Telecentres: Panacea for all woes or over-hyped and under-delivered phenomenon?


Posted by on May 20, 2008  /  18 Comments

Nalaka Gunawardene calls mobile phone a murder weapon. According to him, what the mobile has already stabbed, and is in the process of effectively finishing off, is the development sector’s over-hyped and under-delivered phenomenon called the ‘telecentre’.

So how is the mobile phone slowly killing the telecentres, asks he, into which governments, the United Nations agencies and other development organisations have pumped tens of millions of dollars of development aid money in the past decade? Well, it’s rapidly making telecentres redundant by putting most or all of their services into literally pocket-sized units. If everyone could carry around a miniaturised, personalised gadget that has the added privacy value, why visit a community access point?

The editor of state owned ‘Daily News’ may not necessarily agree. Excerpts from his editorial today (May 20):

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s avowed goal to give every Sri Lankan the chance to access the outside world through information technology if realised no doubt would be a huge achievement for a third world country such as ours.

Speaking at a ceremony to mark “International Telecommunications Day” at Temple Trees on Saturday the President sounded optimistic of achieving this goal when he said that the “Computer Literacy” rate which was just 5 per cent when his Government assumed office has now reached 20 percent due to the “Nenasela” (= Local telecenter- Ed) programmes. This is certainly a commendable level of achievement and signify a gradual shift in the emphasis of the country’s education structures which earlier catered to improving only the literacy rate ‘literally speaking’ which hardly carried any value in the local or international job markets.

So are telecenters a solution to all our problems or over-hyped and under-delivered phenomenon?

LIRNEasia may have its own view, but nevertheless like to hear our intelligent readers.

18 Comments


  1. “If everyone could carry around a miniaturised, personalised gadget that has the added privacy value, why visit a community access point?”

    This is an important question to ask. Are there reasons other than lack of other forms of connectivity which motivate users to use public access points such as telecentres? Clearly there are vast difference between the two models of accessing the mobile via internet and using a public access point. Users may frequent a telecentre or cybercafe for social reasons, to get help, or because it actually affords more privacy than a busy home environment (among other possible reasons). Better understanding these differences will help to develop knowledge to exploit each access path to its fullest.

    Another useful question is “Who are the users of public access points?” Again, delving here we may find some motivations to use public access points which aren’t concerned with scarcity of access, but rather on benefiting from a positive aspect. A profile of users may reveal particular opportunities to benefit women, children or adolescents.

    Why do people stop using public access points? Are or have telecentres merely been a transitional point between no home/personal access and having one’s own access point? If so, again, there are policy implications here in terms of conceptualising public access points as transient rather than permanent (among others).

    Clearly telecentres, cybercafes and other public access points have a role to play in extending the network. A mobile handset in your pocket certainly can open up a new world of possibility, but may not confer some of the long-term benefits that a learning and social environment can build upon.

  2. As someone played some role in promoting telecenters in Asia and Africa I largely agree with Amy.
    Telecenters can play a key role in the lives of rural poor and mobile phone is not a substitute. One popular myth about telecenters is they are mere public Internet access points. They aren’t. It is a combination of technology and man power. The man power makes a big difference. Not every user is competent or comfortable enough using a telecenter. They should be guided. That is what really makes the interaction productive.

    Mobile phone on the other hand, is only a low cost cut down version of a PC. What it can do is seriously limited. It may facilitate faster communication but, the 3 cm x 4 cm screen is no substitute to PC when it comes to delivering crucial human development oriented services like e-learning and e-health. Can mobile phone eve be used as an online education medium? What are we talking about?

    Telecenters are there for a purpose and they will stay. Developments in mobile communications have no interference.

  3. I am not sure who started comparing mobile phones with a PC. These are two different equipment made for two different purposes. With the advancement of technology there can be some synchronization of technologies to get some of the features of a certain equipment in another equipment. Still these two equipment are totally different from each other and made for different purposes. Take a digital camera for an example. A good digital still camera with additional videoing facilities will not be a fully pledged video camera as the main focus of the maker is to produce good still images. Likewise a good video camera will not produce good still images even if the camera has still image facility. If the reality is this, how can we compare a mobile phone with a PC?

