Multipurpose Community Telecentres in support of People-Centred Development1
John B. Rose2
Information and Informatics Division
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
While many developing countries are rapidly mastering modern information and
communication technologies (ICTs) and applying them in their development, the poorest
countries are often prevented from benefiting fully from these advances because of isolation,
lack of means, insufficient infrastructures or cultural factors. This is especially true in rural,
remote or otherwise disadvantaged communities where the majority of the people in most
developing countries are living, yet which have particularly critical needs for support for
development information, education and training, employment opportunities and public
services in general, as well as for community action to improve their situation.
Rural communities in developing countries present a special and very important case, in
terms of both public service and economic development needs. Rural economies often
depend almost exclusively on agriculture, fishing and small scale business activities, and
must diversify by attracting new businesses and gaining better access to external markets, to
decision makers and to information providers in order to survive as indigenous societies,
and to counter the migration of inhabitants to low-income urban settlements which leads to
an aggravation of economic and social problems.
Perhaps the major factor which has prevented many rural regions from benefiting fully from
the potential of ICTs has been the low penetration and quality of telecommunication
services. Although recent developments and cost reductions in wireless communication
technologies, including both local loop and satellite communications, permit the availability
of telecommunication services at any spot on the globe, there is still a cost barrier that rural
communities will not easily be able to overcome. This suggests the viability of providing a
sustainable, cost-effective, shared community facility, capable of servicing most of the
requirements of the local population. Such a centre could be seen as the community library
of the future, supporting the goal of universal access to the emerging Information Society.
This concept of a multipurpose, shared facility has acquired a variety of names, such as
"Community TeleService Centre", "Virtual Village Hall" or "Telecottage", but
"Multipurpose Community Telecentre" (MCT) has become the most generally accepted
Originally published in: Information Technology and & Globalisation: Implications for People-Centred
Development, Editors: Rogers W'O Okot-Uma, Henry Alamango and Keith Yeomans. Published for
Commonwealth Network of Information Technology for Development (COMNET-IT) by SFI Publishing,
London, 1999. ISBN: 1-901127-14-1.
1 Rue Miollis
75732 PARIS Cedex 15
MCTs can offer basic telecommunication and office administration services such as
telephone, fax, e-mail, Internet access, word processing and photocopy, along with all
needed user support and training. They can facilitate access to library and information
services, exploiting their own document holdings and national and world-wide electronic
information banks in support of literacy campaigns, basic and non-formal education,
government programmes, and other public service activity. MCTs can also, particularly
through culturally sensitive interfaces in the vernacular language, facilitate citizens'
feedback to local and national government on policy and development problems, the
generation and exchange of community based information, and forums for participatory
democracy. MCTs can link to "traditional" rural media for outreach activities, and may, for
example, provide access to radio and television production facilities as complementary
community information means.
The MCT concept, showing its three basic functional areas, is presented schematically in
the diagram below.
Figure 1: Functional scheme for an MCT
A fundamental criterion for (and determinant of the success of) a community telecentre
project is the participation and co-operation of a wide range of local organizations in
establishing the facility and in developing "content" and applications: the private sector,
NGOS, the public and also government at all levels. The private sector may contribute in
different ways, ranging from supply of equipment and services to operational responsibility
under franchise, but an essential element of a MCT is its support for community
development and for public services. Although the dividing lines are not always clear in
practice, a MCT is thus distinguished from a "Telekiosk" or "Public Call Office" operated
strictly as a commercial venture, and from ICT centres set up to serve mainly a single client
group (for example, within a school system or a government service).
The MCT Movement World-wide
The first community telecentre was opened in Vemdalen, Sweden, in 1985 and the concept
rapidly spread to other European countries, notably Scandinavia, Germany and the United
Kingdom (particularly Wales, http://www.telecottages.org/). In the early 1990's
government programmes were initiated to develop telecentres on other continents: Australia
(see: Australian Rural Telecentres Association (ARTA), http://www.arta.org.au/), North
America (particularly in Canada in Newfoundland, then New Brunswick,
http://cnbb.unb.ca/) and Latin America (particularly Brazil, and then Peru,
http://ekeko.rcp.net.pe). The models for these telecentres varied substantially among
countries and within countries, particularly concerning the roles of communities, private
entrepreneurs and government. While the telecentres in Australia, Canada, Scandinavia, and
to a lesser extent Wales stressed access in isolated rural areas, those in Latin America
initially stressed disadvantaged urban or peri-urban communities. South Africa started its
first telecentre in 1995 as a pilot project in a township near Pretoria, and now has a national
programme which now has 68 established or in progress (Universal Service Agency,
http://usa.org.za/project.htm). MCTs are now being considered or implemented by a large
number of countries, spread throughout every region of the world.
