When United Villages took the web to rural India, its vision was to liberate the poor by giving them tools from the digital age.
The communications group set up Internet terminals in remote villages and watched for a transformation. Almost three years later, technology is indeed enriching rural lives - but not quite how they expected. Rather than paying to send emails and surf the web, villagers prefer to email their questions to someone who will do the surfing for them and return the answers in a pdf (portable document format) file.
Internet evangelists, from West Africa to Sri Lanka, are finding that their efforts to empower the 80 per cent of the world that still waits for Internet access often bring unexpected results. Rural communities have their own way of participating in the digital age.
Internet by oxcart
United Villages is just one of a growing number of groups rolling out “asynchronous” Internet access across the developing world. It's an approach that doesn't need miles of cables or a constant connection - and so is much cheaper.
Asynchronous connections use software to queue data (such as emails, web searches, and requests for specific downloads) and to ready it for transfer.
The data are assembled on a device such as a USB memory stick then carried across mountain passes or down rough tracks that have never seen a cable - to a distant Internet connection. Alternatively, a wireless-enabled computer might simply wait until something arrives to connect to - perhaps a data storage device installed in the daily bus.
Others choose to work offline, setting their computers to connect overnight or at the weekend when telephone rates are cheaper.
Internet access might not be instantaneous, but a USB stick driven off in a cloud of motorcycle dust, or bumping along in an ox cart, can often shift more data than a telephone dial-up connection. And with delayed dial up the customer avoids the frustration of slow downloads: returning later to waiting data.
Email? No thanks
When the international non-profit organisation Geekcorps first set up small ICT centres in rural Mali in 2006, it had high hopes for its asynchronous Internet connections.
In a village in the Koulikoro region of southwest Mali, a lone cybertigi (from the Bambara word for tradesman) once operated a single “desert PC” - a hardy computer specifically designed by Geekcorps for hot climates.
He offered basic “office” programs and provided scanning, photocopying, digital photography, and access to media such as DVDs and music, along with an email service and requests for web pages. The power source? A single, 22 watt solar panel. The connection? A USB memory stick taken once or twice a week, by mototigi, to a telecentre with an Internet connection in distant Ouelessebougou.
It was an exciting new scheme to connect the village with the outside world. But it was halted after a year because of poor demand, says Olivier Alais, Geekcorp's Mali country director.
Perhaps this was predictable, considering that less than a quarter of people living outside the capital can read and write. As Alais says, people in rural Mali do want to connect with the rest of the world, but they choose radio and mobile phones.
Maybe that is why, a continent away in Sri Lanka, the Kothmale Community Radio Station is having such success with its “radio browsing” show, in which presenters search the web for listeners' queries live on air.
Back in Mali, Geekcorps has switched its attention to something more popular: offline resources like Moulin. Moulin is a yearly-updated, French version of Wikipedia that can be downloaded to a compact disc or memory stick. For now, the cybertigis will continue to offer ICT services, but remain offline.
Turning the net to profit
Amir Hasson, founder and chief executive officer of United Villages in India, had to make similar adjustments.
His organisation uses a system called DakNet - dak means “post” in Hindi - that mixes wireless technology with whatever transport is already available to connect about 400 remote Indian villages.
When the daily bus pulls into one of these villages, data as well as passengers can embark. The bus is fitted with a storage device that lets data, uploaded from the village computer kiosk, hitch a ride. It's much cheaper and less power-hungry to transmit data over such short distances - from village kiosk to the bus - than over the long distances from village to town.
But Hasson's business plan of selling email and web access to villagers proved unprofitable.
"We very quickly realised that we weren't going to be able to survive [on email and webpages alone]. There's a big difference when you expect people to pay," he says.
Apart from a few avid email users - usually a handful of teenagers or students in each village - it was "difficult to get people to see the value of doing something differently".
United Villages realised its services needed to help villagers generate or save money. So it began to sell email subscriptions to jobs databases and offered travel booking. Later it began a service called “infoguru”. A villager submits his question to an infoguru in the city via email. The guru searches the web and returns an answer in a pdf in the inquirer's local language.
More recently, the organisation has branched out into e-shopping. Villagers can consult a catalogue at the computer kiosk, wirelessly order goods they would normally travel to the city to buy, and have them delivered back, often on the next bus.
This has been incredibly successful, says Hasson, particularly for local businesses that can now buy goods cheaply and not lose revenue while they travel to the city. For every US$1 that United Villages makes, says Hasson, its customers save an average of US$1.34.
But little of what United Villages now does is about the Internet, and none of it is about the web, says Hasson. It's more about creating a useful local digital network.
"We're building a digital channel to a very difficult to reach population," he says, adding that his organisation has changed tack from an "Oh we came up with this cool technology, now let's get people to use it" approach to "What is it that people actually want and need that this technology can address?"
The real disappointment, he says, has been that the web is irrelevant to so many people. "[The web is] almost all in English and the content is not local to [the villages] for the most part. There are not a lot of sites that cater for the interests of these communities."
Schools get connected
But if the adult population can’t see a use for the Internet, schools can. The web offers a variety of educational resources, and learning how to use the Internet and ICTs should benefit children's future careers, says Dave Wood, systems engineer for the US non-profit organisation Wizzy Digital.
In rural KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa, Wizzy Digital has helped six schools set up Internet access, either with their digital courier option (employing a USB memory stick) or with delayed dial-up.
Using relatively old - often second hand - cheap computers linked to a single server using technology known as a "thin client" system, some humble apparatus has been used to great effect.
With delayed dial-up, schools with a telephone Internet connection can send stored emails and download the material they need at night, then work offline during the day.
Approximately 200MB of data - about 40 000 text-only emails or 1600 web pages - can be downloaded overnight for about seven South African rand (about 70 US cents).
In one school that operates the courier system, the principal is the “mule”, stopping on his drive to and from work at another school that does have an Internet connection to pick up the day's data.
Wood says Wizzy Digital's ethos is to allow schools to work out for themselves what they want.
"You can see what the web has, you can whet your appetite or use a whole set of technologies: word processors, spreadsheets etc, try it out and see what you find interesting … Get used to it, raise your children aware of it and they will use it for things that they need."
Asynchronous access projects have a lot of potential, though they are still few and far between. And they could struggle until people find ways to make them useful and adapt them to local needs.
United Villages certainly sees a future in digitally connecting remote communities. They plan to reach two billion people with digital networks by 2015. They're going to need more than a few extra buses to do that.Katherine Nightingale is a writer and editor interested in the fields of science, agriculture, health, water, energy, climate change, biodiversity, sustainable development, poverty reduction, biotechnology, engineering, and policy.
An opinion provided by OnlineOpinion.com.au - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate. Join their discussion or comment below.