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Can Digital Community Centers Be Financially Sustainable?

By Guest Writer on January 31, 2024

internet cyber cafe

To bridge the digital divide, digital community centers — physical spaces that provide access to the internet, technology devices, and digital skills — have become a popular solution for organizations working to bring connectivity to remote areas.

Also known as cybercafes and telecentres, these public computer labs:

  • Bring internet access to previously unconnected communities,
  • Deliver digital literacy training to equip citizens with the skills and knowledge to use technology
  • Ensure people and communities can meaningfully and safely use it for personal and economic growth.

While these centers may benefit their communities and act as gateways to the digital world, a pressing question lingers: Can public internet access centers become truly sustainable and self-sufficient?

Here are three lessons learned by digital community centers established under the USAID/Microsoft Airband Initiative, a public-private partnership that seeks to bring Internet access to more women around the world.

Partners of the Initiative, including internet service providers (ISPs) and technology companies, have built and managed these centers in rural and semi-urban areas and pursued different models for sustainability once initial financial support from USAID and Microsoft ended.

Barriers to Computer Lab Sustainability

Digital community centers often rely heavily on donor funding, raising concern about their long-term viability. The USAID/Microsoft Airband Initiative provided start-up funding to enable communities to establish the centers, after which the centers are responsible for funding their continued operations.

However, high operational and maintenance costs can pose significant challenges to telecenter operations. In most cases, members of the communities cannot justify paying for the centers’ services if they do not find genuine value in them.

Balancing affordable access with perceived value is therefore essential to cultivating a self-reliant user base, and this requires a deep understanding of the community’s needs and aspirations.

3 Strategies for Cyber Cafe Sustainability

With these challenges in mind, each Airband Initiative partner has tested different strategies to keep the centers operational.

1. Microbusiness: Community Centers into Internet Cafes

One promising approach is the transition of community centers into self-sustaining microbusinesses. For example, turning them into internet cafes that charge for internet access and for the use of other services, such as printing, scanning, professional development training, and issuing government documents.

By doing so, the centers can generate revenue while meeting the community’s needs. New Sun Road (NSR), a public benefit corporation and USAID/Microsoft Airband Initiative partner in Guatemala, has successfully adopted this approach.

“NSR implemented a business model taking into consideration the historical financial data gathered from the communities. This model is aimed to cover the [operational expenses] and make [the digital community centers] profitable with the current revenue generated,” said Susana Arrechea, Global Programs Director at NSR. Currently, five out of nine NSR centers generate enough revenue to cover their operating expenses.

The remote nature of these areas makes the services offered highly valuable, incentivizing community members and individuals from neighboring regions to pay to use them. Bluetown, another Airband Initiative partner and ISP in Ghana, is replicating this model and turning their computer labs into business centers where anyone can pay to use the internet, print documents, design CVs, and learn computer skills.

2. Partnerships: Finding Financial Stability Together

Partnerships can be another avenue towards sustainability. “For us, the key to success is having lots of partners and that all the stakeholders work together,” said Lene Schulze, Head of Global Partnerships at Bluetown. “Everybody needs to chip in and invest in this for it to happen.” This model allows the centers to share the financial burden with other organizations and associations for a mutually beneficial partnership.

Bluetown partners with humanitarian agency CARE International to jointly fund the costs of their micro-operators who serve as community engagement facilitators at Bluetown’s digital community centers. Through this partnership, Bluetown can keep paying the micro-operators after donor funding runs out, and CARE leverages their skills in community engagement for their agriculture projects in the same areas. This cost-sharing arrangement enables the micro-operators to allocate their time effectively between the two organizations.

Anditel, a Colombian telecommunications company and Airband Initiative partner, also found success through new partnerships with three organizations: Ayuda en Acción foundation, the Council of American Enterprises (CEA) foundation, and the Internet Society Colombia Chapter. These organizations work on serving the needs of vulnerable populations in remote regions of Colombia, focusing their efforts on social, economic, educational, and productive development, all while making technology access a central pillar of their programs.

For these organizations, Anditel’s centers, equipped with internet connectivity, provided an opportunity to share resources and continue programming to achieve their objectives—the Ayuda en Acción foundation, for example, established an information system that helps cocoa farmers enhance the quality of their harvest. The system runs on Anditel’s networks, and the foundation provides training for the farmers who visit Anditel’s centers to access these tools and improve their produce.

