The lack of main energy supply in many rural and remote areas is a major obstacle to deploying telecommunication infrastructure.
When we look at the theme for the Africa Telecommunications Day whose theme this year is “Applying emerging technologies to empower rural communities towards attainment of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” we see the digital divide between rural and urban area.
MDG number seven is about ensuring environmental sustainability and according to a United Nations Development Plan (UNDP) report on the status of the environment (2005), Zambia’s forests continue to be under tremendous pressure as a result of a variety of reasons with wood harvesting for fuel wood (mainly charcoal) and timber, and clearance for agriculture and human settlement being the primary ones. The rate of deforestation that has been for decades quoted to be about 300,000 hectares per annum is currently reported to be 800,000 hectares per annum (FAO Resource Assessment, 2000).
According to the 2007 MDG Civil Society report, energy is an important sector that has an impact on all the MDGs. Due to time limitations of collecting sufficient data, the cost estimates of the energy sector are based on the Millennium Project (2004) findings in 5 countries; Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda. In all these countries the cost on energy for meeting the MDGs is close to the education costs in all the 5 countries. Therefore, cost estimates for Zambia, though no simulations have been done, are assumed to range closely to the education costs.
On per capita basis, it is assumed that in 2005, expenditure on energy should be US$5 per capita rising to US$10 per capita in 2015, in line with the education estimates for Zambia. Therefore, the total cost on energy is estimated at US$ 1,113.7 million translating into US$101.2 millions per year on average (Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflections (JCTR): Cost of meeting MDGs, 2005).
The reports adds that Zambia’s energy use has risen sharply over the years. The per capita energy consumption has increased from 22.5 Giga Joules (GJ) in 1990 to 20 GJ in 2000 and 42 GJ in 2003. This increased use of energy is attributed to increased economic activity. The indicator of percentage of population using solid fuels has stagnated at 80 percent for more than six years up to 2003 as the proportion of the population with access to energy has remained constant at 20 percent. This indicator has implications for the achievement of the health MDGs as use of solid fuels has a negative impact on the health of the population, especially women.
In addition it has implications for forest degradation as people indiscriminately access forests for energy. Since the last green house emission inventory in 1994 no new data is available for carbon dioxide emissions. However, given increased economic activity (energy use, agricultural and mining activities, and waste generation) with no corresponding measures to curb emissions, it is most likely carbon dioxide emissions are increasing.
Many government agencies and Non Governmental Organisations are currently working to support broader or massive use of telecommunications and information technology (IT) systems in electrified rural areas. Governments should therefore consider closely linking renewable energy specialist with rural telecommunication and ICT initiatives.
According to a Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report the information revolution has completely bypassed many rural poor people in Africa. They constitute the poor people who live on less than a dollar a day.
The advert of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has served only to widen the gap between them and others who do have access to such technologies. The rural digital divide is most evident when comparing the disparities between urban and rural communities, men and women and between successful farmers and their less successful neighbours.
To bridge the rural digital divide there is need to strengthen human and institutional capacities to harness information and knowledge more effectively. Africa needs to address the following key issues to reduce the digital divide that exists.
When we look at content package on the Internet, it is all in Africa’s foreign languages which are either in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish or Japanese to name but a few. There is need for African communities to locally adapt content and contextualise it. Also there is need for the communities to share content that will build on exiting systems to address diversity.
Rural dwellers however will also need capacity building on the importance of ICTs and how they can benefit from them. It is also important for the rural communities to partner and participate in the World Summit on information Society (WSIS) process.
It is also time for the rural communities to have a realistic approach to technologies and work on the high cost and financial sustainability. Hence, Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Community Based Organisation (CBO) and civil society’s role should also help increased awareness of ICTs in rural Africa.
The fact that globalisation and the new technologies (ICTs) are fast transforming all aspects of development and how information is shared is the problem that makes rural societies in Africa to lag behind. Communication is now a priority for an international community, which makes rural societies in Africa increase the need to improve the flow of information.
Problems with installation and maintenance of wire plant have prompted the widespread use of wireless systems in rural areas. Nine types of wireless access systems in rural access systems were identified through the case studies and International Telecommunications Union (ITU) activities, illustrating existing and emerging access options for reaching rural communities. Given the trend towards shared facilities such as tele-centres, University extension centres, Post offices, Info Kiosk, etc as well as the variety of revenue models associated with social services in the health, educational and e-commerce fields, the focus group considered technologies which expanded the number of supportable applications as well as those which demonstrated lower per line costs.
Demand for Internet based telecommunication applications in rural areas, particularly e-mails, has resulted in new applications of old technologies, such as Video Home Frequency (VHF) radio systems and meteor burst communications, for non real time services. In addition, new combinations of existing technologies are extending the reach and flexibility of wireless access systems as well as reducing total coats through the reducing total costs through the integration of shared systems and components. In particular, many rural operators are deploying Very Small Aperture Terminus (VSATs) and point to multipoint terrestrial radio systems integrated with wireless local loop systems based on standards such as PHS and DECT.
Access options on the horizon for rural areas include a number of technologies that are new to the rural marketplace or still under development.
