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An ICTworks Interview with Kafui Prebbie, CEO of 1ViLLAGE Ghana

By Wayan Vota on February 14, 2011

1Village Group is making strides in bringing technology solutions to under-resourced communities in the developing world to promote rapid socio-economic development. I had the opportunity to interview Kafui A. Prebbie, CEO of 1ViLLAGE and hear about his lessons learned while bringing ICT solutions to remote areas in Ghana. I trust this interview will be highly educational for others in the field.

1village Ghana

What does 1ViLLAGE do?

The 1ViLLAGE Group is a team of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) professionals conducting training, installation, and research for appropriate eLearning, eGovernance and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Systems including SMS/Mobile, Low Power or Virtual Computing, Networking and Power.

We work with development organizations, companies, governments, other ICT4D enterprises and individuals who desire to introduce Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) components into their projects, as well as, on self-initiated research and technological projects. Our experience designing, developing, and implementing ICT solutions in harsh rural conditions, and our knowledge of the challenges in such areas, has made us a critical technology partner.

What is your personal favorite aspect of working with 1Village?

Training the rural population on the use of technology for education and development.

What is your ICT story? What inspired you to start working in your field?

My brother had an old PC at home and I used to play with it when he was at work. Over time, I realized the entrepreneurial potential of using computers so I looked for opportunities where I could get involved in consulting on new technologies. I am passionate about new technology which is why I keep doing what I do.

Tell us about a project you have worked on that inspired you the most.

Students Bridging the Information Gap (SBIG), a US-based NGO that aims to improve technology and literary skills among students in less developed countries, had hired us to design and install the computer, power, and internet systems needed to run a 18-seat lab that would provide orphans and students from the Good Shepherd Orphanage (GSO), in less developed Northern Ghana.

We secured computers from Inveneo that had lower power demands due to fewer moving parts. This meant no AC units were required and the money saved went toward more reliable and robust power and inverter systems which helped stabilize the power supply. To get a connection, we needed access to a mast owned by a major mobile telecom operator located 100km away. From setting up the actual computers to attaching the wireless router on the pole 10 kilometers away, our team worked day and night. And finally, GSO was equipped with 18 low-voltage Inveneo desktop computers, two laptop computers, a laser printer, LCD projector, a battery pack and inverter, furniture, books provided by SIBG and more.

Currently, six GSO classes use the lab on a bi-weekly basis, with an average of 25 students per class. Overall, more than 200 students from GSO and the surrounding areas use the computers directly and benefit from this unprecedented access to the web.

Solomon Amuzu is a student in Junior High who volunteers to clean the lab daily. After some observation, he has taught himself to open and use his own email and Facebook accounts. Even students from Primary 4 who are 11 years old are creating emails after just one term of exposure.

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Who are the team players in 1Village, locals? Expats?

A majority of the 1Village team is local.

Which technologies are the top priorities and why? Which technologies are received well in rural areas in Ghana?

Computing, Internet and Power technologies. The combination of these technologies ensure that access to global and local information is possible and sustained over a long period of time.

What have been the challenges for 1Village and how did you address them?

The primary challenge has been garnering global visibility as a young organization. But we are currently using social media: Facebook and twitter to reach out and we are seeing good results, we plan to improve our online outreach efforts in the near future.

People in rural areas may have every day life challenges such as securing food, shelter and water, what is the importance of ICT to their lives?

We are received very warmly but not always the first time. Through the local symposia and forums we organize, many have come to understand the need for ICTs as enablers for community development. A lot of times this role is seen to be through access to timely and correct information. The impact of technology in improving lives is very obvious to many rural community dwellers, typically, from seeing the impacts of mobile phones and the radio on their lives.

What are the key obstacles you regularly face (access to software? funds? power outages?)

What delays implementation of projects is often funding on the part of the client – the school, NGO, etc. However, once the funds are secured by the client for the ICT project we sail smoothly through the installation process. Where power is an issue we mitigate it with an appropriate solar and battery backup installation.

What are the effective ways an ICT company can integrate technologies into communities to get the best impact?

At 1ViLLAGE we believe technology deployments should always be preceded by a vigorous and detailed community dialogue or field assessment process. This ensures full community participation and that the facility is demand driven and not supply driven. Ignoring this aspect of community ICT initiatives has a significant negative impact on project outcomes.

We have worked in several districts in Ghana and our experiences support the fact that field assessments are an essential part of the process. Many rural areas have heard of and seen the need for ICTs but are lost as to how to initiate effective utilization. Our experiences have revealed the need for systems specifically engineered for the rural towns and training sessions that follow each deployment.

Mobile companies are completely saturating Accra and other touristy locations (above 85% penetration), but it is reported that Ghana only has 48% mobile penetration and even lower internet penetration, what are your thoughts on this disparity?

It has always been the case – companies migrate towards locations where there is not only demand, but ability to pay. However, the liberalization of the telcom market by the National Communications Authority (NCA) has brought about competition and a reduction in prices – and it is likely we will see a rapid rate of mobile penetration in the next 5 years, if not less.