    Let alone checking emails or internet with a mobile phone while on travel, don’t we prefer to go to our own PC or laptop to do our serious work?

    Nandasiri Wanninayaka

  4. After finishing the fieldwork for my doctoral research, that investigates how mobile ICTs can be used and appropriated by the rural farmers, I am not convinced that mobile telephony and telecentres can be mutually exclusive. I created small groups of farmers in remote rural Bangladeshi villages and gave one mobile telephone to each of the groups who were connected within themselves and with the local telecentres. I worked with Grameenphone Community Information Centre and D-Net’s Community Based Technology Centre. In both cases the farmers’ groups got access to different farming information (i.e. sources of fertilizers, solution for plant diseases and pest attack) from these centres, that have internet connectivity. Again these centres have internet connections through the EDGE enabled mobile telephones.
    It is also important to mention that in the rural areas telecentres have a broader role to play than just offering telephone services. Donor funded telecentres can disseminate information with regard to public health, livelyhood, public awareness campaigns, weather forecast and so forth. Mobile telephony can be used to take these benefits to the remote rural people. Hence, mobile telephony can be used for a two way communication between the rural people and telecentres.
    In a country like Bangladesh with very poor infrastructure for fixed phones mobile telephony can be the an effective means for reaching the unreachables.

  5. Possibly most of the above comments are from telecenter advocators, who are trained to see nothing beyond their own domain. The larger question however is not whether telecentres are useful but whether they justify the significant investment required to start and operate.

    What I have seen is most of the cases telecentre usage is low at rural level and confined to few regular users. (mostly teenagers) I am yet to see any significant impact either in education or health in any area that I am aware of. I am ready to listen to practitioners about any such successful case studies. So far all I have heard is sadly hype.

    If telecenters are no sustainable why the donor agencies continue to pump millions and millions of Dollars to telecenter initiatives? Don’t they have any better projects to eradicate poverty

  6. In response to what Mr. Rajendra Kumar has said:
    My experience regarding the telecentres operating in Bangladesh is not very different from that of Mr. Kumar. However, that does not write off the huge potential of these centres. I blieve it is the lack of sincere intent of the NGOs that can be held responsible for the apparent inertia of these centres. I have found one particular NGO consciously avoiding the use of these telecentres in disseminating agricultural price information. They are more engaged in capacity building and public health related activities. It is really frustrating to see that their operation does not offer anything to the farmers while their initial need assessment conspicuously ranked agricultural price information as the top priority. The reason can be two fold: one is farmgate price and input price information are not very easy to monitor and disseminate and the second is gender issue, computer training and public health related projects can be made sexier to the donors. Hence, a workable and realistic model is much of an issue to harness the benefits of these centres. Again, proper back end support and locally developed contents also need to be developed to make these centres effective.

  7. Khalid Saifullah

    “What the mobile has already stabbed, and is in the process of effectively finishing off, is the development sector’s over-hyped and under-delivered phenomenon called the ‘telecentre’”- I differ with Mr. Nalaka Gunawardene’s viewpoint.

    Mr. Bidit already pointed out the use of mobile phones in telecentres of rural Bangladesh. Actually mobile phone enriched and accelerated the services of telecentres. I don’t understand, why and how mobile phone should be exclusively considered from telecentre domain. It is obvious that this small tool getting rich with various functions, and numerous services are being designed and implemented on it, such as weather forecast, etc. But it would be difficult to say it is the alternate to the computer or laptop. Telecentres are providing ICT services, as well as knowledge sharing, gathering and also in many cases ICT training programmes. Even if I have a computer with Internet connection, I can not say, I got everything. I have to go social institutions to learn, acquire and share knowledge, etc.

    But telecentres are for them who are at the bottom of the pyramid. It not only provides information but also makes conscious about rights.

    There is issue of “pumping millions and millions of dollars” and “successful case studies”. There are lots of success stories. But most of them are invisible. If a farmer get relief from insects that was unknown to him with the help of a telecentre, s/he is escaped from loss, and that is not a small amount. It should be considered as the benefit of investment.

    In a certain stage, may be the format or structure of telecentre will be changed, but social institutions wont be eliminated. Because, virtual learning is not alternate to a university, but a supporting tool to it.