At the international level, the 1994 World Telecommunication Development Conference of
the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) adopted within its Buenos Aires Action
Plan a programme on telecommunication for integrated rural development in which MCTs
were considered as a major vector, and Member States were encouraged to propose pilot
projects for ITU funding. Through this programme, which was favourably evaluated and
continued by the second World Telecommunication Development Conference held in
Valetta, Malta in March 1998, the ITU has been assisting telecentre development in all
The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) established in 1997 the ACACIA
programme to promote empowerment by and access to information and communication
technologies by African communities, and is providing support for study and exchange of
information on MCTs in Africa (http://www.idrc.ca/acacia/telecentre.html) and at the
international level (http://www.idrc.ca/pan/telecentres.html). A number of other
international efforts in this area have been launched recently, including World Info/Mart
Foundation (http://www.agis-usa.org/micro-biz/infomart.htm) which is promoting a private-
sector led model for MCT development, with support from Volunteers in Technical
Assistance (VITA), the World Bank and other partners. The United Nations Development
Programme has begun support for MCT pilot projects, starting with urban Technology
Access Community Centres (TACCs) in Egypt (http://www.tacc.egnet.net). There is also a
small international NGO of MCT experts called International Association of Community
TeleService Centres (CTSC International, http://arla.rsn.hk-r.se/~engvall/ctsc.html) which
promotes exchange of information and has provided technical support to a number of
projects in developing countries.
UNESCO has been active in the MCT area since 1996 when it initiated a special effort to
help developing countries to benefit from the challenges and opportunities of telematics and
information highways, not only by understanding and connecting to them, but also by
adopting, adapting and exploiting telematics applications for development, and by resolving
Johan Ernberg, ITU. "Integrated Rural Development and Universal Access : Towards a Framework for
Evaluation of Multipurpose Community Telecentre Pilot Projects Implemented by ITU and its Partners". In:
Partnership and Participation in Telecommunications for Rural Development: Exploring What Works and
Why. Conference, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, 26-27 October 1998. (http://www.itu.int/ITU-D-
ethical, social and legal concerns such as cultural diversity and appropriateness of content,
universal access, intellectual property, and respect for individual rights.4 UNESCO's first
major MCT activity has been support for the establishment of pilot telecentres in five
African countries, described in the next section. Based on the promising results of these
projects, UNESCO is supporting MCT experiments in other African countries and other
regions, working in close consultation with the ITU and other international partners.
There have recently been a number of conferences and international consultations examining
the experiences of various countries and regions on MCTs, among which an international
survey and discussion group conducted for IDRC5, and the "Building Information
Communities in Africa" conference (BICA 99), organized by the British Council in Pretoria
with support of several national and international partners in February 1999
The IDRC-ITU-UNESCO Pilot Projects in Africa
Africa is the region least experienced in the areas of informatics and information highways,
yet probably the one with the most to gain by applying them in development. In this wide
context, users and content creators, informatics and information specialists and
telecommunication operators have abundant possibilities to work together, with appropriate
support from the public authorities, to initiate innovative approaches to telematics which
take account of both development and market opportunities. Although there has been some
scepticism about the usefulness and sustainability of ICTs in rural Africa, particularly since
even the African elites have yet to comprehend and take full advantage of these
technologies, this is a pessimistic view which does not take into consideration the lack of
exposure to advanced ICTs that Africa has endured and the rapidly changing technological,
economic and political landscape on the continent.
For the past few years, UNESCO's action to assist Africa to benefit from these
opportunities has been reinforced through an active collaboration within the UN System-
wide Special Initiative on Africa, entitled "Harnessing Information Technology for
Development" (HITD), whose lead agencies have included the United Nations Economic
Commission for Africa (ECA), IDRC, the ITU and the World Bank. HITD is intended to
support the long-term framework for regional telematics policy called "Africa's Information
Society Initiative" (AISI, http://www.bellanet.org/partners/aisi), adopted in 1996 by the
ECA Conference of Ministers and ITU's Regional African Telecommunication Development
In that same year the Danish development assistance agency, DANIDA, agreed to support,
through UNESCO Funds in Trust, MCT pilot projects in five least developed African
countries within the HITD/AISI framework: Benin, Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania and
Uganda. In addition to IDRC, which is participating in all of the projects, and the ITU
which is currently supporting four of them, other international partners contributing to one
or more of the projects include the British Council, the Food and Agriculture Organization
UNESCO and an Information Society for All : Position Paper. UNESCO, Paris: 1996 (CII-96/WS/4,
Richard Fuchs (editor). The Little Engines that Did: Case Histories from the Global Telecentre Program.
