May Net2 Think Tank Round-up: Improving Lives in Rural Communities with ICTs

Claire Sale's picture

May 17th marked the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD). To celebrate, we used this year's WTISD theme, "Better Life in Rural Communities with ICTs" to guide our Net2 Think Tank question for May. And wow did you respond! We had some of our best Net2 Think Tank responses to date!

Specifically, we asked you to share your ideas for closing the digital divide for people living in rural areas all around the world. Below, we've compiled all of the community responses for the Net2 Think Tank.

Topic: How can the lives of people living in rural areas be improved using ICT? What are your tactics and best practices for helping rural communities using web or mobile technology? And, which projects are already doing this well?


While this month's Net2 Think Tank is now closed, you're always welcome to add your feedback on the subject. Feel free to add your ideas in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

Ideas and Lessons Learned 

The following responses include lessons learned and new ideas from years of experience working with technology in rural areas:

Customize Solutions to the Local Community
Submitted by Trust Birungi, Student at Makerere University, Uganda. Read the full submission.

In my opinion, i don't think that there is a master ICT solution to improve people's lives in rural areas. Any ICT solution to be implemented would have to be customized to the locality in which it is to be applied. Effective sensitization of the locals has to be done so as to enable the people to understand how such a project will help them. In some rural areas, there have been such successful projects tailored to the regions in which they are implemented. An example i can cite is a project in northern Uganda where medical officers use PDAs over a low-cost cellular network to reduce costs and improve the quality and accessibility of health care information.
>>Further reading on the project.


Increase Technology Leadership in Libraries
Submitted by Jim Boyd, Librarian in Bondurant, Iowa, USA. Read the full submission and learn more about TechSoup for Libraries.

I’d argue that librarians need to take a greater leadership role in our communities with regard to technology. The public, as you may have noticed, is coming around to realizing the role that libraries play in their technological lives. In the libraries where I’ve worked, I’ve seen an increasing number of library users come to see my colleagues and myself as technology experts—intelligent, educated people able to provide guidance in a very confusing world of information and misinformation, computer jargon, and not a lot of straight talk. We librarians tend to be humble, but this is a place where we should absolutely not be humble. Where else can the public find unbiased technology information from a real human being who isn’t out to sell them something? If you do not consider yourself tech savvy, this can be a daunting prospect, to say the least. I would suggest, however, that educating yourself is not as difficult as you might think if you take it one step at a time. >>Read the rest of this submission


Follow a Participatory and Problem-driven Approach
Submitted by Simone Sala, Postdoctoral Researcher at Columbia University, New York, USA. Read the full submission.

In my opinion the basic starting point is always the implementation of a participatory assessment of the local threats to and opportunities for sustainable development. This must be done with local communities, in order to target real problems; in addition, this approach promote a sense of ownership of the whole development intiative, and it is likely to have more success.

An interesting framework for the application of ICT for Development is provided by the 'Communication for Development' approach, pioneered by UN-FAO and the College for Development Communication (The University of Philippines - Los Banos) among the others. See a series of training material here.

Following a participatory and problem-driven approach is thus key to understand what ICTs and how they should be implemented, as ICT itself is never a magic wand.

Once set this 'methodological' basis, I could sat that the convergence of rural radios, mobile phones and the Web can now be considered THE tool through which boosting development in rural areas. This 'trident' can be applied to specific sectoral problem, i.e. dissemination of agricultural information, provision of medical 'second opinion', support to early warning for disaster risk reduction, etc.


Steer Leadership, Initiative and Investment
Submitted by James Van Leeuwen, Entrepreneur in ICT for Development, Alberta, Canada. Read the full submission.

How can people in rural areas improve their lives using ICT? If leadership, initiative and investment come from rural communities themselves, ICT adoption and utilization evolve much faster than if ICT solutions are implemented through external agency.

Shahid [above] points out that most of the models that have succeeded are private enterprise models. If communities understand how ICT can benefit them, the demand will be there to support private enterprise. This underscores the value of education around the vast utility of ICT and best practices in ICT deployment and utilization. The latter would include entrepreneurial practices that have proven most successful.

