Like many technology-based projects before it, a telecenter in the Gambia recently had to shut down — though all the ideas, and even the tech, were apparently well suited to the community and to the project’s goals. But the failure of the NICE telecenter gives us a chance to look at what went wrong and (ideally) to learn from it.
In a piece originally published on the MIS4D website, Victor van Reijswoud discusses the NICE telecenter project and its failures. It started in the Gambia as a telecenter social enterprise with a focus on community ownership. After a short time, project implementers needed to find additional funding. “Local owners” of the centers didn’t further develop or maintain the centers. Hardware problems, software bugs, and difficulties with the building’s solar panel popped up.
“Combined with the rise and maturation of the mobile market, telecenters quickly became obsolete and NICE international had to close its doors.”
This quote immediately brought a few ideas to mind, many of which echo those van Reijswoud raises in the original blog post.
1. Build in flexibility
As van Reijswoud mentions, it’s vital to build flexibility into tech projects — an idea that many donors may not have latched onto yet. A flexible project may have been able to shift its focus as the relevance of telecenters seemed to falter. With this, it’s essential to know your donor. Though larger donors may have more resources smaller organizations and private donors might be better, more flexible partners for certain kinds of projects.
2. Tech alone is never enough
Programs that start and end with tech access are useless. It’s not enough to just (figuratively) throw computers at a community — in the end, what are you really offering people?
2.a Know your community
This fits in with what I mentioned about tech above, but it’s so important it deserves its own subhead.
NICE centers apparently target entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and students, according to their website. They do offer computer classes, and may also offer business courses. (It’s unclear if the business courses were actually offered in the Gambia, or if they were just planned.)
It seems that people in the community needed more than computer classes, though I can only speculate. Basic computer skills are essential, but people also need support to apply those skills.
Community organizations that offer access to computers and other technology can — and do — also provide training so people can learn to use those computers to improve sales for their agricultural products. They can help kids connect to informal education programs. They can give women a safe space and support to form savings cooperatives, discussion groups, and small businesses. And these are the types of programs that will last.
3. Aim for sustainability
Solar energy powered the NICE center. It was meant to be “locally owned” and run as a business by people in the community, instead of relying on donor funding and then shutting down once the money dried up. That plan didn’t work out in the end.
READ Global is one organization that does seem to achieve some financial sustainability. It establishes community library and resource centers, and each one supports itself with a small, for-profit business. These small enterprises include tractor rental businesses, community radio stations, and agricultural cooperatives.
Read the full text from Victor van Reijswoud on the MIS4D website. And you should definitely check out the NICE website to learn more about the model — I didn’t capture all the elements of the project here.