Futureworks, Torbay, Newfoundland: June 1998 (http://www.idrc.ca/acacia/engine/index.html).
of the United Nations (FAO), UNDP's Sustainable Networking Development Programme
(SDNP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The UNESCO/DANIDA component is
intended to especially to support the roles of the public library system, formal and non-
formal education initiatives, and grass-roots community organizations in national-local
consortia to develop the pilot projects.
One of the principal strategies of the projects is to reinforce and make full use of existing
library and information infrastructure, such as public library services, in building the
information handling capability of the MCTs. In this way, each MCT should have solid,
polyvalent information services providing access to national and world-wide electronic
information resources as well as information support for literacy campaigns, basic and non-
formal education, governmental programmes and community development. Another
important characteristic of the projects is promotion of the idea of lifelong and life-wide
learning of individuals and communities within UNESCO's Learning without Frontiers
The sites selected by the national authorities for the five projects on the basis of
development priorities and potential markets, available infrastructures and logistical
considerations are as follows:
• Benin (Malanville - a town of about 26,000 in the lightly populated far north of the
• Mali (Timbuktu - a town of about 30,000 and regional seat in the desert north)
• Mozambique (Manhiça and Namaacha - towns of 22,000 and 10,000 close to the capital,
• Tanzania (Sengerema - a town of about 45,000 on Lake Victoria)
• Uganda (Nakaseke - a rural village of about 1000, 50 km north of Kampala).
Although the sites represent very different situations they can all be considered as isolated
or otherwise disadvantaged. The sites in Benin and Tanzania are district seats and active
trading towns which are encumbered by distance and difficult accessibility from major
centres. The choice of Timbuktu in Mali had similar justification, reinforced by the special
cultural and administrative significance of this site. In Mozambique, the choice was based
on a detailed market study of six potential sites, all close to Maputo for accessibility but not
benefiting from the services available within the city limits. Nakaseke in Uganda was a
special case, selected to a large degree by the political will of national and local authorities
to promote the reconstruction of an area which had been devastated and impoverished in
civil war; it is expected that a large proportion of the rural populations of about 60,000 in
the two surrounding sub-counties will make some use of the MCT.
Each project is organized by a local steering committee and supervised by a national
management committee including the concerned governmental authorities and the
international partners. In Benin, Mali and Uganda the local steering committee is under the
aegis of local government, in Tanzania it is co-ordinated by a local development association,
and in Mozambique the University Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo has taken responsibility
for convening the committees during the pilot phase. Each project is to be supported
internationally for three years, after which they are all expected to be self-sustaining. The
projects in Mali and Uganda started in 1998, Mozambique's in early 1999, and the other
two are scheduled to start in late 1999.
The table below shows the projected total cost of each project, ranging from about
US$ 460,000 to US$ 850,000 with the international component ranging from about
US$ 290,000 to US$ 420,000 (50-86% of the total investment). The information technology
equipment configuration, involving 5-16 micro-computers, ranges from US$ 60,000 to
US $167,000 for each centre (including information and library materials, and consumable
supplies - note that the figure for Mozambique covers two MCTs).
Person- Train- Telecom IT equip., Commu- Premises Evalua- Tele- Total Interna- %
nel & ing & equipmt. informa- nication & mainte- tion medi- budget tional Int.
travel appli- tion & costs nance * cine budget fin.
cations supplies equip.
Benin 108 54 108 109 92 168 13 **? 652 364 56
Mali 180 132 61 167 84 162 38 30 854 424 50
Mozambique 79 59 0 ***139 28 129 27 0 ***461 397 86
Tanzania 119 50 125 60 26 86 26 0 493 294 60
Uganda 101 77 128 72 31 71 40 0 520 396 76
* Including provision for motor vehicle in Benin, Tanzania and Uganda
** Integrated with IT equipment
*** Not counting budgeted depreciation, for consistency with other projects
Table 1: Budgets for the five MCT projects (in US$ ,000)
The project budgets vary considerably according to the local situations, the MCT in
Timbuktu, Mali, being the largest and most ambitious centre with the largest budget, but
also with the greatest national investment in both absolute and relative terms.
In Benin, Tanzania and Uganda a substantial upgrading of the local telecommunication
infrastructure with the assistance of the ITU will also serve other users, while in Mali a
dedicated telecommunication link is foreseen for the MCT. In Benin and Mali the
telecommunication solutions involve satellite links (VSAT), while terrestrial links are being
established or modernized in the other two countries. In Mozambique, the plan is to use the
existing telephone facilities for dial-up access for the two small centres close to the capital.
