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A Simple Email Address Can Be a Major ICT4D Barrier

By Wayan Vota on March 9, 2012


When did you get your first email account? Can you remember? Or was it just too long ago? I think my first email address was in college in 1992, but it could’ve been even before then. It was so long ago for most of us, we all may have forgotten how odd email may seem to those without it. So take a moment and read Laura Hosman’s account of the email address sign-up process for teachers in Haiti.

This was the most difficult thing we did during the entire training session, because to sign up for an email account, (we used yahoo.fr), one needs first to choose the email “name” and yahoo suggests one for you. Then you need to give a street address, and to enter a password multiple times.

But the most puzzling thing to them was the two challenge or security questions yahoo requires, if the password is forgotten—first, explaining the concept behind this, and then explaining why they needed two. Some of these questions made no contextual sense to the teachers (Make and model of your first car? Where did you vacation last year? What was your favorite sport in high school?) , but ultimately they all made it through, and were able to choose a question/answer that worked for them.

And finally, they had to type in the strange, nonsensical CAPTCHA phrases at the bottom of the page that attempt to prevent against spamming and robot signing up for accounts—and we had to explain what those were all about, too! Finally, the first person to hit “send” got his address.

Then, as the others all hit send, none of the rest of the addresses went through. This was extremely frustrating and puzzling for us. We had no idea what to tell them, why it hadn’t worked. We could only figure that yahoo rejected them, as they all came so suddenly from the same IP address, they thought it was spamming or robo-account creation of some type. (So much for the CAPTCHA phrase!)

Remember this the next time you casually require an email address to engage in your next ICT4D project. You may be creating a greater barrier to entry than you expect.


Nathan Nelson chimes in with his own failure with Yahoo! Mail and ICT in general. Its a great read – here’s a taste:

The first time I took a class of Cambodian students to an internet cafe in town, I had high hopes. ‘They’ll take to it straight away’, I thought to myself. ‘What’s not to love about the internet, it’s amazing’. We’d gone through some basic principles, and I was keen to expose the students to the real deal as quickly as possible. So around twelve of us took over a small internet cafe.

Here was the first problem. Twelve people trying to do stuff online through one 256Kbps connection. It was a shambles. The students, some who had never spent any serious amount of time on a computer, sat patiently, and sat, and sat, while things moved at a tectonic pace. The computers were knackered. The internet connection was feeble and a dozen people were trying to use it at once.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Yeah we’ve all done it. Now think a moment before you do it again.


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Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. 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 his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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5 Comments to “A Simple Email Address Can Be a Major ICT4D Barrier”

  1. Pablo Destefanis says:

    Hey Wayan,

    The problem is not about the difficulties posed by email (or any particular technology), but rather the use of a system (yahoo.fr) in an population for which it was not designed.

    I can commensurate with that, not being raised in the US, all those questions like “What was your high school team mascot?” make me cringe. Not to mention that security questions tend to be rather insecure, except maybe when you can create them yourself, and you show creativity at it… but I digress.

    How you work around that? Get a system that is adapted to the lifestyle of the people you are working with. Back in 2002, we had to do something similar in Ghana, and we ended up coming with our own solution (freeghana.com, now extinct). It was hard, but we were a bunch of geeks with time to spare.

    In the last decade, things have changed a lot, and you can get a mail server, with web access, installed quickly in a small computer and if you don’t have a local IT person, it can be sent over, well, anywhere. Sure, it is more involved, but you will be able to set it the way you want, you will use way less bandwidth, help the local IT industry, and provide adequate content, instead of ads for “L’été à la mer! En Corse!”


  2. hyrcan says:

    @pablo: I think the point is not that of cultural difference in security questions, but more that why require an email address. Though Hosman’s account is definitely a wakeup call to yahoo and others for them to re-evaluate their sign up process.

    I think the point is that we need to remember that people access the internet in many different ways with many different experiences and limitations.

    If you create your web service to require an email address you are instantly limiting your users to an elite few, and as it’s the norm to do so, little is done to come up with better solutions.

    Why does this matter? Well, in Nigeria for example, there’s only 45million Internet users out of 150Million population… however there’s 90million cell phones. Granted there is likely considerable over lap… that’s still at least another 45million cell phone users (not to forget the countless people who have access to a cell phone, but don’t own it) who could access the internet if we built our web services better, but we build things expecting people to have a web browser, an email address, a fast connection…

    The internet is more than Google Chrome/Firefox/Safari/IE


  3. Wayan Vota says:


    We’ve tried local mail servers and we’ve tried local mail services, yet all of them require local know-how or reoccurring payments, and so neither are sustainable over the long term. Cloud services like Yahoo, Gmail, etc, while annoying to sign up for, are so much easier to administer – primarily because no one needs to. They are done, free, by others.

    My favorite example of this is all the Ministry officials in so many countries that have a big formal title on their business card, right above their mail.yahoo.fr email address. If a government ministry cannot manage an email server, why should we expect small orgs to be able to?

  4. Wayan Vota says:

    This is exactly my point: we need to remember that people access the internet in many different ways with many different experiences and limitations.

  5. ashleigh says:

    i need a new email and i hope you made it lD