On this basis, I would argue with Shahid that there is indeed a fairly generic solution for accelerating ICT adoption and utilization, and for reaping the benefits vis-a-vis sustainable economic and community development.


Build Confidence and Competence
Submitted by Clara Fuchs-Smith, Managing Director at Futureworks Consulting Inc, Canada. Read the full submission.

ICT's and development in rural areas can be complicated by lack of access, knowledge, and resources. My approach is to cultivate local leadership, engage strategic partners, and let the people decide what they want and how they will use ICT. As others have already stated, there is no off-the-shelf approach, each community has its own issues, challenges and opportunities. Building confidence along with competence is key. And, from my experience, finding women in the community interested to learn and lead is always a smart move.


Increase Local Ownership and Involvement
Submitted by Silvia Caicedo, Program Officer at International Development Research Centre, Canada. Read the full submission.

Enabling choice and ownership of the process [is] key to success and appropriate relevant use. Women, children and elders are key in shoring up support, but the idea has to be shared and owned, without local ownership the integration is minimal.


Swap Learnings on the Web
Submitted by Jayne Cravens, Community Engagement Expert, Portland, Oregon, USA. Read the full submission.

Some things I've written related to the subject of phones, smart phones, computers, Internet, etc. - improving lives in rural communities:

    - What keeps women out of ICT4D projects? (blog)
    - Women's Access to Public Internet Centers in Transitional and Developing Countries (web page)
    - How Cell Phones Benefit Vulnerable People (blog)
    - Handheld computer technologies in community service/volunteering/advocacy (web page)
    - United Nations Information Technology Service - UNITeS (archived web site)
    - Free & open source software brings huge benefits to developing world  (blog)
    - UN Volunteer ICT4D Assignments - the link will take you to the archived page at These profiles are presented by country.


Consider Benefits for Sustainable Communities
Submitted by Paul Nash, Penval Project Support Services Ltd, Shrewsbury, United Kingdom. Read the full submission.

When we talk about how ICTs can help rural communities let’s be quite clear: this is not about applications or specific technologies. Unless you’re advocating depopulation of rural areas and a revival of the enclosures act then access to ICTs is core to the sustainability of rural communities.

Rural areas need ICT to make small businesses viable, to create startup space so that younger people don’t feel they have to leave to create a future for themselves. Rural areas need ICTs to enable the supply chains that make shops and services accessible and subsequently viable without everything being predicated on a car journey. Most importantly rural areas need ICTs so that they can become smart, so that they can leverage the power of information to manage resources and to reduce the impact of distance.


Leadership Roles for Innovation

The following contributions shared beliefs on roles for companies, non-governmental organizations, and research institutions for taking leadership roles in providing rural ICT opportunities:

The Role of Private Sector and NGOs
Submitted by Shahid Uddin Akbar, Owner, BIID, Bangladesh. Read the full submission.

Already, a no. of successful model has been introduced and running successfully in many countries. We have seen excellent mobile and web based solution targeting to the farmers, SMEs and overall rural communities to improve livelihood.

And interestingly, most of these are private sector driven approach. Development resources only used in some cases at the very early stage of these projects. But in the ICT4D arena, mostly driven by NGOs and development agencies, is still struggling to address these issues in a sustainable approach.

Net2 Think Tank can highlight the successes of private sector and facilitate promoting these as cases rather than only bringing people and projects from NGOs.


The Role of Research and Academia
Submitted by Md Mahfuz Ashraf, Lecturer in Management Information Technology at University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Read the full submission.

We need REAL systematic results (outcome/ouput/impact etc) NOT 'success story' of ICT4D initiatives to see whether it reduced poverty or not. This can only be done through M&E research where both academicia and practicioners need to acknowledge each other. Othersie, the whole ICT4D disciple will be questionable.


Projects and Case Studies

The following are submissions from interesting projects happening on the ground in rural areas. They may help to inspire ideas or provide proof of concept to existing ideas:

Providing Hyper-local News to Rural India via SMS: SMSONE
Submitted by Ravi Ghate, Innovator-Director, SMSONE, Pune, India. Read the full submission.

