Friday, 18 January 2008

Sustainability First: Making Telecentres Work

(Report of GK3 Sustainability Panel)

A.M.M. Yahya, Grameenphone CIC, Bangladesh
Reshan Dewapura, ICTA, Sri Lanka
Sulah Ndaula, UgaBYTES, Uganda,
Karishma Kiri, Microsoft Corp., Global
Miguel Raimilla, OneRoof, Maxico & India
Mark Surman,
Harsha Liyanage, Sarvodaya-Fusion &

Session Summary
Telecentre sustainability has been a burning issue for over a decade. Recently, a new number franchise networks and others have emerged with new models that promise more sustainable solutions to Shared Access facilities. What is it about these models that is different from past telecentres? Are these new approaches really a long term solution? Will they create a vibrant information ecosystems and market at the base of the pyramid? Or just prop up already struggling centres for a few more years. This panel dug into the 'sustainability question' through a combination of research and case studies from the field.
Key questions
Why have telecentres struggled with sustainability in the past? (the 'no' paradigm)
What makes franchise networks and other new models different? (the 'yes' paradigm')
Are these new models (or any models) creating a resilient and sustainable market ecosystem?

The whole session was conducted in a talk show manner to find out ways to make the telecentres sustainable and scalable. The focus was on three main questions:
Reasons for telecentres struggling with sustainability- this question was directed towards the audience as well and their answers varied from lack of community ownership/ leadership, backend services to appropriate partnerships.
The rest of the questions were directed towards the panelists.
How are franchise networks and other models different in addressing these issues?
Are they the means to create a sustainable market ecosystem in which the telecentres can survive?
Main sustainability challenges & the strategies to deal with them.

Emphasis on capacity building to address the challenge of lack of human resource to manage the telecentre managers (Karishma).
Increased focus on financial sustainability (Reshan, Yahya). Wrong focus often leads to failure. At the same time, it is important to achieve balance between financial and social sustainability (Karishma, Yahya, Reshan).
Challenges are very common in any enterprise. In the business context, the main motivation is to make money. The telecentre enterprise varies slightly, since they also seek to make a difference in the community. The telecentre business model has a dual purpose (Karishma).
Engaging government support (Yahya).
Lack of discipline in the networks. The initial enthusiasm towards business tools diminishes overtime. Such mindset leads to unsustainable telecentre networks. Thus the emphasis should be on incorporating the business concept in telecentre management. The presence of a progress tracking system is inevitable for financial sustainability (Miguel).
In a donor supported model, the question of sustainability appears generally after the disappearance of the donors (Sulah).

Sustainability indicators used by researcher/s (Harsha) to map cases across countries
Social reasons: Leadership issues, Ethos, No economic motivation. For eg Leadership issues includs leadership related challenges. The contradiction lies between volunteerism vs. money making or business aspirations.
Economic reasons: No market at the BoP, No sound economic research data, Lack of marketable services and products, No seed capital.
Institutional reasons: No clear vision, Admin and Management deficiencies, Lack of entrepreneurial capacity, Institutional bureaucracy and politics.
Policy reasons: Non conducive policy environment, Legal systems not supportive.

They have analyzed the question of sustainability against the Yes paradigm and the No paradigm.
The Yes paradigm refers to the positive or the optimistic approach to telecentre sustainability. The networks subscribing to this paradigm agree that there are challenges, but these can be managed. There are some best examples in this case, like tapping the untapped markets. For example, the Drishtee foundation has developed a package of 30 products to sell through the telecentres. They have adopted the social enterprise model that includes both financial sustainability and social development.

Best practices in sustainability across the world:

There are several such examples across the world.

The ugabyte model: they have a regional network, going down to the national and the individual telecentre levels. These layers contribute to the sustainability of each other going down to the individual telecentre level. This is achieved by packaging services at all levels (Sulah).

In the Bangladesh model, the scale up is very ambitious, but they are very optimistic about the model. It is not donor funded and there is a lot of stress on individual entrepreneurship. Telecentres are considered self supportive enterprises with the owner investing some capital to start it (Yahya)

In Sri Lanka also, they prefer the entrepreneurial model, but the concept of entrepreneurship has moved from the individual to the community, a community based organization being the entrepreneur. Another factor is that the telecentre initiative is not an isolated one. It is linked to various ongoing ICT4D activities, such as, e-SriLanka, which is about building the IT capacity to create the human resources for managing the telecentres. At the same time, they are also developing innovative technologies for rural areas. Other projects that can contribute to telecentre sustainability are the Rural BPO projects, the e- governance initiative, etc. They have also come up with an innovative, voucher scheme. This also provides income to the telecentre mangers (Reshan)

The OneRoof initiative has discovered that optimism about sustainability varies from country to country and the same is true about the challenges encountered. Their model worked very efficiently in India, but it was not so much successful in Mexico (Miguel).