The personnel budget typically includes in each case international consultants and short-term
international support for national MCT staffing. Substantial budgets are dedicated to training
of managers, application developers and end-users, and to supporting the development of
applications based on user and development needs; this component is, however, the most
difficult to plan and budget for, since many steps are needed in the learning curve from
complete unfamiliarity with ICTs to competence to exploit and innovate with them.
All of the projects are expected to develop a business plan. The business case for such a
MCT, roughly representative of the findings thus far in the field, can be appreciated from
the following budget figures proposed by an ITU study for a hypothetical model of a centre
serving a population of about 10,000 persons6.
Johan Ernberg, ITU. "Universal Access through Multipurpose Community Telecentres - A Business Case?"
In: Global Knowledge '97 Conference, Toronto, June 1997. (http://www.itu.int/ITU-D-
EXPENSES ANNUAL REVENUES
Capital investment Telecom (8 public phones + 2 faxes) 22
Building & furniture 36.0 Office rental (4 hours per day) 14
Basic MCT equipment 70.0 Internet (100 subscriptions) 17
Total 106.0 Email (500 subscriptions) 12
Voice mail (100 subscriptions) 2.4
Annual expenditure Photocopy/printing (350 pages/day) 25
Depreciation 19.5 Training courses (250 students) 25
Finance cost (4 %) 4.2 Video viewing (5 viewers/day) 1
Administration/operations/maintenance 76 Total revenue 118.3
Pre-tax profit 118.3-99.7=18.6
Table 2: Balance sheet for a hypothetical MCT (US$ ,000)
These figures are generally in line with the projections of World Info/Mart Foundation (see
above) of "revenues for the first year of operating a full centre are about $100,000 with an
annual growth rate of 10%".
The concept of self-sustainability in the IDRC-ITU-UNESCO pilot projects applies to
recurrent operational costs but not to recuperation of investment costs. These projects are
considered as test beds for future national programmes for community access to ICTs, and
the capital is therefore seen as a contribution to development rather than as a commercially
viable investment. In fact, it is expected that some of the expenditures, on training and
applications, for example, will help build capacity to serve the development of other centres
and experiences at the national level.
A common participatory evaluation methodology for the five pilot projects is being
developed by the international partners and the national partners, within the framework of
the IDRC ACACIA programme. It will attempt to measure the impact of the MCTs on local
communities and their citizens and the economic viability of the centres, and will serve to
formulate mid-course project planning corrections as well as producing an integrated
evaluation report taking account of feedback from all of the national implementations. The
baseline survey methodology has been elaborated and successfully implemented in Mali and
Uganda, while the full methodology will be finalized by end 1999.
A Case Study: Nakaseke, Uganda7
The MCT pilot project in Uganda is located in the community of Nakaseke, a rural village
about 50 km north of Kampala (http://www.nic.ug/nakaseke/). The MCT is built around the
new public library sponsored by the Uganda Public Libraries Board (UPLB), out of the
conviction that providing information and communication to rural communities catalyzes
their development drives and results in a general improvement of the quality of life of the
people. From the time of project conception, there has been a deliberate orientation by the
key original partners - the Uganda National Commission for UNESCO (National Executing
This presentation is based on an informal report, "Nakaseke Telecentre - Tracing How Far We Have
Come", by Meddie Mayanja, MCT Project Officer, Uganda National Commission for UNESCO (August
Agency), UPLB and Uganda Telecom Limited (UTL) - to involve the beneficiary
community and other concerned institutions within the country. Progressively a core of
partners has been developed including the Nakaseke and Kasangombe sub-country
administrations, Luweero district administration, the district hospital, Nakaseke Teacher
Training College, local schools, the business community, local women's groups and
The British Council has provided the MCT with information materials and training; USAID
and Book Aid International have provided a number of videos and publications (in English
and Luganda, the local vernacular). Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute is
collaborating with the telecentre in development of an agricultural extension service
component while the National Agricultural Research Organization has accepted to
collaborate in collecting agro-information and market trends. UTL contributed iron sheets
and nails to roof a new MCT building which was constructed by the community through
local tax collection.
Promotion and training
From initial discussions with the local population and potential partners, it was realized that
success would come from a proper understanding of the project by the community, and its
participation in the design, content and general operations of the MCT. A sensitization and
education drive was started to enlighten the community through elected local leaders,
counsellors and religious leaders, basically because of the wide access they have to the
people. This led to very useful interaction, with the community's making recommendations
on the inclusion of local newspapers, popular local literature and games on the list of the
content to cater for leisure time.
The telecentre printed and distributed illustrated leaflets, brochures and posters on the
project within the community, including some which could deliver the message to illiterates.