Similarly, the CEA foundation leverages the connectivity provided by Anditel’s centers to provide mentorship and skills training to entrepreneurs through HPlife, a platform that teaches in-demand skills and core business concepts for students and entrepreneurs.

Finally, the partnership with the Internet Society Colombia Chapter supports Anditel in promoting and developing the Internet as a global technical infrastructure. These partnerships have enabled Anditel to maintain more diverse use cases for their connectivity networks.

3. Community Engagement: Fostering Ownership

By encouraging community engagement and active involvement, the digital community centers can become ingrained in the community. It requires building trust, understanding local dynamics, and addressing cultural sensitivities.

NSR’s women’s leadership committees, which are groups of women responsible for the administration and maintenance of each center, faced challenges when they took ownership of the centers, triggering resistance from male leaders in the Community Development Councils who were against women’s participation in leadership positions.

The committees were able to overcome these power dynamics by inviting male leaders to engage with the centers through tailored training which helped them recognize how women in leadership positions benefits the entire community. This fostered a sense of ownership among all community members, empowering them to take pride and responsibility in sustaining the center’s operations.

The Long Road to Sustainability

Sustainability is difficult to achieve for digital community centers. Throughout the USAID/Microsoft Airband Initiative, several public internet access centers closed down for various reasons, including costs being too high for centers using satellite internet, partners not being able to take on the expected maintenance costs, and low engagement from the community.

However, the digital community center model continues to have promise with its ability to bring digital resources and knowledge to remote areas.

We have found that, while the road to sustainability for digital community centers may be challenging, it can be achievable. The success of several approaches of the Airband Initiative partners shows that it is possible to address the inherent obstacles with implementing this model  while demonstrating the potential for digital community centers to revolutionize connectivity in remote areas where people are currently unconnected to the digital world.

By Lana Alnesany, Senior Communications Specialist, at DAI’s Digital Frontiers Frontiers project, a buy-in mechanism that works closely with USAID Missions and Bureaus, the private sector, and international and local development organizations to identify successful and sustainable digital development approaches and scale their impact globally.

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3 Comments to “Can Digital Community Centers Be Financially Sustainable?”

  1. Yes it is, the problem is if you only depend on internet revenue it is very difficult, we build WIFI hotspot across East Africa using edge tech. But we decided to provide an infrastructure as a service solution where we can have application running on the edge but also provide storage and computing power from the edge so not we no longer depend on just monetizing from internet services. You need a versatile infrastructure just like the telecom industry. They make money off sms, internet, voice and mobile money.

  2. Yacine Khelladi says:

    The telecenter movement discussed this issue during years in the late 90’s until the late 2000’s, sustainability, in all its aspects, social, cultural, technical sustainability, and the many different operating models , roll outs, scale ups et. Conclusion: “if this is impacting positively community development (improving capacities, aces to health, jobs, education, security, local business, governance etc.) , they don’t'( and often can’t) have to be financially sustainable on selling computer usage time, but either embedded as a tool in a larger social goal oriented funded programs or sustained as a public service.”

  3. Thank you for a spot-on discussion on sustainability challenges that newly established digital community centers (public access points) face and potential solutions to keep operational after the start-up funding ends. Drawing on my professional experience, I’d like to offer one more option to consider that, I guess falls somewhere in between partnership and community ownership strategies. There is an ongoing trend of local libraries across geographies providing physical spaces for the community to access to internet, technology, digital skills, and relevant resources as part of their core mission of supporting continuous learning and informed decision making to all. Though they still need additional resources to start and sustain public access to the internet and related services (just as the other public access centers), there are many strategic advantages that make sustainability of internet related services easier to ensure. Already at the introduction of the public access internet service, for example, a library is an established public space/service based in and supported by the community and has skilled and community-minded staff. Library usually works with a wide-ranging local partner network, across public, NGO, and private sectors, and uses some kind of performance / statistics reporting framework. It has established sources (public funding or community support) to meet basic operational needs, and so on. There are also benefits in terms of scope and type of internet-based services provided in and by the libraries, but this is another theme for discussion. So my advice would be, also, consider partnering with local libraries in the new digital inclusion / community internet centers initiatives. There are plenty of good practice examples, how to make it work.