  8. I don’t think mobile and telecenters are the counterpart, I think they are complementary. In the remote areas of rural Bangladesh we are using mobile phone for internet connectivity and thus we are providing information to our illiterate village people as well as connecting the village with the global village. Now our people are using mobile markedly but it is limited only in personal communication only. Most of our people are not familiar with wap or internet connectivity in mobile. A major portion of the mobile users in rural Bangladesh don’t know to use SMS. So, mobile is not harmful for telecenters in Bangladesh.
    Now we are working with the telecenters in Bangladesh and our experience said that mobile has complemented many of our information services. We think the development of ,mobile technology will enhance the effectivewness of telecenters.

  9. Tele centers need to delivers what mobiles can’t
    not just communication
    eucation, business and community leadership

  10. It is great that we see the contribution of many practitioners in this thread.

    I am not a telecenter practitioner. Neither have I worked in field. So most what I know is second hand info I gather from friends. Little firsthand info.

    What I see is most telecenters work purely as cyber cafes. Though telecenters are claimed to provide more ‘respectable’ services, it is not what we see. I have yet not heard any telecenter that can be presented as a case study for providing educational, health related, e-gov related or at least agriculture related info.

    Do Sri Lankan telecenters provide any of these services in general? How many people use them? I will be glad to know.

    There are financially successful telecenters in Sri Lanka. (These are largely because of the business skills of the operators) However there is a difference between a telecenter providing financially viable services and human development related services.

    I am all ears if somebody can provide us some info about telecenters anywhere in the world that provide human development related services successfully – above the commercial services normally provided by cyber cafes? Do such exist only in paper or in actual world too?

    Also like to hear more about BTN Mission 2011 initiative in Bangladesh. Thanks.

  11. Can mobile phones deliver services like e-gov, banking and insurance? Who the hell wants to see information in such a small sceen? Can it at least display a form?

    I think mobiles are just to chat with your gf and not for serious business.

  12. Yes. You can buy insurance on mobiles right now in Sri Lanka. In countries where the percentage of people who have bank accounts is in the single digits like the countries we work in (and Kenya, S Africa, etc.), mobile payments are coming along fast. A good mobile e-gov application is when a govt office sends you an SMS saying that your document has been processed and when you can pick it up. Already happening in India.

    You need to think about what mobiles can do differently, and better. The point is not to take desktop applications and simply move them to mobile; the point is to think what mobile can do best. Lots of people are working on aspects of this problem.

    On the screens. Yes, people are watching TV/video/sports on mobile.

  13. Rohan comments “the point is to think what mobile can do best”.
    In this vein, Tomi Ahonen identifies mobile telephony as the 7th mass media, because of its inherent qualities:
    .
    * of being a personal device
    * always on
    * is always with us (even in bed for many)
    * has an integrated payment tool (this is key)
    * is a creative tool that can be used for documentation and dissemination
    .
    Ahonen’s first article on this appears here:
    http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2007/02/mobile_the_7th_.html

    A recent update appears here:
    http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2008/05/deeper-insights.html

  14. Chanuka asks for successful examples of telecentres. Eastern Europe has developed some good models. In particular, the Hungarian Telecottage movement has been sustainable, effective and replicated in other countries in the region.
    Chapter six of the Telecottage Handbook describes the basis for the movement and the model used. The sustainable telecottage is contingent on attention to any more factors than just individual entrepreneurship.
    .
    See UNDP’s Telecottage. Handbook. How to establish and run a successful telecentre. A practical guide for community development practitioners
    http://europeandcis.undp.org/?menu=p_cms/show&content_id=1EAEB3D3-F203-1EE9-BD0C279330992AC8

  15. For the future of access to ICTs… We also need to identify what public access points (telecentres, cybercafes) can do better than mobile, and what they can achieve that isn’t being achieved by any media.
    .

    In addition to the services and applications that can and should be developed and deployed urgently – such as m-health, m-banking, m-education, and so forth
    (see for example: UNPAN Compendium of M-Health and M-Learning Applications, http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/UN/UNPAN030003.pdf),
    we also need to think about the next billion and the billion after that of people we need bring information society benefits to.
    .
    These people are poor, have low literacy rates and will likely need intermediaries to fully benefit from e-delivery of services. The social or institutional context of public access models will be key for extending information society benefits and creating a culture of using ICTs.

