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Rural ICT projects get boost in Africa

27 April 2009

Michael Malakata

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Telecom projects in Kenya and Zambia are spearheading the development of e-health, e-learning and e-commerce in rural areas.

The projects, largely based in the telecommunications sector, are aimed at connecting rural areas to cities, as well as to international networks, in order to accelerate the growth of ICTs in the region. 

Courses can be delivered online for rural doctors and nurses.

Projects in Zambia and Kenya will have far-reaching consequences. For example, instead of doctors and nurses from rural areas going to cities for education, courses can be delivered online.

Remote hospitals in Africa have not been attractive to doctors and nurses because opportunities for career development are limited. The business community has not been investing in rural areas because of their distance to markets. But with online courses and e-commerce now available, remote hospitals may be more attractive to doctors and nurses, and it is hoped that the business community will invest in rural areas, which can now sell products online.

The major contribution to the health sector will be the ability to deliver health services to remote rural areas through online consultation. With computers and Internet connectivity, a doctor can take a photo, scan it and send it to a doctor in a referral hospital for expert opinion.

The Communications Authority of Zambia (CAZ), the country's telecom sector regulator, on April 17 signed an agreement for a rural telecommunication fund. The Kenyan government has already launched a project that will connect nine provinces.

CAZ acting CEO Richard Mwanza said an agreement with Macha Linknet will finance the rural multipurpose telecenters in the southern part of the country. The project, Mwanza said, will initially involve four provinces but will later expand.

CAZ has been setting aside funds from license fees toward the development of ICT services in rural areas.

"The CAZ [is] now ready to implement the universal access program in rural Zambia to provide ICT services," Mwanza said.

The model, Mwanza said, is an initiative for a VSAT (Very Small Aperture Technology) service operated by the malaria research center located in the small town of Macha, which eventually grew to a multifaceted community-based resource servicing the needs of private and government institutions in the community.

Mwanza said the CAZ now wants to replicate the model to other parts of the country so that they can also benefit from such an integrated ICT solution, offering a variety of services.

The CAZ last year gave a go-ahead to the disbursement of the rural telecommunication fund amounting to nearly US$4 million for the development of rural telecom infrastructure after the Zambian government pressed for the quick release of the funds.

Initially CAZ said it could not disburse the funds because administrative procedures, including the appointment of a projects manager, had to be accomplished prior to the distribution.

In addition to the $4 million, the Zambian government in its 2008 national budget set aside almost $1 million for rural infrastructure development and access to ICT by the rural population.

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