All the information materials were translated into Luganda to ensure maximum
comprehension. Traditional communication systems were heavily used during the awareness
and consultation process, including community meetings, community leaders, religious
institutions and the school system. Advertisements were aired at timed intervals on radio
Nakaseke - a simple combination of an amplifier and two low-power speakers tied up on a
tree a few meters above the host shop, which works very early in the morning and late in
the evening when the village is quiet enough. The conventional press was also used to an
extent during the start up period.
To ensure that the community agents/opinion leaders sent the right message to the future
user community, the telecentre developed a mobilization guide with full illustrations and all
the information that a mobilizer may have to know about the MCT. This proved to be a
very useful tool, especially after conducting general meetings on it with the new community
agents. The official opening of the telecentre which took place on 5 March 1999 was also
largely successful in mobilising the community and other partners.
The decision on how to start the services required a long debate, since the demand of the
people who had been sensitized and mobilized was so high. A decision was finally made to
call on a Uganda-based NGO, Uganda Connectivity, to train a cadre of users from the
community who could help to train others. This choice was partly based on the fact that
continued training with experts from the capital city would be very expensive and could not
be sustainable. To make sure that an appropriate core group was selected to be trained, the
community was asked to second 24 people for the free-of-charge programme. The criteria
included ability and will to stay with the project after training for at least six months,
potential to mobilize and train others, and ability to read and comprehend English at least at
a minimum level. The language of instruction was, however, a combination of Luganda and
Two months into the training programme the independent consultant responsible for the
baseline study of the user population observed8 that "most of the trainees had established a
level of comfort and confidence with the computer software. They had reasonable mastery
of the keyboard and the skills to find their way through the various menu structures. If one
considers that the computer training took place in a room-approximately three meters by
two meters, crowded with three desktop computers, a laser printer, a flatbed scanner … and
that there were as many as three people seated before each keyboard - plus two instructors
and several observers - it is striking that the trainees' skill levels were so well developed."
The trainers were a group of young people (16-20 years old) from Uganda Connectivity
who had only four years of secondary school education and some ICT training. They
became role models which further helped to demystify ICTs and telecentres as a possible
field for anyone who dared and worked at it.
The building was donated by the community and renovated by the project to an acceptable
level for project work. An inverter and a set of deep cycle batteries were installed to
provide back-up for the public power system. A generator was not favoured for this purpose
because of its relatively high running costs in terms of fuel. The quoted cost of installation
of a solar power system was too high for the project budget, but such a system is still under
consideration because of its minimal running costs.
Telephone connectivity was the most problematic component. At the start of the project, the
ordinary telephone system stopped 16 km away from the telecentre site. Although the
project had foreseen a radio telecommunication system to be provided for the village with
ITU assistance, delays ensued and it was decided to run a temporary land line to the
telecentre and install pair gain equipment which allowed for extension of a single line into
three. This provided limited voice connection to the telecentre but the line quality places
severe limits on data applications. The temporary solution was a drain on time and
resources of the co-operating telecommunication operator, which further delayed
negotiations for a final solution. The problem will be solved when the specified project
equipment is installed in the last quarter of 1999.
Pact Institute. Nakaseke Multipurpose Telecentre Baseline Survey: An Overview of Training and
Methodological Techniques and Community Information and Communications Profile. Pact Institute,
Washington, D.C.: April 1999.
Start-up applications and services
The telecentre started with a modern library/resource centre complete with custom
information materials (a survey was made during the consultation period on what kind of
materials the community wants). Also included were newspapers and magazines, a
photocopier, computer services and training and community education/training seminars.
And due to expressed interest of clients, other services have been introduced like free
topical and feature film shows every Friday afternoon, games facilities every evening,
functional adult classes every Friday and radio listening for particular groups.
The early adopters of the MCT's services were mainly people who seemed to have wanted
the services that the telecentre offered and had been travelling several miles by taxi for the
same to the next town 16 km away. Others had just given up to the idea of such services.
• teachers, students and pupils, who wanted photocopy services and a good resource
• medical officers who often wanted a good and appropriate reference library,
• business people with the interest of communicating with others in the capital city and an
interest in innovations to make own receipt forms and custom letters,
• community members, elders and opinion leaders interested in reading newspapers and
following current affairs (until the opening of the telecentre there was no source of
newspapers in the community, and people who wanted to read could not just afford
• young people who are just interested in learning new skills and trying them out; these
users provided the first core user group in the extension programme,
• women in development groups who wanted to enhance their work by getting information
UNESCO has begun work with DANIDA support on a CD-ROM containing public domain
development information in English and Swahili to be used in MCTs, public libraries and
other concerned information centres in East Africa, with the Nakaseke MCT to serve as a
test bed, following success of a similar product for the Sahel.
