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Crossing the digital frontier

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“The revolution in information technology is only just starting.” Even in undeveloped parts of South Africa, ever more people like this Zulu in his traditional garb not only want to use mobile phones – they want to go online. But the Internet connections remain highly instable.

Plugging rural South Africa into the Internet – By Dietrich von Richthofen

When Sibukele Gumbo travels to her lab, she has to cross a border – but there is no barrier blocking the road. The frontier doesn’t run between countries, and it follows no clearly defined line. But near Idutywa, the road gets bumpier and heads deeper into the undulating grasslands of the Wild Coast, a part of the former Trans­kei homeland stretching along the edge of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. “Welcome to information-locked country,” Gumbo says, as we leave the asphalted main route and turn onto a rutted dirt and gravel road. Welcome to a country shut off from the modern flow of information. The computer specialist’s aim is to eliminate this invisible border, the boundary separating the Wild Coast from the information society.

The next rise reveals a vista of hills covered in silver-green grass, dotted with rondavel stone houses in light-blue, mint-green, and striking violet. Between them, cows and goats trot on narrow dirt tracks. Idyllic though the countryside is, its social and economic reality is riven.

In the apartheid days, the black African population was largely cut off from the economic development of the rest of the country. Up to 90 percent of the people living in this area, most of them Xhosa, are either unemployed or work only occasionally. Average income, most of which comes from pensions, welfare payments and remittances sent back by relatives who live elsewhere, is little more than €90 per month. Having running water and electricity is the exception.

Sibukele Gumbo and her colleagues from the Telkom Centre of Excellence program, run by South Africa’s main telecommunications provider, want to create new opportunities for the people here to participate in social and economic life – by plugging them into the global cell phone and data network. They have established a “Living Lab,” a kind of test station in which researchers develop innovations together with their future users. The Siyakhula Living Lab – in Xhosa, the local language, Siyakhula means “we grow together” – serves a 25-square-kilometer area with 25,000 inhabitants and includes five schools and numerous villages.

Projects of this kind have existed since the 1990s. But with the rapid expansion of access to the Internet and to mobile telephony in developing countries, they can now be implemented on a large scale. That has led to global companies like Nokia, Microsoft or SAP rubbing shoulders with international financial and economic organizations, government institutes and a vast number of start-ups and NGOs. The shorthand term for this trend is ICT4D, which stands for Information and Communication Technologies for Development.

Corresponding online applications exist for every problematic area on the development agenda – providing health care, access to capital flows, education or democratic participation. Farmers sell their potato harvests by cell phone via an online trading platform directly to restaurateurs. Slum-dwellers coordinate their shopping needs via SMS through a central server. Private individuals provide microcredit with a click of the mouse.

“The revolution in information technology is only just starting,” Philippe Dongier predicts. He heads the information and communications technologies (ICT) bureau at the World Bank. “In a few years, most Africans, South Americans, Southeast Asians, and others from other developing nations will have small, mobile computers connected to the Internet.”

For the moment, the hope of being better off and seeing economic growth at the Siyakhula Living Lab depends on a lone satellite dish on the roof of the Mpume Junior Secondary School. From there, over a WiMAX-network, a kind of outdoor WLAN, the connection goes to the other four schools. But the whole Living Lab has been offline for over a week, Teressa Mqikela complains. She is a teacher at the Senior Secondary School in Ngwame.

Gumbo and her colleagues are here to reestablish the connection. They search through the school trying to find the source of the problem. The Living Lab car is well-known, and passersby wave cheerfully. The virtual connection to the rest of the world awakens great hopes. Mqikela talks about an 80-year old who rode for several hours on his bicycle just to ask whether he could send his grandchild to the school. “Since we’ve been connected to the Internet, the number of pupils here has doubled,” she says.

Cynthia Gxarisa has already profited from the connection. In her mid-50s, she sits in the teacher’s room of the Mpume Junior Secondary School and puts her cell phone on the weathered wooden table piled high with worn-out textbooks. Two years ago, she still didn’t know what exactly the Internet was. Today, she transfers money to her children over the Internet and also uses it to deal with her paperwork. She registered her company, a catering service for the schools in the area, using an online form from the finance ministry. “This Internet is changing our lives,” she says.

Previously, Gxarisa had to make it to Dutywa, a town about 70 kilometers inland, for every money transfer. The poor public transportation system and the sorry state of the roads meant it could take her almost an entire day just to get there and back. Sometimes she was out of luck and the central bank happened to be offline – so she would be told she had to come back another day. “We save a great deal of time and money,” Gxarisa says.

But will the advent of modern communications structures result in sustainable growth? Advocates of ICT4D point to studies showing a correlation between the expansion of communications technologies and economic growth. A World Bank report on Kenyan development released at the end of 2010 ascribed nearly 25 percent of the country’s growth to the strong expansion of its ICT sector.