  16. Rohan notes for mobile “the point is to think what mobile can do best”. Tomi Ahonen identifies mobile telephony as the 7th mass media, because of its inherent qualities:
    * of being a personal device
    * can be always on
    * is always with us (even in bed for many)
    * has an integrated payment tool (this is key)
    * is a creative tool that can be used for documentation and dissemination

    Ahonen’s first article on this appears here:
    http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2007/02/mobile_the_7th_.html
    A recent update appears here:
    http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2008/05/deeper-insights.html

    Put otherwise, I think that Helani and Rohan are correct, sort of. But, the dichotomy isn’t that useful. Its not one or the other. The reach of mobile vastly extends beyond telecentres and subsidised public access. But, if we look to who mobile is not yet reaching, then we begin to see a role for telecentres and intermediated access.

    I think its an important discussion. But we need to decouple the dichotomy and we also need to unbundle presumptions about what we can be developing now for mobile; and future uses, future markets and future users.

    I am sure this discussion will continue on your website and in other venues. I’ll look forward to your further thoughts.

  17. YSEI is glad to announce the finalists who will be attending the Capacity Buidling Workshop organized between May 17 and 20 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
    Venture YSEI ref.no. Name of Entrepreneurs Country
    Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center YSEI-001007 Ejaj Ahmad Bangladesh
    Chivalry Silk Fair Trade YSEI-001050 Tantikalayaporn Thepparat Thailand
    Compucycle Malaysia Sdn Bhd YSEI-000964 Davis Chong Malaysia
    Cultural Classics YSEI-000085 Jamil Goheer Pakistan
    Elevyn YSEI-000962 Devan singaram Malaysia

    “Enabling Kirana Store Owners to

    Leverage ICT for Market Expansion”
    YSEI-001003 Prasoon Raghuwanshi India
    Fair-Trade Crafts from Nepal YSEI-000276 Urjana Shrestha Nepal
    Jaipur Rugs Company Pvt. Ltd YSEI-000220 Yogesh chaudhary India
    Kaarvan Crafts Foundation YSEI-001026 Aysha Saifuddin Pakistan
    Krishak Mitra (Farmer’s Friend) YSEI-000988 Raghvendra Singh India
    letIThelp.org YSEI-000981 Stephanie Rosalind Caragos Philippines
    LiLi DairyCentre YSEI-000973 Ratnayake Ratnayake Sri Lanka
    Opendream Co., Ltd YSEI-001030 Patcharaporn Pansuwan Thailand
    Philippines Mobile Telecenters (MTC) YSEI-000240 Christine Lopez Philippines
    Profits for People YSEI-000501 Santhosh Ramdoss India
    Rural Knowledge Center of Koslanda YSEI-001033 Srikanthan Selvaratnam Sri Lanka
    RuralLight YSEI-000951 Alexander Reyes Philippines
    SMART/ETC YSEI-001002 Wanisa Ket-Ho Thailand
    VolunteerSpirit YSEI-001031 Sontichai Tangkietyangyuen Thailand

    http://www.microfinancejobs.com-

    A dedicated platform for

    the Microfinance jobs
    YSEI-00003 Ajay Shakya India
    Youth Engagment Services Network Pakistan YSEI-000882 Ali Khan Pakistan


    S. Srikanthan,
    Director
    Koslanda Rural Knowledge Centre
    103.V.C.Road.
    Koslanda
    Srilanka
    http://www.Nanasala.org
    http://www.Hcdg.org
    http://www.BeePeeO.com

  18. Chanuka Wattegama

    While thanking Srikanthan for making this post and congratulating him and Ratnayake for this opportunity I would like to request Srikanthan to tell some more about his work and also his opinions about the sustainability of typical tele centre model and its impact on community.

    For those who are not aware about him Srikanthan, he is a telecentre operator from Koslanda who has achieved success staring from humble beginnings and with minimum of external support.

    More about him: http://ontimetechnologies.wordpress.com/2007/12/02/sri-kanth-walks-tall-in-the-it-world