In addition, preparations commenced with UNESCO for a pilot telemedicine application
within the TeleInViVo project of the European Commission, involving an inexpensive, light
and transportable 3-D teleconsultancy station able to support a large range of radiological
applications. 3-D data collected from the patient by an on-site health worker using such a
station will be transferred in compressed form to an expert doctor in the principal hospital in
Kampala, who will be able to view and manipulate the image in three dimensions on a
workstation, essentially as would have been done in an on-site consultation. This doctor can
perform long distance diagnoses, analyse cases, and co-operate with other specialists world-
wide if need be. The system will operate either both on-line and off-line via the Internet
depending on available bandwidth, using ultrasound images as the test application.
The following is an assessment of the impact of the telecentre a year and a half after its
• The community has got a modern library/resource centre, telephone connectivity and a
core ICT facility. The school community (7000 school-going children) as well as
community workers and medical officers have benefited a lot from the resource centre.
One of the volunteer trainers remarked that the MCT "has started enhancing the
prospects for development because most of the people have been communicating and
receiving information after travelling very long distances and wasting a lot of money
[…] but now they can use the telephone in the telecentre and save the money for other
• The community (42 villages and 3000 households) is gradually appreciating the
importance of information as evidenced by the growing number of people inquiring
about information on a variety of issues. Farmers are now requesting market rates and
general trends on crops they grow. The daily newspapers at the telecentre have also
helped to keep the community up-to-date with what is going on in the country.
• Computers are no longer strange and mysterious machines in Nakaseke. Over 60
community members have now been trained in ICT and computer communication
services which has led the growth of a core of ICT skilled people within the local
• A number of lessons have been learned and documented for future telecentre
development. Management systems for sustainable telecentre operation been tried and
• The MCT has proven that ICTs can be useful for development in rural areas. A good
number of development groups have visited the telecentre with a view of establishing a
similar one in other areas.
A Case Study: Timbuktu, Mali
The second MCT pilot project to start is hosted in Timbuktu, Mali, an important regional
administrative and cultural centre of about 30,000 people at the edge of the desert north of
the country known as the "Mysterious City of 333 Saints"
Promotion and training
A workshop was organized in Timbuktu in May 1998 by the National Executing Agency,
Société des Télécommunications du Mali (SOTELMA) to sensitize the local population to
the MCT proposal and plan the initial activities, bringing together 51 local representatives
of all sectors of society and representatives of national counterpart organizations and
international partners. The workshop enabled the local community to effectively assume
responsibility for the destiny of the project by electing a Local Steering Committee, and
adopted plans for four main initial application areas of the MCT - library services,
education, women's activity, and the Timbuktu Web site.
The telecentre was set up on a temporary basis in an unused wing of the Timbuktu hospital
in the summer of 1998, with seven computers (three new and four used) and dial-up
connection to the Internet through SOTELMA's DOMSAT facility in Timbuktu. Four local
MCT staff were recruited, and two young volunteer consultants sent by UNESCO initiated
training for them and for two core end-users from each of the ten "corporations" or societal
groups identified by the Steering Committee. This basic training was completed by the
Computer Department of SOTELMA, and is being complemented with specialized training
in the second year of operation. A baseline study and needs analysis in Timbuktu was
completed with the assistance of an international consultant,9 while the FAO sponsored an
information and communication needs assessment for the outlying rural populations.10 The
MCT is operational with the twenty representative users benefiting from pilot
complimentary access and about 10 paying users per day at the time of writing, including
both the local public and tourists.
The new municipal government elected in late 1998 assumed administrative responsibility
for MCT which was officially opened in June 1999, and a permanent new building, to be
completed in 1999, was initiated with funds donated by the Malian association of Timbuktu
citizens and emigrants. The remaining equipment, including 13 additional computers and
fax and photocopy machines, is being ordered, while a 128 Kbs VSAT channel is planned to
connect to the SOTELMA Internet gateway in Bamako, enabling the MCT to become the
fifth, and only public service, ISP in Mali. The new building will include a Municipal
Library which will work hand in hand with the MCT. The hospital quarters will become the
health and medicine branch of the MCT.
Start-up applications and services
An application plan and associated training plan are under development with participation of
the corporations, concerned national organizations and international partners. The first
application, in progress, is a "tele-boutique" for the artisan work of Timbuktu being
developed in partnership with a French electronic commerce concern. The second will be
support for information services through the development of, and networked access to, a
common bibliographic database of the holdings of the libraries of Timbuktu (the Municipal
Library, the public library, the school library, and secondary school library and the library
of the Ahmed Baba Centre), using UNESCO's CDS-ISIS software package and working
with Mali's REMADOC computerized library network. Other planned applications involve
the dissemination of information on Timbuktu's unique cultural heritage (monuments,
museum, ancient manuscripts) and the development of virtual communities of teachers and
of women, making use of the newly established telephone network to outlying villages, as
well as of existing community radio. FAO and WHO are respectively assisting in the
planning and implementation of rural development and telemedicine applications.
