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Ten years later, telecenters are still not sustainable

By Wayan Vota on June 27, 2012

In case you are wondering, telecenters are still not sustainable. A new research report, Public Access Computing in South Africa: Old Lessons and New Challenges, has this un-surprising conclusion:

In 2001 Benjamin found that just over a third of the USAASA telecenters in South Africa reported basic profitability – with USAASA providing computers, furniture and other hardware – and that financial concern was a major cause to telecenter collapse (Benjamin, 2001).


Ten years later, Attwood and Braathen concluded that the problems plaguing telecenters in South Africa in 2001 remained. These problems have also been stated repeatedly by scholars and activists, leading to the conclusion that community telecenters are basically unable to operate as a business (Attwood, 2010).

Nonetheless, outside the sphere of action of the South African government agency USAASA, a new breed of cybercafés is taking hold and building upon a growing demand for ICT skills and entertainment services.

Users, even in marginalized, poor, and underserved communities, are willing to pay in order to use public access computing (PAC) venues with functional equipment. With the generalized perception that learning to use computers is a gateway to a better future, or at least, a source of stronger self-confidence and sense of “bettering oneself,” the ground is fertile for providing the PAC services that telecenters currently fail to offer.

It is in this vein that the current 2011 USAASA telecenter program, which is based on the entrepreneur model of cybercafés, may be more successful than the telecenter failures of the past.

Sadly, I think this conclusion misses a key point. Telecenters are established precisely because the local population is too poor, isolated, and marginalized to pay for their own computers and Internet access. Making telecenters “entrepreneurial” will not change the basic fact that they are located in market failure situations – precisely because private cybercafe entrepreneurship cannot work in those locations.



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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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