Long-term studies of individual regions provide further evidence. In 2007, Harvard economist Robert Jensen showed that the expansion of cell phone networks substantially improved the economic success of Indian fishermen. Due to access to information about supply and demand at various ports, coupled with the use of their cell phones, the fishermen were able to increase their profits, on average, by 8 percent.

Kentaro Toyama, a computer scientist, remains skeptical. He believes Jensen’s study is only of limited significance, since its lessons cannot simply be transferred to other markets. “With their boats, the participants in that market have ready access to different markets, since they can call at several ports. The reality in most other markets for agricultural products is different,” argues Toyama, who until 2009 headed the research group “Technology for Emerging Markets” at Microsoft Research India.

Today, he works as a lecturer at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, where he critically appraises ICT4D projects in development aid. The main failing of many projects is the belief that the technology itself contains the solution. Many of the people active in this field come from environments with a highly developed infrastructure, a functioning finance system, excellent logistics and the necessary competence in dealing with the technology. “Many overlook that in a different environment, numerous other factors play a part in the projects – from logistical problems to cultural differences right through to power struggles at the local level.”

Toyama isn’t opposed in principle to technology projects in developing nations. But he does believe that the millions of dollars spent on many big projects, such as those that provide schools with computers, would be better spent on training teachers and in acquiring books.

The mistake of placing the emphasis wholly on new technologies is a recurring phenomenon, Toyama believes. He cites the euphoria about television in the 1960s, when it was considered the new wonder weapon for fighting illiteracy and compensating for educational deficiencies. “Fifty years later, we have realized that television contributed only marginally to this – if at all,” Toyama says. His conclusion: “Technology can enhance existing capabilities and efforts – but it can’t replace them.”

Some groups within the ICT4D scene want to learn from the failures of the past. One of them is MobileActive, a New York-based network whose members want to use cell phones and the Internet for social change. It created the FailFaire competition last year – a kind of Golden Raspberry Award for Internet-based development aid, rewarding not the projects that win, but those that fail the most spectacularly. The people behind the unsuccessful ventures introduce them and describe the mistakes that led to failure.

Michael Trucano was the winner the last time around. He is in charge of ICT in education at the World Bank. Trucano presented the 10 biggest mistakes that he had made during his time at the World Bank. His prize was an XO-1, the minimalist notebook from the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative, which some consider the ultimate example of a misplaced, top-down, technology-centered approach to development.

Alfredo Terzoli also cultivates a self-critical stance toward success and failure. He heads the Centre of Excellence at South Africa’s Telkom. Born in Italy, he has lived in South Africa for 20 years. The project’s activities are coordinated from Grahamstown, about 250 kilometers to the west of the Siyakhula Living lab. “We technologists tend to see technology as the solution,” he admits. For just that reason, he believes it was important to include sociologists, anthropologists, linguists and representatives of other disciplines in the project: “We have to listen to what they have to say.”

Terzoli readily admits the difficulties. At the Siyakhula Living Lab, for example, an online order was received for some handicrafts; the customer wanted 140 necklaces. “But when the deadline arrived, not even half were finished – there weren’t any beads left for the rest,” he explained.

There were also numerous communications barriers to surmount, since many people in the area were illiterate and only spoke Xhosa. “Imagine for a moment that the entire Internet was in Chinese, and its contents were primarily about problems in China. Then you get an idea how inaccessible and useless the Internet is for many here,” Terzoli says. Instead, the emphasis was put on training so-called champion teachers. They were to acquire computer and Internet skills so that they could pass on their knowledge to pupils and other community members.

In addition, the programmers of Reed House Systems, a firm involved in the project, were developing an online portal for those in the Siyakhula Living Lab. It will be translated into Xhosa, and also be accessible to the illiterate through audio menus. Users will be able to create their own personal profiles on the Internet, communicate with other members, transmit information to the authorities, offer handicrafts for sale, look for work, create resumes for job searches, and advertise their rondevals on tourist portals.

“There is substantial tourist potential in the area,” Terzoli says. The Dwesa-Cwebe Nature Preserve is only a few kilometers from the Living Lab, and traditional jewelry manufactured in the area could be the basis for a business. The sales platform is intended, in particular, to make contact with large-scale traders possible.

But first the project’s growing pains need to be overcome. The connection to the Internet keeps breaking down. Dust and heat are tough on the computers. Sometimes a school fails to pay the prepaid account for electricity, so the power to the servers gets cut off right in the middle of ongoing projects. This time, the network card in Mpume gave up the ghost: electricity surges had melted the hardware.

In cases like this, the team makes a day trip to exchange the parts. That is, if the streets haven’t been so softened by the rains that they are impassible. The path from the Siyakhula Living Lab into the information age is difficult. But Sibukele Gumbo takes it in stride: “If our idea can work here, then it can work anywhere.”

– This article originally appeared in the German weekly Die Zeit on April 20.