The future of ICT4D: How soon is now?

Our previous two posts concentrated on what the future of ICTs for development could look like. This post will provide a taste of what it does look like. We’ll tackle a few lingering issues facing information and communication technology before investigating a few ICT projects.

These ventures weren’t picked by any scientific method; nor do they constitute any consensus of how ICTs will look in the next few years. These are just projects that caught my eye. Because these projects leverage technology in rural areas, let’s start with a discussion on how public internet kiosks could develop in the next few years.

Broadband? by wseltzer on Flickr.

Broadband? by wseltzer on Flickr.

In his blog ICTlogy, Ismael Peña-López wonders whether public internet kiosks like telecentres and cybercafés will evolve into enhanced e-centers, “where communities will gather and benefit from several community resources, computers and Internet access among others? Or will they just disappear?”

He continues:

As libraries have provided more than books, but a place where to learn to read and find kindred souls, it is my guess that public Internet access points will disappear as such, and will either be embedded within existing structures (libraries themselves, or civic centres, to name a few) or the existing telecentres and cybercafes will evolve into a next stage where the learning and community factors will be much more relevant. We are indeed seeing plenty of examples of this, and it is a matter of time that priorities or the focus turns upside down: instead of going to access the Internet and finding people, one will go and find people and use the Internet as an enhanced way to socialize. At its turn, this should be accompanied by the end of this false dichotomy on whether your a citizen or a netizen, as if the network had a live and a citizenry on its own. But time will tell.

Shilpa Sayura

Shilpa Sayura, which means sea of knowledge, is an interactive digital self-learning system based in Sri Lanka. Shilpa Sayura’s course of study began with eight subjects that parallels the national education curriculum so students in remote and rural areas can prepare for national school examinations in Sinhala, the country's predominant local language. The project has added another three courses, including lessons in Tamil and English.

Shilpa Sayura's open-source software was given away to non-profit educational providers and to rural Nansalas, a chain of government-developed telecentres. These telecentres in Sri Lanka fulfill many roles: Some provide connection to the web, but also offer fax, photocopying and printing services. They make money from phone calls, VOIP, and provide a bill-payment service. They are also places, the government hopes, where other ICT projects can bloom.

Harsha Liyanage, originally from Sri Lanka, blogs at Sustainability First: In search of sustainable telecentres. He records some of the issues Shilpa Sayura is attempting to overcome.

[The] Absence of competent teachers and adequate facilities handicap rural students in 80% of the Sri Lankas population. Now over 500 telecentres at rural outskirts provide a new window of opportunity. Shilpa Sayura enables students to interact with ICT to study 8 subjects digitally at tele centers and develop their knowledge to prepare for national examinations.

In March, 2008, Liyanage explained that Shilpa Sayura was undergoing growing pains.

Having a success story of a very compelling pilot, the project struggles at scaling up. Every telecentre operator of over 500 telecentres in Sri Lanka needs to have Shilpa Sayura installed in their telecentre. But, e-Fusion acknowledges it is not feasible at this present state.
• It needs technological improvements to ensure trouble free smooth run.
• Also needs technical capacity building at the telecentre operators to assist the users.
• Need to improve help-desk capacity to accept escalating demands
All these needs significant capital investments. They recognize it is not reasonable to tax the government to support further. Thus eyes at the CSR goodwill of the corporate partners.
In the mean time they plot the plans for an appropriate business model.

The blog Technology and Cultural Festival in Kandiyapitawew from Sri Lanka explains the educational benefits of the project.

We believe ‘Shilpa Sayura’ could contribute to addressing the issue of the shortage of school teachers, especially in distant rural area one which continues to be a setback to the county’s educational system.

The ‘Shilpa Sayura’ e-learning package covers eight school subjects, in Sinhala from grade six to O level. Shilpa Sayura’s simple interactive means of self study caters to students in remote communities with no access to urban educational resources. Still in its pilot stage Shilpa Sayura now operates in 20 ‘Nenasalas’ or tele-centers located in distant villages and promotes the concept of self learning among students in these secluded communities…The next phase would be the transformation of Shilpa Sayura into a National project to strengthen rural education and bridge the gap between rural and urban students.


The next project takes place in Kenya, where the blog Global Warming contends the mobile phone is revolutionizing society.

There are presently over 17 million [mobile phone] subscribers and the fact that it is presently facilitating money transfers almost says it all. There are the two things that make everything work. One is communication and the second is convenience of transferring cash. After that you are in business anywhere.

M-Pesa began in 2007 as a way to perform simple banking transactions through cell phones. The telecom firms behind the project didn’t charge registration fees or require customers to have a bank account, often a major hurdle in Kenya because few people deal with traditional banks. Once signed-up, customers can use the M-Pesa application to pay bills, purchase more phone credits and transfer money within Kenya through data-enabled mobile phones. M-Pesa now allows customers to book airline tickets. Safaricom, the company responsible for M-Pesa, is beginning a pilot project to let customers pay for water usage.

M-Pesa agent in Bunda by emilsjoblom in Flickr.

M-Pesa agent in Bunda by emilsjoblom in Flickr.

In July 2009 M-Pesa totaled more than seven million subscribers, who collect or send money through a network of more than 1400 bank agents, making it the largest bank in the country. These customers transfer more than $2.5 million every month.