A CD-ROM called Sahel point DOC providing a compendium of public domain information
for development activities, accessible to the literate lay readers, has been produced by
UNESCO and tested in the Timbuktu MCT before being made available free of charge to
other information centres in the Sahel sub-region.
Pact Institute. Timbuktu Multipurpose Telecentre Baseline Survey: Community Information and
Communications Profile. Pact Institute, Washington, D.C.: May 1999.
Bureau d'Etudes de Conseils et d'Interventions au Sahel (BECIS). Identification et Evaluation des Besoins
en Information/Communication des Populations rurales dans le Cadre du Projet pilote du Télécentre
communautaire polyvalent de Tombouctou: Rapport final. FAO, Rome: December 1998.
Attention is being given to the possibilities for use of voice synthesis in MCT applications,
for example in literacy training and voice mail to outlying areas. A version of a French-
language product is under testing in Timbuktu with a view to its possible incorporation into
the future MCT applications.
Lessons from the MCT Pilot Projets
From initial results of the above MCT pilot projects, and consideration of other experiences
in developing and industrialized countries, a number of interrelated lessons or findings can
tentatively be drawn, representing the major challenges and impediments to the
implementation of MCTs in Africa, and by extension in other developing regions:
1. Organization, co-ordination and promotion
Long-term sustainability should be targeted through an organizational structure and
business plan involving all of the stakeholders: public services, communities, and the
private sector. Although the initial idea of an MCT can start from the bottom up or the
top down or somewhere in-between, bottom-up support driven by grass-roots needs is
ultimately an absolute necessity.
National non-governmental organizations, governments and the international
community also have important supporting and enabling roles to play, without which it
may be difficult in practice for communities to be sufficiently informed and listened to
by potential service providers and sponsors. In countries where there is a single
principal national public telecommunication operator (PTO), still the case in many
developing countries despite rapid telecommunication sector reform, its participation in
the planning and support process, not simply as a service provider, can be particularly
critical in overcoming technical, administrative and regulatory difficulties.
Project management thus needs to be firmly rooted in the local culture, yet very
pragmatic and open to new technologies, approaches and partnerships.
MCTs are dynamic structures. Judging from the experience in industrialized countries,
an MCT with a large user base may ultimately spin off, or merge into, separate
facilities managed by specific user groups, e.g. the schools, or communal provision of
technical services (as opposed to the conception and exploitation of applications) may be
abandoned if local businesses can do the job better and more cheaply. Such a
development should not necessarily be seen as failure - it may be a natural result of
evolving sophistication of communities in the ICT area.
2. Skills, awareness and empowerment
The experience of both the Nakaseke and Timbuktu pilot projects has shown that real
progress cannot be achieved until the community is convinced of the benefits of an
MCT, adopts the project as its own, and has acquired the basic skills needed to move
ahead. Critical factors in this process are:
a) The identification and recruitment dedicated and resourceful "local champions" who
spread the word and assume responsibilities.
b) The launching of a persistent and well-conceived promotional effort based on local
culture, resources and needs.
c) Training at all levels – technical, services, management – which has to be started
early and strongly to build and sustain momentum.
Even so, windfall gains from information technology cannot be expected - successes
and benefits will typically have to be earned gradually.
3. Appropriate technologies and applications
New advances in telecommunications, notably wireless connections through satellite and
terrestrial technology, are expected to progressively help to solve the "last-mile"
problem of affordable access to telecommunications in rural areas in developing
countries, and will particularly benefit community telecentre initiatives. Community
radio can also be effectively and cheaply applied to reach out to users not directly
connected to an MCT, including the use of packet radio techniques for off-line mail and
data transfer. This synergy between "traditional" and "new" community media, which
has already been demonstrated in UNESCO's Kothmale Internet Community Radio
project in Sri Lanka (http://www.unesco.org/netaid/com/sri_lanka.html), is expected to
be exploited in some of the African MCT pilot projects.
A more difficult problem which is under study in the pilot projects is that of
constructing appropriate telematics and informatics applications and content for
developing country communities steeped in traditional cultures and values and with low
levels of technology literacy. These considerations become even more important when
the MCT is expected to serve illiterate or neo-literate populations, for whom some
already available technologies such as touch-screens and voice synthesis hold
considerable promise. Clearly mixed mode approaches, combining telematics as
appropriate with on-site media such as CD-ROM, audio-visual materials and print
media, offer particularly appealing solutions in terms of both access and cost.
