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Bringing Internet to the World’s Villages

By Guest Writer on March 12, 2014

Photo Credit: Barrett Nash

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.

Photo Credit: Barrett Nash‘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

Filed Under: Economic Development, Education, Technology
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5 Comments to “Bringing Internet to the World’s Villages”

  1. Barrett, I agree with your perspective in this area regarding “Oh, they don’t need Internet, they need X, Y, Z!” I’ve come to realize that in the last year!

  2. Barrett, thanks for sharing your perspective. Sometimes people ask why the church would be spending money on technology when people are without clean drinking water, or food, or safe shelter. We have to address both the symptoms of poverty as well as the root causes. By increasing access to modern education and information, the “playing field” is leveled – and, as you say, “With an active Internet connection, a person doesn’t have to be limited by their surroundings. They are only limited by their ambition.”

    • Barrett Nash says:

      Thanks for reading Neely,

      I really like this “We have to address both the symptoms of poverty as well as the root causes”, it is a core part of my thinking.

  3. Ed Resor says:

    Barrett,
    Great work. In the words of Dr. John Garang, “Take the town to the people.”

    I strongly recommend you consider adding some of the best available offline content. If you haven’t already, take a look at RACHEL at http://www.WorldPossible.org and http://www.GCFLearnFree.org.

    Your customers can copy what they need from these resources on to their on devices.

    MTN in Rwanda also sells WiMax service for certain parts of Rwanda.

    Hang in there. Let me know if you need more resources including strong evidence of the continued need for Internet Cafes/Telecenters, daily rainfall estimates for the last 20’years for each 10 km x 10 km area where your customers live.
    Ed Resor, Catholic Diocese of Torit, South Sudan