Machaworks.

Chikan is the seventh community in which Machaworks has established a presence since the NGO was set up in 2003. Its ambition is to be a model for ICT-led development worldwide, a field that has fallen out of favor in recent years. ICTs were oversold during the late 1990s and early 2000s, and then under-delivered, says Prof Richard Heeks, the Centre for Development Informatics director at the University of Manchester. As a result, they were rather stigmatized in the development community. The shadow that cast has proven to be long, with the result that at least some development organizations are failing to attend to the current value that ICTs are now demonstrating in development.

However, Kentaro Toyama, who set up Microsoft’s Technology for Emerging Markets group, warns against evangelizing technology as a panacea for poverty. Toyama is now one of the best-known critics of ICT for development (also known as ITC4D) and writes a blog as the ICT4D Jester, at ict4djester.org. For anyone expecting to save the world with technology: you can’t, he wrote recently in the Boston Review.

Not unless the technology is applied where human intent and capacity are already present, or unless you are willing also to invest heavily in developing human capability and institutions.” While this may be true, there is no denying that in Chikanta, the use of ICT is changing lives. According to Gavin Chooka, who lives in Chikanta, computers are already making the community richer. Most of what people look for online is technical information for improving their farming techniques; and how to buy or make machinery to improve their crops,” he says.

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As well as helping to increase yields, farmers are using the internet to fight back against grain merchants who have historically bought crop surpluses at lower than market value. The internet cafe has become a center for agricultural co-operation and, explains Chooka; it has improved the market for farmers. The problem then is how to get crops to the buyers who are offering a good price, and that again is where the internet can help to organize and transport in bulk.

Elton Munguya, the head of Machaworks‘ networking division, Linnet, says its strategy enables community leaders to take ownership of technology and see it as a tool for other things. Our main goal is to inspire local communities to reach their potential, Munguia explains. We’re not just interested in internet connectivity. It’s always up to the community to suggest what they want in terms of development. But we know that at each stage, there’s a need for information, and the internet can provide the information that helps to bring about everything else.

The next stage for Chikanta, he says, is to expand the network to the local clinic so that patient records can be kept online, and doctors and health workers can communicate with distant hospitals. The biggest challenge, he admits, is the running costs. The hope is that Linknet‘s first and best-established project, in the village of Macha, about 15 miles from Chikanta, will be self-sufficient within two years.

Here, Linnet has started charging the equivalent of 2p a minute (150 kwacha) in its internet cafe and about £20 a month (150,000 kwacha) for WiFi access elsewhere. It recoups more cash by sharing its satellite connection with and providing technical support for the local hospital and a recently opened Zambia National Commercial Bank (Zanaco). The latter began offering services to farmers from another shipping container last year, thanks to internet access.

Even so, Linnet still needs donors to help meet it is $1,500 (£925) a month bill. But the long-term payoff is becoming apparent. Once a poor, remote village, Macha is becoming a – relatively – wealthy town with a college campus and lots of internet-inspired ideas. New cash crops, such as sunflowers, have been introduced, a bio-diesel farm has been planted, and there’s even a small plot of chalets for tourists who want to travel off the beaten path. How quickly and cost-effectively the lessons learned in Macha can be applied to newer projects, such as in Chikanta, are being carefully watched by those who believe access to ICT can accelerate development.

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