The development of applications based on the local languages and cultures cannot easily
be done by a single MCT or even a number of co-operating MCTs; in opposition with
the case of the industrialized countries, where potential or model MCT applications and
skilled human resources are widely available at the national level, MCT partners and
sponsors (e.g. ministries) in developing countries may find it very difficult to provide a
high level of resource support for application development. Collaboration and exchange
of experience at the national and international levels are thus particularly important in
the development and testing of applications, and in ensuring their relevance and impact.
4. Costs and Revenues
It is clear that the total costs of the described experimental projects far exceed the
revenue generating potential of the concerned communities, and that, for reproducibility
and sustainability, major efforts are needed both to decrease costs, which depend on the
factors outlined above, and to balance them by revenues.
A balanced provisional budget does not mean that the question of achieving the required
revenues has been solved, and in practice several years of imaginative and persistent
marketing should be foreseen to actually balance the budget, particularly when not only
end-users but also sponsoring public service organizations must be convinced of the
cost-effectiveness of the MCT. The MCT will need to explore and exploit all levels of
needs and revenue streams to succeed. In the industrialized countries two of the most
profitable services seem to have been ICT training and "telework" (typically starting
with large and unsophisticated data entry jobs). In many developing countries, telework
in rural and isolated areas will be less important in the near future, while basic services,
such as email, Internet, computer rental and photocopies, along with ICT training, will
probably have more immediate impact on revenues. Electronic commerce may also be a
major revenue earner in some cases.
A previously cited author4 speaks about three phases: the subsidized phase (e.g. support
from national and/or international promoters), the contract phase (specific tasks
remunerated by major user groups, such as ministries or chambers of commerce) and
the user pay (market model) phase. In fact, these phases may co-exist over a long
period. Although the market model is clearly a key to ensuring sustainability, the
development of sustainable contract support, particularly for improvement of public
services such as government administration, education and health, is also a particularly
critical challenge to the viability of MCTs in developing countries, since the
effectiveness of such activity will have to be very clearly proven to win support from
public institutions faced with severe financial constraints. Essential national and
international subsidies for start-up have been granted to all of the IDRC-ITU-UNESCO
pilot projects; the feasibility of generalizing such support for extension of MCTs in
Africa and other developing regions will relate to overall national policies and the
national perception of public good.
5. Enabling environment
Local communities are part of the wider sphere of "public service sectors", or "sectors
of public concern", including the government administration, public services such as
education, health and public libraries, not-for-profit institutions such as universities and
foundations, and non-governmental organizations and associations. Together, these
institutions for a vast potential market for telecommunications and ICT based services.
In industrialized countries the public service sectors have often led in the development
and exploitation of ICT based services and infrastructure, including the Internet, while
in many developing countries, particularly in Africa and some parts of Asia and the
Pacific, they have been largely bypassed by the information revolution. This problem
presents itself in many common issues, including insufficiencies in awareness, policy
and regulatory frameworks, infrastructure, human resources and budgets, whose
solution will depend on the development of consistent enabling environments at the
The "public service sector ICT consortium" can be a vehicle for self help of public
service sector institutions in the development of informatics and telematics services,
drawing on the strengths of the different institutions to consolidate demand for these
services, to promote appropriate public policies in this area, and to provide cost-
effective support for training, infrastructure and content development. This approach is
not about duplicating facilities of the private sector, but rather about complementarity
and co-operation with the private sector to ensure improvements in public services
through ICTs. Public service sector consortia can take many forms, in terms, for
example, of membership and organization. Communities have a lot to gain from
promoting and participating in such consortia which can be specifically oriented to take
account of problems such as community access. The basic justification and strategies
for public service sector consortia were developed some years ago in a joint study of
the ITU and UNESCO11
There are many models for, and approaches to, empowering local communities through
ICTs, including for example, the development of rural telephony, community radio or
computer literacy in the schools. MCT's represent one specific approach which has been
seen to be particularly promising in Africa with its cultures stressing strong community
bonds, and which is already being, or could be, adapted to the needs of other developing
regions, making sure that the wider views of ICTs in community development, and of
development itself, are fully considered. In this context, the international community has a
continuing, important responsibility, in collaboration with governments and civil society
organizations in developing countries, to promote the initiation, adaptation and evaluation of
innovative MCT and other ICT-facilitated experiences at the community level, and the
widest possible sharing, adoption and application of successful approaches in community
empowerment and development.
ITU and UNESCO. The Right to Communicate - At What Price? Economic Constraints to the Effective Use of
Telecommunications in Education, Science, Culture and in the Circulation of Information. UNESCO, Paris:
May 1995 (CII-95/WS/2).