Bringing Internet to the World’s Villages
March 14, 2014 Editor 0
Very often I hear criticism of ICT projects in the developing world. While a lot of this criticism has justification, or a lack in sustainability, by far the largest criticism I hear is against technology as a mechanism to empowerment and development. I often hear, ‘But shouldn’t we be worried about farming and schools?’
I am against this reasoning. In my opinion this logic reinforces a two – tier world of US and THEM, that for the children of the West we say “They can be anything.” But for the children of the developing world, we say “They can be better farmers” or “They can aspire to a wage still a fraction of our minimum wage.”
I am an idealist, not a realist. I believe that opportunity should be universal and the world a level playing field, regardless of where someone is from or what advantages their parents bestow or deprive them of. That someone in rural southwest Uganda, where I am based, should have the same opportunity as someone in Kampala or London.
Incremental increases in education isn’t enough; it dooms the interim population to being lost generations, seeds of potential that get more nurture than their forebears but still do not bloom.
The Internet can make the world a fair place. With an active Internet connection, a person doesn’t have to be limited by their surroundings. They are only limited by their ambition.
These statements are not original. The prophets of IT have been predicting a new arising of opportunity in the developing world that has largely not lived up to its hype. However, in a field as fast moving as IT, where hardware prices plummet, new services transform the market place of ideas overnight and more 3G/4G towers are coming online every day.
My startup, Creative Entropy Lab, seeks to take some of these puzzle pieces of ICT potential and put them together. With our ‘Empowered Internet’ initiative, we are looking at the puzzling fact that in Rwanda, there is approximately 80% of the population within 3G Internet coverage, yet, there is just 13% Internet access.
It is my belief generated from my research that the key barriers to entry include expense of smart devices and data plans, but the most critical barrier is that there is little comprehension at an individual level of how the Internet can be beneficial to a rural villager.
‘Empowered Internet’ seeks to challenge each of these dilemmas. We are taking the Internet café model and stripping it to its minimum: a portable mobile café made out of tablets, carried in a backpack by an mentor ready to bring the Internet to rural settings.
The most important part of this portable café, which is being piloted in southwestern Uganda and Rwanda, is the mechanisms for creating an intuitive and user-friendly Internet experience to new users. Our franchise operators will be centrally trained as mentors. More importantly, we are designing an online portal that will target two key areas: increased education and increased income generation.
On Lake Bunyonyi, where I am conducting research, I get 12.1 MB/s 3G download speeds, a speed faster than I received in Europe or the US. My partners and I envision our cafés as mobile Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) universities, allowing villagers to achieve a certificate of completion that can be used as a foot in the door with local employers.
Even more potentially transformative, utilizing online services like Fiverr, oDesk and Freelancer mean someone with a transferable skill set can command Western prices. The problem is that building these skill sets is challenging and arduous, yet, with MOOCs like Lynda which can take a user from introduction to a UI through to professional level mastery, all that is necessary is commitment and time. For a rural user whose localized income potential peaks in my village at $50 USD a month, the incentive to invest the time to master these skills is enormous.
In a world where the classic search for a better life is for villagers to flood into towns and cities, their dreams are often blocked. With high speed rural Internet becoming increasingly prevalent, the ability to increase education and income potential without having to leave a village is an enormous value proposition. It means that the cities can be relieved of their growing strains, it means that families can stay together, and it means that the dream of a better life can be realized.
Written by Barrett Nash, Co-founder of Creative Entropy Lab
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