This void in the mobile markets should be the direction in which lead organizations interested in introducing ICTs to Ghana’s low-resource communities should look to make impact. Organizations and individuals should partner with ICT4D-oriented organizations and social enterprises to collaborate for deployment of ICTs to address community needs. Adopting mobile and low-power consuming / green technologies will be the remedy toward effective and accessible technologies in this era.

The country/government seems receptive to ICT4D work, how is the policy-making or interaction you have with the government been like?

Like many governments in Africa, they appreciate our work but have very little or no funds to contribute towards the efforts. Notwithstanding, the Ghana government through the NCA, has provided an enabling environment for ICT business growth. We have not formally had government interaction but we have contributed to the policies and agendas through government-funded ICT projects we have undertaken.

How do you think sustainability is achieved for ICT projects?

Sustainability of ICT projects is a direct function of the systems engineering – the design used for both the ICT hardware and software. It also involves the socio-economic considerations during the design process.

For instance, in our 20-seater Inveneo Low-Power Computing lab in Asesewa, Eastern Region of Ghana, we used computing solutions that consume just 12 Volts and 16 Watts. This low electricity usage means low monthly utility bills, making the approach cost effective.

We also engineered the systems to self-clean at every restart thus ensuring that we curb the incidence of virus-related malfunctions. Clean or stable power was supplied to the ICT systems through a sensitive inverter that filters the grid power and a battery bank that ensures continuous power for 8 – 12 hours in the absence of grid power. These guarantee the prolonged use of the set up for several years at very low cost.

The social dimensions of the ICT Centers’ sustainability involved an open dialogue with all stakeholders and users. We identified and secured revenue sources for maintaining the facility at the least cost possible – especially when the facility is located in a rural area with low-income earners.

Do you utilize open source technologies (such as Linux OS, Open Office etc) and if you do not why?

1Village utilizes open source technologies. Every computing system we deploy or install in an ICT facility has the Open Office software as part of 30 piece software bundle installed on the systems. The bundle includes other open source software like Foxit (PDF Reader), Audacity (Audio Recorder), etc. Also, the servers we install (Inveneo R3 & R4 Hub Servers) run on Linux OS and provide quality network and resource management experience with its superior security features.

What do you see ICT4D’s role in development? What is the impact of access to ICT thus far on the people?

From our experiences in 1ViLLAGE, technology is a vehicle and catalyst for development. What needs to be done in most cases is undertaking an effective field/needs assessment and subsequently designing the solutions that will address the specific development needs of the community. A carefully designed ICT system and training program is a catalyst for development by unleashing the strengths of education, science, justice and health amongst others.

What is your suggestion for organizations interested in integrating ICT4D approaches into their projects and missions?
It is a worthwhile decision to take such an approach in the current information age. Society today is driven by technology innovations. The appropriate technologies can drive higher impact, efficiency and quality output.

How do you think they should go about deciding what role they can play in bringing ICT solutions to communities?
Each individual or organization can assess their capacity. Companies could get involved through technology research or deployments – especially in areas where there is the greatest need. Organizations can also take the role of introducing and supporting technology-related entrepreneurial programs in rural communities.

Could you speak to the ICT4D field in Ghana specifically? Is there a community/chamber of such companies where you can exchange information?
There are a number of institutions that work on ICT4D in Ghana; foundations, privates companies and government-assisted agencies like the National information Technology Agency (NITA) and the Kofi Annan Advanced Information Technology Institute. Information amongst ICT4D players in the industry is shared via mailing lists and groups. One prominent group is GINKS –Ghana Information and Knowledge Sharing.

Any competitors or organizations providing similar services in Ghana?

There are three other Inveneo Certified ICT Partners (ICIPs) in Ghana who are our competitors. However, what makes 1Village unique is our ability to provide affordable and complete ICT solutions (that includes Power/Solar, Wireless Network, Computing, Internet and SMS technology) with quality designs, standards, with prompt installations and technical support.

What are some of the lessons learned in your work so far with 1Village?

Rural areas still need investment in technology and the mobile platform has the potential to be leveraged for community needs in different spheres including health, education, politics, etc. There are some development organizations that require total sustainable ICT solutions (computing, power, wireless, sms/mobile, etc.) and have toiled in vain to find ICT solution providers like us – ICIPs. We and other ICIPs are key partners in facilitating rural ICT access in Africa due to our understanding of the conditions and our commitment to providing ICT supplies to meet the specific needs and demands of each community.

Anything else you would like to add?

In Ghana, there is a growing demand not just for technologies, but appropriate and affordable sustainable technologies. These are user friendly, customer-need driven, low power consuming mobile technologies that combine the capabilities of the laptop and mobile phones. Opportunities exist for customization of existing technologies by social enterprises/ventures and the development of hardware and software that are affordable and reliable – especially for rural populations.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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