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This interview with Makane Faye took place during the Development Workshop organised in the framework of INET'97, the annual Internet Society conference which was held this year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Makane Faye is Regional Advisor on Information Systems Development to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). He worked on the African Information Society Initiative adopted by African ministers in charge of planning and economic development in May 96 and endorsed by the telecommunications ministers in May 96.

Internet: a community tool in Africa

In adopting the Internet in Africa, we need to take into consideration the culture and the environment we are living in. No less than 60 to 70% of the African population is rural and many of those living in towns adopt rural ways. Maybe we are closer to the situation in Asia or Latin America than the European or American situation. The development of telecommunications systems in rural areas has already been done in several Asian and Latin American countries.

Of course it will not be exactly the same. In Africa, people live in communities and they try to do things together. When we talk about connectivity in Africa, we don't believe individual connectivity is the solution. We need community connectivity, where a set of equipment is available in a village and people have access to it. We don't believe in having a telephone line or a computer in each home.

How will this be run?

We have what we call village-based associations headed by the village chief or a group of elders. Other projects have already been managed by these people. In some countries they already have rural telephony with several telephones in one place managed by one guy. They also have so-called "mailing farms" where one machine is manned by a group of villagers who delegate someone who collects the grants and the money and reports to the committee. Such things can be self-sufficient and autonomous in the long run.

What sort of use do you see people making of this collective communication tool?

The first use will be to telephone. You find people going from the village to a town to make a phone call to inform their relatives about something that has happened. There will also be telecopy facilities and of course getting information for local schools, etc. ...

How does the community share the cost?

Initially, there will be a grant either from the government or a sponsoring institution. And then the running costs will be shared by the villagers. When they bring a project to the village they are required to contributed to the running costs of the system. Through this they are committed. And they will charge for services provided to the villages and the population.

Is this management done by a group of individuals or by the community itself?

It is usually done by the community itself. The community is generally divided up into different groups: the youths, the women, the grown-up group with the heads of family and the elders. This type of work is usually give to the youths or the women. The group decides how it will manage the project and the elders monitor what is being done and discuss how to have further investment.

Is such a project imposed on the village?

Usually not. It is the villagers who come saying that they have a particular project and asking if there is an interest for it. This interest maybe shown in terms of housing, equipment or land for the project or a financial commitment. All projects that have been imposed have failed. So imposing a project is not a good answer.

In the Western world, the Internet is seen as an individual tool ...

Internet as an individual tool will fail in Africa. Like the telephone. As an individual tool it has always been limited to an existing elite. If the telephone were seen as an individual's tool, it would be useless in Africa because there is only one telephone in one house but fifteen households come and use it. You wouldn't find that in Europe or America. In Africa that exists because we live in a community. When you have something you share it with others, unless there is something wrong with you. So we believe Internet should also be run like this.

It is interesting to see how the same technology in one society is reinforcing individualism and in another it is being used to reinforce community.

That is true. When you go to a telephone in a village you find a lot of people around the phone even if they are not there to make calls or even if they have finished their calls they don't leave. They sit down, make tea and chat. This will create needs and jobs. This is why people running telecentres in Senegal, for example, also have other activities around because they know people will come. It will definitely strengthen community and sharing and not at all individualism.

One of the apparent difficulties in integrating new technologies is often that it goes against the human side of society. Yet as you describe it, introducing a new technology seems to reinforce the human side. Do people resist new technologies like the Internet in Africa?

I don't believe people resist it. When the telephone came in, it was seen as being impossible to integrate in Africa, but in reality everybody wants it. Just go to the rural areas and everybody wants it. They have seen the needs. They know they have to talk to their parents and to their friends elsewhere. They know they have to go to take money from a brother or a sister in town at the end of the month. And that costs them money to go there and stay there.

Is there much awareness of Internet in rural Africa?

Not really. That's why when I talk about the Internet, I don't talk about it as a single element coming into rural areas, rather as an integrated package with telephone, fax, word-processing facilities and the Internet. If Internet comes on its own in a village it will not be much use. You have to show people the Internet and explain the advantages it has over other tools they already use. They have to see it work.

Interview by Alan McCluskey, Kuala Lumpur.

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Created: June 21st, 1997 - Last up-dated: June 21st, 1997