Just a few weeks ago, M-Pesa went international, moving into the United Kingdom by allowing people to send money back to phone numbers in Kenya through a web interface. The transaction costs as little as $8 US for sending 150 Pounds. A 2005 study found traditional money transfer firms charged fees between 2.5 and 40 percent of the transfer for anything below 100 Pounds.

David Zarraga, from the blog Mobile Behavior has a good rundown on how M-Pesa works.

Registered M-PESA customers can “deposit” hard currency with any M-PESA agent in exchange for e-money, which is uploaded into the customer’s M-PESA account. For 38 US cents, the customer can then transfer this money to another registered customer’s M-PESA account via SMS. Once the recipient receives the SMS confirmation, the hard currency can then be withdrawn from the nearest M-PESA agent, completing the money transfer process.

How does the M-PESA service benefit the average Kenyan? Olga Morawczynski, a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh who spoke at the GSM World Congress in Barcelona last February, shared the story of Martin, a shoe-maker in Kibera, an informal settlement just outside Nairobi. Martin makes about US$ 20 a day from his trade and sends a quarter of his earnings to his wife and mother, who live in Western Kenya, over 100 miles away. M-PESA saves Martin time, allowing him to work his trade instead of having to travel far outside his place of work to find a bank. The service also enables him to make frequent transfers – about 5 times a month – thereby allowing him to send a week’s earnings when his family needs the money most.

The blog Bankelele: Nairobi Banker lists advantages and disadvantages for banking with M-Pesa.

Benefits of m-pesa banking
– 24 hour banking: More reach & access than any bank or ATM network
– Mobile banking with operator tends to be cheaper then mobile banking via bank provided services
– Saving in transport costs and banking transaction costs
– Can pay a variety of bills for utilities at a low cost
Challenges of m-pesa banking
– Lack of float at dealers to transact/occasional mpesa system downtime
– No credit history; and the clumsy expensive statement from Safaricom not useful yet
– Calls for discipline to build savings
– Funds are not insured, and are more prone to crime. And dealing with a stolen phone in Kenya is not a pleasant experience.

Indian Tobacco Company, one of India’s largest exporters, created eChoupal, a series of rural information centers where farmers can communicate directly to other farmers, different markets and experts through the internet. These village internet kiosks were first installed for farmers to learn in local languages the latest information regarding national and international prices in soy, wheat, tobacco and shrimp. But the platform has morphed to providing other important information, such as weather conditions and the latest scientific practices. In 2006, eChoupal counted 3.5 million farmers who used 5,200 internet kiosks throughout more than 30,000 villages.

Harvesting Wheat #1 by Meanest Indian on Flickr.

Harvesting Wheat #1 by Meanest Indian on Flickr.

The farmers pay a local coordinator a small sum to use the kiosk, which can also be used to order seed, fertilizers and other goods.

The blog NeoProducts Kiosks, from the UK, makes the point that part of eChoupal’s success comes from leaving behind the traditional buyers.

e-Choupal has been created by ITC Limited to enable rural farmers in India to buy and sell agricultural produce like soya beans, wheat, and coffee. It does this by allowing them directly to negotiate the sale of their produce via a network of PCs and kiosks in 6,500 centres spread across 100 districts in 10 states. Previously, the farmers had to go through numerous and sometime corrupt intermediaries.

What a great idea and what a fantastic use of kiosks! Allowing shared public access to interactive technology is what kiosks are all about. And this is only the beginning.

Chirag Jethmalani is a management student from Mumbai who blogs about Indian business in Squamble. Here he provides his take on e Choupal.

e Choupal was conceived to tackle the challenges posed by the unique features of Indian agriculture, characterized by fragmented farms, weak infrastructure and the involvement of numerous intermediaries…

Traditionally, these commodities were procured in “mandis” (major agricultural marketing centers in rural areas of India), where the middleman used to make most of the profit. These middlemen used unscientific and sometimes outright unfair means to judge the quality of the product to set the price. Difference in price for good quality and inferior quality was less, and hence there was no incentive for the farmers to invest and produce good quality output. With eChoupal, the farmers have a choice and the exploitative power of the middleman is neutralised.
ICT platform that facilitates flow of information and knowledge, and supports market transactions on line.
* It transmits Information (weather, prices, news),
* It transfers Knowledge (farm management, risk management)
* It facilitates sales of Farm Inputs (screened for quality) and
* It offers the choice of an alternative Output-marketing channel (convenience, lower transaction costs) to the farmer right at his doorstep
* It is an interlocking network of partnerships (ITC + Met Dept + Universities + Input COs + Sanyojaks, the erstwhile Commission Agents) bringing the best-inclass in information, knowledge and inputs.

Just because e-Choupal has a good platform and business model doesn’t make it a gurantee for success in India. To do this, people must understand rural markets.

Rural markets are both economic and social networks and there is a strong connection between the operation of social and economic transactions. Understanding the operations is vital before the systems are conceptualized. Use of local population, as much as possible helped the network to get the acceptance closely.


  • Dear all,

    We invite the elite members to evaluate a unique, (ICT based) proven model for Integrated Rural Development,, which is the outcome of NINE+ years of Team of self-realized software engineers (India), with a strong belief that Information and Communication Technology can play THE decisive role in increasing the “per capita earning” of villagers (particularly marginal and smaller farmers) and improve the quality of their life through a series of facility related doorstep services in a sustainable way.

    We look forward to your valuable feedback…

    With kind regards,

    Rm Thiruchelvam
    Project Director

  • thanks for this article. very informative. the best post in the series

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