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Digital Inclusion

Research Bites: Why ICT public access centers are struggling

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— This article is part of a series in collaboration with the African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created a heightened sense of awareness of the inequalities that prevail in society and access to real-time information delivered via the Internet has become critical for survival.

However, the reality of Africa's digital divide means that some citizens, especially those in far flung rural areas, have been left behind. In South Africa, for example, only about 12% of households enjoy the luxury of Internet access at home.

The rollout of public access centers (PACs) – also known as telecentres – should be an important digital divide eradication strategy. These facilities are built by governments to provide Internet connectivity and computing resources to marginalized communities to try and tackle the digital divide.

Despite many programs by both governments and non-government organization (NGOs), the evidence of success across the continent is limited and there have actually been widespread reports of failure when it comes to sustainability of these centers.

The problem with public center deployments in rural communities has always been the lack of a sustainable operational model and the inability to significantly transform the communities they serve. This can be attributed to a lack of understanding of the context in which marginalized communities adopt technology.

Rural ICT adoption

Given the problem, we decided that it was important to investigate the factors that influence information and communications technology (ICT) adoption in a typical rural public access center setting. The key question was how the public access center model can be strengthened to improve the adoption and uptake of ICTs?

The study was conducted in a small rural town called Barkly West in South Africa's Northern Cape province. The rationale for selecting Barkly West as a case to investigate was because it represented a poorly resourced South African community in which issues of access and adoption were prevalent and affected mostly young people.

Qualitative data was collected via focus groups of both users and non-users of a government PAC in the rural town.

A range of economic, political, educational, infrastructure, cultural, organizational and other factors were identified as important factors which influence whether people in rural communities will make effective use of public ICTs to improve their lives.

Motivation for skills development

Given the limited opportunities the small town has to offer, respondents considered the center a place to seek opportunities in the wider environment. Employment and self-development were two key motivational drivers that drew people to the center and there seemed to be a general view from participants that it was important to improve themselves by acquiring knowledge through ICT.

We also found that friends and family, educators and experienced individuals could have an influence on whether or not people in the community use the PAC. Educators could substantially influence decision makers to adopt ICTs at a school level.

However, the lack of digital skills was also a negative influencer in some cases. If community members believed there was no opportunity to learn to use the computers at the center they would simply shun it, from the very outset, even if they were aware of the possible personal development drivers.

Creating inclusive spaces

One of the key issues that came out of the study was the inclusion of marginalized people in the design of social and economic services and the lack of training and outreach in the community.

The findings have shown that the low adoption of ICTs can be attributed to the lack of resources and the way in which the center is administered and managed. A common view among respondents for not using ICTs at the center had to do with non-exposure to computers.

Alleged corruption within the community has also led to resources being controlled by a select group of people who have hired people without the relevant skills to work in the center. Respondents expressed their frustration that PAC staff had no knowledge of ICTs which exacerbated their ability to access the center's resources.

The lack of quality of service by staff at the centers discouraged a lot of the community from entering. This has also resulted in poor maintenance of the center and its equipment as some respondents claim there were only five working computers left at the center. In addition, perceptions of poor maintenance are also attributed to corruption among public officials.

The road ahead

While the use and uptake of ICTs are considered powerful tools in facilitating poverty reduction and empowering citizens with choices for their own development, our findings indicate that a community-centered approach is important to ensure success.

The major issue that has dominated the findings of this study is concerned with support being provided for the use of ICTs at the center. The evidence also shows that rural communities require better skills training in order to fully engage with ICTs.

Unfortunately, the lack of support from the local PAC, and by implication local government, has influenced the low level of adoption and interest.

To read more about this research, you can access the full academic research paper published in the African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development .

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*Top image source: Technology photo created by prostooleh - www.freepik.com.

Cecilia Frans, and Shaun Pather

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