Telecenters: Providing the 'Spark' for global community engagement

A computer hardware training program at a telecenter in Sri Lanka. Photo by: Telecentre

The image of telecenters as Internet cafés where people play games and surf the web or places with only a few dusty old computers is outdated. Today, telecenters increasingly serve as hubs for local innovation and entrepreneurship — as a powerful channel for the distribution of services with positive social impact.

The 4th Global Forum on Telecenters, or “Spark13” conference will be held May 28-29 in Granada, Spain, to promote the work of the telecenter movement, showcase its successes and demonstrate to a broader stakeholder community — particularly private sector partners — the potential for scaling products, services and initiatives with a positive social impact across communities around the world at the grass-roots level.

In advance of the conference, Devex spoke with Akhtar Badshah, Microsoft’s senior director of citizenship and public affairs and chair of the Telecentre.org Foundation board of trustees, and Miguel Raimilla, Telecentre.org Foundation executive director about the emergence of telecenters, their impact and future opportunities for worldwide community-based engagement.

According to Badshah, the conference — organized around the themes of people, social innovation and sustainability — is a chance to “shine a spotlight on the value of how local ICT access, especially Internet access, is bringing economic and social value into communities around the world.”

Connecting 1 billion users

There are an estimated 500,000 telecenters worldwide, according to Telecentre.org. Serving upwards of 1 billion users on a regular basis, Badshah explained that these centers can take many forms, from small kiosks to larger premises with more than a dozen computers with Internet connectivity.

Although users may be charged a nominal amount for Internet access, Badshah asserted that a telecenter by definition is “driven out of both a social and economic concern, rather than just being an Internet café.” Indeed, as noted by Badshah, such centers provide a multitude of add-on benefits such as vocational training, e-services and meeting facilities — eventually becoming part of the community fabric.

Miguel Raimilla, meanwhile, described the telecenter community as a “powerful channel for the distribution of services with social impact.” Anyone trying to reach a large number of people in multiple countries, he explained, should explore working with this community. He cautioned that not doing so could mean losing out on local connections, experts and knowledge that are essential to work successfully with communities at the grass-roots level.

Raimilla said he was proud of the global reach of the network built up over a decade of activity, as well as the efficiency and impact of the network’s initiatives in a wide range of countries. The “network of networks” model espoused by Telecentre.org includes six regional telecenter networks and 100 separate organizations representing telecenters. Online communities hosted by Telecentre.org in five languages (Arabic, English, French, Spanish and Russian) have more than 10,000 active members.

“We can connect to hundreds of millions of people with ease through our network,” Raimilla said, “with access to markets, resources, reliable data and the ability to deliver projects and services to the people who need them most.”

Mixed modality financing

The financing model for telecenters varies significantly from region to region, Badshah explained. Governments often provide initial support, while in other cases the private sector takes the lead, or a hybrid approach toward revenue-generation is developed.

“I keep insisting that it’s community-based, community-driven, inclusive and something that needs to be supported by a public-private partnership model,” Badshah said.

According to Badshah, the Spark13 conference is set to make the case for telecenters as agents of empowerment, innovation and entrepreneurship at the local level — and how this, in turn, can start turning the wheels of an economy and putting people on a positive economic trajectory.

Beyond sustenance, toward sustainability

The benefits of public access environments such as telecenters are manifold, according to Badshah, giving people in impoverished rural and urban environments the opportunity to connect, seek information and create their own opportunities.

There are various ways to reach out to people and provide solutions, Raimilla said, and that is where telecenters are playing a catalytic role for younger and older generations alike. Despite the growth of mobile devices around the world, Raimilla observed, telecenters continue to thrive as community resources where training, collaboration and innovation take place. While the need for basic digital literacy may be declining, there is surge in demand for job skills and entrepreneurship training, especially among youth trying to find or create opportunities for themselves in a difficult economy.

So it’s a hand up not a handout?

“I’d like to go beyond that,” Badshah said. “They say that if you give a person a fish, they eat for a day and when you teach a man to fish, you feed them for life. But what we’re doing goes further than that. At some point people get tired of eating fish every day! But if you teach them how to sell that fish, you’ve now introduced the concept of sustainability — you’ve gone beyond the issue of sustenance towards sustainability.”

Raimilla has already seen the benefits of harnessing the potential of telecenters to boost the visibility of an initiative. The Telecentre Women Campaign has a goal of training 1 million women in digital literacy. To date, the initiative has reached 682,000 women working through telecenters in 85 countries. 

Empowering women

The majority of telecenters are run by women. This role leads to a transformation for how women are perceived by their communities, Badshah explained, allowing women “to be part of an economic cycle and economic agents on their own terms.”

Raimilla explained that following Grameen Bank’s idea of the village phone lady and the later add-on microcredit services, many phone ladies are now working with telecenters to develop and expand financial services — working at the community level in Asia and Africa to better organize access to funding and credit.

Another good example, according to Raimilla, is what is currently happening in the area of e-health. Although international organizations are training women as midwives and nurses in remote rural areas, he said, such training may be based around fairly high-end technology. With the support of telecenters, this experience can be delivered in a more efficient way. In Nepal and Bhutan, for example, making the information available to large numbers of women has led to a decrease in infant mortality.

Driving the momentum forward

Badshah had three reasons why governments, private sector partners and conference attendees should do all they can to contribute to the momentum of the telecenter movement.

“First, by supporting the movement you are supporting the drive for local innovation and local economic empowerment,” he said. “Second, you are exposing the younger generation to the power and magic of technology, which they need to be competitive — and through that will have a positive impact on the country’s ability to be competitive. And third, it is through these efforts that you create a more interactive environment in the community, with information being transformed into knowledge, which eventually leads to empowerment.”

The conference is set to showcase the most advanced, innovative and efficient telecenter models from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe, Raimilla explained, including the first Global Telecentre Awards designed to recognize individuals, organizations and initiatives at the forefront of the movement.

“This will encourage everyone that it’s possible to achieve great things even with limited resources, by working smarter and thinking outside the box in terms of developing services, and integrating technology into their telecenter operations.”

To register or find out more about Spark13, visit http://spark.telecentre.org or write to spark@telecentre.org.

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    Richard Jones

    In his role as Partnerships Editor Richard oversees editorial content for partner and client campaigns, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously an associate editor, he covered the full spectrum of development aid in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Devex. Currently based in Barcelona, Richard brings to bear 14 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. His development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.