Rural Development and ICTs - From Access to Transactions

Tuesday, 18 October, 2011 - 10:21

In addition to providing access to information and knowledge, mobiles and other forms of information communication technology now also allow ’last mile’ transactions, both financial and social. In the last few years, mobile penetration created the largest transaction channel on the African continent - whether it is social networking transactions in Egypt or mobile money payments in Kenya

Despite increasing urbanisation, 67 percent of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is rural - and rural populations contain the greatest number of poor people. Two simple statements that force us to recognise why rural development needs to sit at the front of the priority queue for sectors of society: government, the private sector and civil society.

Central to rural development in the building of the agriculture and livelihoods - small-scale agriculture in particular plays a unique role in the lives of African rural populations. But development cannot happen through - agriculture alone; it requires a broader investment in social services such as health and education, financial and transactional services, and the ability to integrate rural populations into the systems and mechanisms of governance.

That's easier said than done. Development in all of these sectors faces particular challenges in a rural context: challenges of access (to opportunities, services and utilities), cost (social services and education can be up to 10 times more difficult and expensive to provide in rural areas) and quality (human capital constraints mean that even where services are available, the quality of such services may be very low).
Jeffrey Sachs in an interview by CNN suggested that:

Poverty is almost equated with isolation in many places of the world. Poverty results from the lack of access to markets, to emergency health services, access to education, the ability to take advantage of government services and so on," Sachs said. "What the mobile phone -- and more generally IT technology - is ending is that kind of isolation in all its different varieties." Jeff Sachs, interview by CNN, ’Mobile phone: Weapon Against Global Poverty’.

This may be overstating the case – is the mobile phone really ending that isolation?  Probably not, but there are many opportunities for information communication technologies (ICTs) in general – and mobile phones in particular – to address the challenges of access, cost and quality.

ICTs have always promised certain solutions: better access to information and knowledge and the ability to communicate quickly and (relatively) cheaply. So many early ‘solutions’” centred around access are via universal service funds, telecentres and similar initiatives. What's different in 2011 that explains the ICT for development ‘bubble’? What explains the numerous articles in the Economist on BBC, the excitement of the incubators like the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya?

One answer is that in addition to providing access to information and knowledge is that mobiles and other ICT forms now also allow ’last mile’ transactions,  both financial and social. In the last few years, mobile penetration created the largest transaction channel on the continent - whether its  social networking transactions in Egypt or mobile money payments in Kenya. Alongside this ability to pay, connect or organise using platforms like Facebook Zero or m-Pesa, is the ability for others to innovate using the inroads these transactional channels have created.

So, where has there been impact in rural development through ICTs?  For the SANGONeT 2011 Conference ’ICTs for Rural Development: Rural Realities, Real Solutions’, taking place from 1-3 November 2011 in Johannesburg, we have identified 5 key areas - Agriculture, Education, Financial Services and Governance.

Smallholder agriculture can offer a route out of poverty  but only if its productive and well-linked to efficient markets. ICTs can provide a number of solutions ranging from supply-chain systems to innovative agricultural extension solutions. The World Bank's forthcoming eSourceBook which will be publicly launched at the conference identifies nine key areas where ICTs can drive impact. Kevin Donovan, Associate at Infodev at the World bank, will lead a session on Day 1 looking at these key areas.

In health, technology can extend the reach of health systems, eliminate steps in the value chain for treatment of patients and provide better real-time information for overall resource allocation and decision-making. A highly innovative example of this is our Day 2 plenary speaker, Simon Berry from who explains: “The idea came to me: Why can’t we put simple medicines into CocaCola crates so that they get to exactly the same places that CocaCola gets to?"

In education ICT can support limited physical infrastructure, improve static curriculae and mitigate the limited availablity of qualified teachers  and even address basic language and literacy gaps.

Mobile financial services increasingly provide a foundational platform for transactions across all sectors. As a platform it enables payments across value-chains, remittances to supplement livelihoods, insurance to protect against shocks and credit or savings to support asset management. In addition, ICT-enabled financial service can promote financial inclusion by extending retail and public utility payments.

Across all sectors, the use of ICT in public and civil society is extending the voice of citizens, improving monitoring of service delivery  and increasing both transparency and accountability of government service delivery.

Although we've “siloed” these different sectors, the reality is that the sectors and areas of impact are converging very quickly. Micro-insurance and agriculture using mobile phones – is great example of this.

In collaboration with strategic development advisory firm Dalberg, we will be producing a short ‘primer’ report on the state of ICTs in rural development. Alongside a brief  ’mapping’ of the current state of ICTs in rural development, the primer will attempt to set out some of the key cross-cutting issues facing practitioners, policy-makers and entrepreneurs are facing in this sector. We intend  to utilise the ‘primer report’ to inform the debates and panels across the three days of the conference.

Click here to register if you wish to be part of these discussions.

- Matthew de Gale is M-Agriculture Programme Manager at SANGONeT.

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