About: SMSONE empowers under-served rural communities through Local a SMS Community Newsletter. This solution creates information sharing, employment and learning opportunities, and development for rural communities in India.

Empowering Rural Indian Farmers through Voice-Assisted Services: Grameenomobia
Submitted by Yatin Thakur of WiserEarth, India. Read the full submission.

About: Grameenomobia was established by a group of social entrepreneurs and developers to empower Indian Farmers with latest farming techniques and other servicesr to help them improve their productivity levels, living standards and overall condition.

We are providing voice assisted services in rural areas, wherein all the requirements are being mapped by the local agent network, and information is provided through Interactive Voice Response (IVR) platform. So its a combinations of voice services with personalized assistance through our local agent network. This is being done, in order to ensure that while the information is being passed, the farmer should also get proper access to various products, services and schemes available in the local regions.

Currently a few services have been defined for soil testing, healthcare, financial literacy and information. Our IVR systems have a capability to handle about 500,000 calls every month with an average call duration of 5 minutes.



Creating a Community in India around Innovating Social Development: WiserEarth India
Submitted by Yatin Thakur of WiserEarth, India. Read the full submission.

About: WiserEarth India focuses on discussing various issues and projects which are being undertaken towards social development in India. We are trying to collectively develop strategies and solutions to overcome these issues through a common community which provides access to information as well as various resources essential for the noble cause of social development.

I am involved with WiserEarth as one of the Editors and administrator for WiserIndia. I am trying to activate Wiser Local Gatherings in different parts of India in order to involve and motivate more and more people at the ground location to work towards development. 



Improving Quality and Availability of Health Information in Uganda: Uganda Health Information Network
Submitted by Trust Birungi, Student at Makerere University, Uganda. Read the full submission.

About: The Uganda Health Information Network (UHIN) is a low-bandwidth information network for health workers in the Mbale and Rakai districts of Uganda. Using low-cost PDAs and a cellular telephony network, UHIN has cut costs and improved the quality and availability of health information. Its success demonstrates that PDAs can be used to establish an interactive infrastructure in regions serviced only by GSM telephone networks.

In my opinion, i don't think that there is a master ICT solution to improve people's lives in rural areas. Any ICT solution to be implemented would have to be customized to the locality in which it is to be applied. Effective sensitization of the locals has to be done so as to enable the people to understand how such a project will help them. In some rural areas, there have been such successful projects tailored to the regions in which they are implemented. An example i can cite is a project in northern Uganda where medical officers use PDAs over a low-cost cellular network to reduce costs and improve the quality and accessibility of health care information.
>>Further reading on the project.


The Goal is More than Installation: Namwala
Submitted by Ntula Sikombe, Writer, Nzanji, Zambia. Read the full submission.

Taking an example of Namwala, Iconnect has facilitated low cost internet services in Namwala and provided a platform ( about Namwala, a village in the southern province of Zambia. This platform is meant to inform the world about Namwala (give updates about Namwala in all sectors). It is saddening that at time of writing this article, the last update on the Namwala website is about 2 years old.

Looking at the above example, providing ICT facilities to rural areas should not end at just implementation. People in rural areas have to be educated on basic things about how to use these ICT facilities. ICT is in a way, a lifestyle. People in rural areas should therefore be made to appreciate ICT as a lifestyle which not only increases business opportunities but also works as an education and information tool. Sensitization campaigns about the benefits of ICT should be undertaken for people to appreciate the services that come with new technology.


Building ICT infrastructure in Rural Zambia: LinkNet by Macha Works
Submitted by Gertjan van Stam, Macha, Zambia. Read the full submission.

About: LinkNet enables isolated rural communities in Zambia to be connected to the internet. In addition to this, local ICT specialists are trained and the required infrastructure is provided to exchange knowledge and experience. The idea is simple: the required technology is installed in sea containers that are connected to a satellite dish. A wireless network then distributes the Internet to the rural community.