Information technology and multimedia terminals
It is of the utmost importance that International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Africa Telecommunications Union (ATU) strives to raise awareness of the rural information and communication needs of developing countries within the computing and information technology industry. Unlike the Tecommunication Industry that has been doing business in under developed rural areas for several decades, companies in the Information Technology (IT) sector are generally unfamiliar with the environmental and social requirements of rural areas of developing countries.
It is however recommended that there is promotion of the development of low cost information appliances for rural ICTs. Increase collaboration with micro finance organisations to help develop communication based rural businesses and applications. Conduct pilot projects of packet based wireless access infrastructure for multimedia applications. Maintain and expand the web site, hold a symposium on new technologies for rural applications.
Rural Communities and ICTs in Africa
It therefore follows that the majority of farmers in Africa live in rural communities where farming is the chief activity. It is vital that the agricultural sector in Africa is not left behind in the information revolution. All farming whether large or small scale, requires an array of skills and knowledge. Farmers in Africa are under increased pressure to diversify their output, adopt new farming systems, and complete in national and global markets. Rural service provide also require access to relevant and timely information to support farmers. Information and Communication can bring benefits in all these areas.
Internet access is expensive in Africa. In many countries government’s ministries and public institutions are not yet using electronic media to manage information. A large proportion of the rural poor do not speak a language of international communication, many are illiterate and most have neither electricity nor telephone. Their main problems are food security, safe water and sanitation, health care and education. Is it realistic to talk about providing universal access to ICTs in these circumstances? Universal access does not mean providing every farmer with a computer, at least not in the foreseeable future. But there is no reason why farmers should not be able to benefit indirectly from digital information and media. Linking existing means of communication and infrastructure to new ICTs can enhance the way people and organisation communicate, exchange knowledge and access information.
It is however possible that the rural communities can organise themselves and exchange information content and to communicate using all the ICTs-short, to reduce and eventually bridge the rural and eventually bridge the rural digital divide. Farmers can use mobile phones to get information from a local entrepreneur about prices in several local agricultural markets, rather than relying, as they did before, on the word of the middleman.
Government’s ministries in Africa should also establish an electronic rural network to communicate with farmers respectively. Farmers should also utilise radio and present programmes that relate to them. In fact farmers need to develop community radio stations. It is also important for farmers to set rural info kiosks where people can access information that is relevant to them. In this case it is also important for the private sector to extend their services to rural areas on all aspects of agriculture production for village-based agronomists.
Rural women and ICT
In the rural areas where the majority of the world’s hungry live, women and girls produce most of the food consumed locally. Their contribution could be far greater if they had equal access to essential resources and services, including information.
Rural women have even less access to information and new technologies than men and thus are at an advantage when it comes to making informed choices about what to produce and how best to market their products. Lack of information also limits their influence in their communities and their ability to participate in decision-making.
Unless researchers and policymakers give due attention to gender and unless women have a voice in developing available opportunities, the new technologies could serve merely to exacerbate existing inequalities
Rural radio: convergence of new and traditional technologies
For millions of people in rural Africa, radio is the most accessible, economical and popular means of communication. Radio stations targeting the rural communities need to be set up in addition to training broadcasters in reporting on the use of ICTs the need to be provided with fact sheets on food security issues, weather, post-harvest operations, and early warning systems and nutrition.
There is also need for radio stations to be connected to the Internet and train broadcasters to collect and adapt information for their programmes.
Rural or remote areas exhibit one or more of the following characteristics: scarcity or absence of public facilities such as reliable electricity supply, water, access roads and regular transport. Scarcity of technical personnel; difficulty topographical conditions e.g. lakes, rivers, hills, mountains or deserts, which render the construction of wire telecommunication networks very costly, severe climatic conditions that make critical demands on the equipment.
Low level of economic activity mainly based on agriculture, fishing, handcrafts, etc
Low capita income underdeveloped social infrastructures (health, education etc) low population density, very high calling rates per telephone, reflecting the scarcity or telephone services and the fact that large numbers of people rely on a single telephone line. These characteristics make it difficult to provide public telecommunication services of acceptable quality by traditional means at affordable prices, while also achieving commercial viability for the service provider.
Areas of application for Internet and other communication based application include tele-medicine and public health education, coordinating regional food security efforts, making governments sponsored agricultural extension services more effective and accessible to rural farmers, and enabling more rural children, adolescents and post secondary students to receive an education among others.
The need for basic literacy, computer skills and training in the use of ICT applications remains a significant challenge for rural areas. Language barriers and the complexity of Personal Computer (PC) operation have shown to hinder Internet diffusion. Many innovative skills have been devised in rural areas to over come these barriers. Although not widely utilised, techniques such as voice mail, translation of content, and icon based telephones illiteracy are not necessarily barriers to the use of communication needs are comprehended and addressed. Relevant content is extremely critical to the success of any rural application.
The 2007 MDG report shows that Zambia has numerous challenges in integrating the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reversing the loss of environmental resources. These include the high levels of poverty with a large proportion of the population, especially rural dwellers, depending on natural resources for their livelihoods accompanied by a weak administrative and legal framework and breakdown of traditional values and practices which previously ensured a high degree of social responsibility and equitable sharing of resources within a natural equilibrium. There is also Lack of coordination between sector policies