Behind the scenes: taking the risk out of rural

When Samsung Electronics Africa’s Ntutule Tshenye said: “Africa is being hailed now more than ever as a land of opportunity” following the technology giant’s record sales last year, he was not mincing his words. For technology buffs, Africa is a giant vortex, ready to absorb new products. And Samsung is ahead of the game, peddling low-budget, low-power mobile technology to a consumer base of tech-savvy urbanites across the continent.

Connect Africa has documented demand for mobile phone coverage in rural communities

But while urbanites can make a call or go on the internet at the touch of a button, rural communities often have the technology but can’t use it. A recent article by Reuters reports that while Africa has just over a billion people and 700 million SIM cards, penetration on the continent is at only about 33 percent. That leaves a lot of unconnected rural people.

Mobile phone operators just aren’t willing to venture out into the risk-riddled rural areas. The main risk is cost: network operators fail to see how they will recoup the cost of building massive and expensive infrastructure in rural areas, where people mostly earn less than US$1 a day and will be unlikely to spend that on mobile technology and airtime.

Facts first

With nearly ten years of experience working with ICT infrastructure in rural areas, Connect Africa’s extensive research has uncovered some interesting facts. First of all, people will spend a disproportionate amount if their money on both mobile phone technology and airtime.

A study conducted in Zambia’s remote Chunga Camp, in Kafue National Park, revealed that despite having to travel for up to an hour to reach a signal, 70 of 135 children at a boarding school in the area spend K50 (US$9) a month each on airtime.

People in rural areas can benefit from rural mobile phone coverage to find out vital information on commodity pricing

That figure would increase if a signal was readily available, with teachers and pupils eagerly requesting better network services. Currently teachers miss training programmes and exam information because of time delays in communication.

They miss out on talking to friends and family – and generally throughout Zambia, teachers are reluctant to take up positions in rural areas because of poor communication facilities, with huge impacts on education for young people.

It’s not just the school that has a real need for information technology. There is also a small clinic where messages concerning emergencies and supplies are relayed by travelling to the closest hospital, about one hour 45 minutes away by vehicle. That is when vehicles are available – sometimes they are not.

When you compare the cost of physically travelling to a destination to picking up the phone for a couple of minutes, you can begin to see why rural communities are ready to spend their hard-earned cash on mobile technology and airtime.

What’s more, CA’s research reveals that it doesn’t have to be expensive to put appropriate technology in rural areas.. Provided a strategy which emphasises market orientation, sustainability and entrepreneurship is in place, recent technology development has produced all outdoor cellular base station solutions that make rural coverage more affordable. Innovative business models make these rural technology solutions viable and funding through strategic use of government Universal Service Access Funds could make rural coverage a reality.

Going where others won’t… and why

Connect Africa focuses on connecting up people in rural areas by promoting low-cost, advanced technology and providing training in how to make the most of it

Cost is a deal-breaking consideration for large networks, so one way to enhance revenue in rural areas is to consolidate multiple services and provide them in one area. CA conducted a survey report among men and women in seven rural areas in South Africa’s Limpolo Province, with the results indicating top priorities of accessing telephones, buying airtime and topping up the electricity meter.

All of these services and others – such as photocopying which also featured among priorities – can be offered under one roof, boosting revenue and bringing down costs. CA is already pioneering this approach in Mumbwa.

Perhaps most relevantly for rural communities, CA’s research points to one ground-breaking solution: infrastructure in rural areas doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be big, and it doesn’t have to be complicated – all it takes is an holistic understanding of the rural market, a combination of smart small technologies and bringing them together to provide efficient, sustainable and scale-able service delivery to rural communities.

CA has already proved this point, deploying, managing and monitoring six community pay phones connecting six deep rural communities in Zambia’s Central Province with the broader community. The results show that demand outstripped supply, with service providers unable to release enough airtime to meet the enthusiasm of rural users.

Of course challenges lie ahead but many have been overcome in the last ten years. As Dion Jerling, Special Projects Director, well knows, in rural Africa sometimes things take weeks instead of days, months instead of weeks and even years instead of months to achieve but finally the technology has arrived that will provide the service levels urban people currently enjoy.

Despite the challenges, Jerling believes that with this technology being implemented and tested in partnership with its high-tech partners, along with its unique experience of rural markets, Connect Africa is: “Well positioned to  deploy and scale up rural service delivery across Zambia and beyond”.

It might have been a steep climb overcoming hurdles in the last ten years but Jerling says the journey has made CA and its community-focused team experts in managing ICT-driven solutions in rural areas. “Taking the path less travelled is an experience that always presents challenges – it’s what you do with the challenges that makes the journey,” he said.

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