Over sixty participants mainly Telecentre managers and other ICT4D stakeholders gathered at La Palisse hotel in Kigali on December sixteenth for a 2 days workshop . Items on the agenda were potential improvements and the shifting role of telecentres in the development of rural Rwanda, The Thousand Telecentres project in Rwanda and challenges faced by the telecentre movement . The important topics under discussion and strong participation from all involved combined to make the first day a success.The Telecentre meeting is a partnership between The Technical Centre for Agriculture And Rural Cooperation(CTA) and Rwanda Telecentre Network(RTN)
The meeting began with introductions, during which participants expressed their expectations . A number of these were voiced, but two that came up frequently were the needs to debate on favorable regulations for telecentres, and subsidized internet service to off-set its high cost. After introductions Paul Barera reviewed the Thousand Telecentres Handbook, and two United Nations speakers discussed plans to introduce the concept of knowledge and Tele-inovation centres into Rwanda. In these knowledge centers, the needs of a community in diverse areas of life would be assessed, and the community telecentre would be designed to fill as many of them as possible. This would be particularly relevant to telecentres in Rwanda, given the government's efforts to change the country into a knowledge based economy, in large part through increased reliance on ICTs.
During the conference, we were lucky enough to have a representive from the Rwandan Utility Regulation Agency (RURA) present. This became relevant during a question and answer session. The concern was voiced that while networks are very important for telecentre managers in Rwanda, they are both expensive and frequently unreliable. While the representative assured the telecentre managers present that RURA was always available to help them with their problems-- they are currently working on running fibre optics cables from both Uganda and Tanzania so that if one is accidentally cut there is still network access-- it was also clear that RURA is the source of some problems. For example, to have a licensed telecentre under current regulations, one must have a minimum of ten computers-- an extremely difficult standard to reach in Rwanda, and one that RTN is hoping to see relaxed.
During the introductions, one concern voiced by several managers was seeing ICTs used to help people in the most rural areas. When given a chance during the conference to answer the question of whether or not ICTs can ultimately be of use to people in the countryside, an overwhelming majority of them answered yes. Their enthusiasm was not shared by all however, and those who answered no or were uncertain had some valid concerns-- despite strides that have been made in ICTs, a large majority of Rwandans still do not use or understand them. One manager pointed out that because ICTs are almost entirely used by wealthier Rwandans, they may not seem accessible or relevant to those with less money.
After lunch, the managers split into smaller groups to discuss internal and external challenges that are currently faced by telecentres. They also offered suggestions on how to address some of these problems. There were strong similarities in the lists compiled by the different groups. The most common internal challenges were lack of management training and specialized ICTs knowledge, such as computer maintenance and networking. Telecentre managers frequently lack the ICTs that they would like-- more computers, printers, digital cameras-- and because they also lack the money that they would need to hire staff with strong ICTs skills, they continue to have problems, and their customer service suffers.
The internal challenges listed were also frequently exacerbated by other external factors. One of the most common concerns was poor service and high monthly rates from internet service providers. Another was high taxation. While the government encourages telecentres, one manager suggested, they still do not treat them as the small businesses that they are, taxing them at the same high rates that larger businesses pay. Many managers also do not own the buildings in which they operate their telecentres, instead paying rent on them to landlords. But these landlords are free to unexpectedly raise their rent, which they frequently do. Not only do all of these factors hurt the quality of service that is delivered, but they force managers to charge higher prices than they otherwise might. The people most affected by high prices are of course poorer Rwandans in rural areas, and this becomes another potent barrier to their increased use of ICTs.
Despite their many challenges, the managers offered a number of different potential solutions to them. Most of them involved increased government support to telecentres regardless of the ownership. The government could lower its taxes or use the universal access fund to support struggling managers. Another suggestion was to mandate that all government services to be accessed electronically to. This has already been done in parts of Kigali, and it has the potential advantage of creating considerable added incentive to learn about ICTs. One other commonly cited challenge was the lack of awareness of ICTs on the part of many Rwandans. Any effort to enhance awareness, therefore-- be it through formal trainings, adding incentives to learn (as in the example above) or informal announcements at public events such as Umuganda(monthly public work)-- was viewed as welcome.
If the number of challenges faced by telecentre managers was imposing, their passion, creativity and drive to overcome them was an encouraging counter-balance. The first day of this conference sparked fresh thought, ideas, and perhaps most importantly a renewed interest in continuing to work together and support one another while charting the way forward.