Editor's note: Check out this excellent video by BBC Click about this project

LinkNet, part of Macha Works, brings connectivity to rural Zambia using a collaborative approach.  In particular, it focuses on a proof-of-concept Internet service that has been implemented in rural Macha located in the Southern Province of Zambia. The service operates using satellite terminals (for connection to the Internet) and a wireless local area network. The provision of Internet access has enabled local health institutes to operate more effectively and given local people the opportunity to communicate and explore new ideas. It has also created new employment opportunities and generated several projects including a data entry service and a sunflower farming initiative. Being a rural area, several challenges hamper progress including frequent electricity outages and the exorbitant cost of bandwidth. With its partners, LinkNet addresses the main challenges through applied research and innovation and targets an up-scaling of its activities throughout rural Zambia and beyond.



Voice-based Tool for Building Rural Communities: VocalPress
Submitted by Soe Thiha over email

About: VocalPress is an open source platform that mixes Wordpress with FreedomFone to provide access to vital information among rural communities. Via the tool, voice-based information networks can be easily initiated and maintained by community leaders and community-based organizations to serve the information needs of the communities.



Bringing Broadband to Rural Farms in the UK

Submitted by Chris Conder, United Kingdom. Read the full submission.

We help people in rural areas by getting an internet connection to them. Watch the video to learn more.

Demonstrating Rural Broadband Needs the Fun Way: #Twicket

Submitted by John Popham, All Around Smart Guy, Wray Village, Lancaster, UK. Read the full submission.

About: #Twicket demonstrates how one man's passion for cricket, rural & symmetrical broadband, and social media provided the world's first livestreamed rural cricket match.

Editor's note: This story is too long to share in it's entirety here, but it is well worth the read! Here are a few excerpts:

... Over the next 24 hours, the idea started to take off. It generated a lot more traffic on twitter than I had expected, and I started to get contact from a number of unexpected sources. One of these was BBC cricket commentator Alison Mitchell, whose imagination seemed to be sparked by the idea, and who entered into a dialogue with me about it, initially on Twitter and then by email. This made me think this might be an idea which could be much bigger than I had originally believed. Interest built gradually during the Monday. I had a couple of tries at interesting Stephen Fry in it, as it is well know that, with 2.5 million twitter followers, anything Stephen tweets about gets a lot of attention. I also knew two other facts about Stephen Fry which were relevant in this instance, one being that he is a keen cricket follower, and the other being that he is a close friend of BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew from their school days together....

...I suppose the key measure of success of #twicket is whether it has achieved it’s objectives of highlighting:

    rural broadband needs
    the need for symmetrical connectivity
    the potential of social media to share experiences and events

I am confident it has successfully highlighted all of those issues, but it can only be a step in on-going campaigns. I fully intend to run more events like this, but next time with a longer lead-in and with sponsorship which at least covers everyone’s costs...



Creating Community Information Hubs: P.E.A.C.E. Information Centres
Submitted by Guidestar International, London, UK. Read the full submission.

P.E.A.C.E. Information Centres (PICs) partner local communities with government, local Traditional Leaders, as well as the private sector (providing branding opportunities in emerging markets). In the belief that ‘knowledge is power”, these centres provide “one-stop” access points to information for local schools, community members, local businesses and cooperatives. The PICs provide access to information that is tailor-made to suit local conditions. Ideally placed in schools, PICs are run and managed as social enterprises and serve the school as well as the neighbouring communities with essential services. Equipped with the entire school curriculum, provided free by Mindset, learners and teachers are able to access the best curriculum support that would be available, anywhere in the country, providing the opportunity to upgrade rural standards of education. With cooperation from all government departments, information would be provided on housing programmes, grant and license applications and the complete spectrum of government services that are available – bringing the government to the people in the most practical and sustainable manner.


Using Super Wifi to Empower Under-resourced Communities in Houston: Technology for All
Submitted by Chris Valdez, Strategy & Creative Direction at Primer Grey, Houston, Texas. Read the full submission.

About: Super Wifi is a new space in the wifi spectrum that produces signals that travel up to a mile, and penetrate into homes. In Texas, Technology for All is using Super Wifi to reach low income and under-resourced communities. 

A group here in Texas called Technology for All is using "Super wi-fi" and hoping to provide rural pockets of Texas with wireless broadband. The project has just won its grant, so it's not fully executed as of now. But they may be speaking at TEDxHouston about its potential and some of their other projects. [Check out] this [...] article from the Houston Chronicle discussing the program's application in Houston's historical Latino immigrant East End.


IT Volunteer Helps Bring Costs Down: Campton Public Library
Submitted by Tara McKenzie of the Campton Public Library. Read the full submission and learn more about TechSoup for Libraries.

Our library is paying an hourly rate for IT services each time we need anything technical done to the computers in our care.  And the hourly rate is not cheap: $100 for the first hour, $80 for consecutive hours, plus travel each way.  I can maintain my own computer, but not a library's system.  After we needed several hours' work done on our computers, I found the cost rising to a shrinking budget and needed to find a better solution than bake sales.

A community member is recently out of work as an IT administrator. Since we've been friendly for a number of years, I asked for his help with a computer problem. It took a little while, and some cajoling, but what started as a one time help has turned into a weekly IT volunteer. Not only does it help out our library immensely, but it gets him out and exposed. One of our patrons is talking about hiring him for some private work. It's not much, but it is something. Our trustees want to write an article in the paper for him to show at interviews.

He is still looking for work, and now he has that much more to put on his resume. He has also decided to continue volunteering even after employment since he can work it into his schedule in different ways. It is not as hard as he thought.

Digital Sinage Made Affordable: Butler Area Public Library
Submitted by Matthew Maine of the Butler Area Public Library, Butler, PA, USA. Read the full submission and learn more about TechSoup for Libraries.

Technological advances are forcing constant changes in libraries across the nation.  It is important to note that these changes encompass more than just computer hardware and software.  At the Butler Area Public Library, located in Butler, PA, even the bulletin board has been replaced with what is commonly referred to as “digital signage.”  With digital signage, news announcements, event information, etc., can be shown throughout the library via LCD television monitors.  Fortunately, over time LCDs have become increasingly inexpensive.

From the onset, the Butler library was discouraged by cost estimates from professional signage systems such as 3M, Cisco and CDW.  Being a medium-sized library, such large expenditures are typically unattainable.  The library finally decided to design and build its own system.  As their computer technician, I was able to research, design, present and eventually install the new system. >>Here's how we did it


Continuing the Conversation

Still chomping at the bit to share and learn more? Here are two more opportunities to continue the conversation:

Attend the SANGONeT Conference on ICT4RD

Submitted by Sangonet. Read the full submission.

SANGONeT is featuring Information Communication Technologies for Rural Development (ICT4RD) with a theme titled, “Rural Realities, Real Solutions.” for it's annual conference this year.

The conference will be held from the 1-3 November 2011 at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Amongst other things, the conference agenda will include a critical review of three keywords that are constantly thrown around in conference presentations and grant applications - scale, sustainability and replication. What is the status of existing ICT4RD projects? Why are so many ICT4D/ICT4RD projects stuck in pilots? What are the secrets of those projects and products that have broken free and are successfully scaling and replicating? Is there a “development innovation curve where we can map successful methods and projects?


Post About Your Project, Idea, or Opportunity!

While this month's Net2 Think Tank is now closed, you're always welcome to add your feedback on the subject. Feel free to add your ideas in the comments section at the bottom of this page.


Thank you to all of our contributors this month! 


About Net2 Think Tank:

Net2 Think Tank is a monthly blogging/social networking event open to anyone and is a great way to participate in an exchange of ideas.  We post a question or topic to the NetSquared community and participants submit responses either on their own blogs, the NetSquared Community Blog, or using social media.  Tag your post with "net2thinktank" and email a link to us to be included. At the end of the month, the entries get pulled together in the Net2 Think Tank Round-Up.