For telecentre success, it is important to package services that the community can use and build trust in the community. And at the same time, the network should strive to bring in services from the private sector, the government, and other institutions, organizations, agencies that provide services to fill in the gap in backend services.

This was found to be true during the Sustainability research as well. There are a lot of success stories from Latin America as well, but such stories are very few in Africa. The telecentre movement is still taking roots in African countries.

The variation in the momentum for telecentre sustainability varies from region to region due to variations in the political structure, policy environment, the policy advocacy approach & culture. (Harsha).

In the Mission 2007 model, which is a collective approach to tackle the challenges of telecentre sustainability, regional variations and variations across the states are visible (Karishma)

The role of telecentre networks in addressing sustainability challenges;

Since the individual telecentres are generally isolated, it is important to network them. The networks can play an important role in addressing the gaps and the challenges.
The networks are mainly driven by the need to fill the gap that the individual telecentres cannot do on their own (Sulah).
Networks can take up the responsibility of content generation since the individual telecentre manager is over- burdened by telecentre operational demands.
Networks can also document best practices in telecentre sustainability and disseminate the same to the telecentre managers to learn from such initiatives.
The networks can also help in identifying the missing skills, and impart the same to the managers.

Community involvement is not all that difficult, but they require a level playing field. Low or negligible utilization of telecentre services is mainly due to the lack of infrastructure. Connectivity hinders the utilization of telecentre services (Yahya)

The telecentres can profit only after meeting all the operational costs. Therefore, variations in the cost of connectivity across the nations affect the sustainability of the telecentres. The telecentre networks can negotiate with the government and the service providers to bring it down. It also depends on how many companies or service providers are in the competition. For example, the telecommunication is controlled by only one company in Mexico, so the rates are not competitive (Yahya, Reshan, Miguel).
Networks have better capacities to influence government telecom companies. Collaboratively, they can also influence policies.

To some extent sustainability also depends on the innovativeness of the telecentre operators. S/he has to be connected to the right persons/ partners to find the opportunities to make the telecentres more sustainable. The network can help in identifying such partners and connecting them (Yahya)

The networks can also facilitate sharing and learning between the telecentre operators. The human spirit to share has always been there. For the networks, the main jobs can be capacity building and driving the motivation of the telecentre workers (Karishma).

The networks can also help in setting up monitoring and evaluation systems at the micro and macro levels. They can help in setting up telecentres, building partnerships for them, they can advise, guide, and motivate the telecentre managers. They can help in creating support systems for the telecentre managers.

Inputs from open floor discussions:

In several countries, the telecentres are not limited to the rural areas. They are also serving the marginalized communities in the urban areas. In Turkey, the telecentres are not in rural areas, but they are in cites. It is equally important to bridge the divide in the urban areas as well.
A lot of factors are responsible for the success of the telecentres, such as good management, sustainable model, and its usercentric-ness coupled with localization and relevance of the telecentres for the community.
All the best practices should be mapped; mapping of principles.
As far as the services are concerned, majority of them should be related to health, legal services, telemedicine.
The telecentre manager has to be seen as a man who works for the community.
Franchisee model as successful telecentres is good, but it is important to learn how sustainability can be achieved even without it.
The people, i.e., the telecentre managers are also important, the people with leadership qualities, different kinds of skills.
Telecentre sustainability has to be seen also from the value proposition angle. If it provides value for the franchisee and for the whole chain involved in service delivery.
The ground reality is quite different in this context. For example, the Drishtee franchisee model has also undergone tremendous changes. Earlier, it used to identify the telecentre operators and provide handholding support to them in the areas of capacity building, packaging the services and content for them, providing IT infrastructure, etc. Now in the Drishtee model is such anybody interested can start the telecentre. In the same way, the role of nLogue is also gradually diminishing. If the telecentre networks do not provide connectivity, capacity building, then what values are they adding to the telecentre initiative? (Karishma).
The telecentres should address all the challenges and problems at the grassroots. For example, the micro credit system in Bangladesh has made the poor bankable.
The role of the government in the telecentre initiative:
The government has a lot of information to provide. It can emerge as the biggest player in the whole telecentre sustainability debate.
For the telecentres to succeed, it is very important to engage the government because it has total control on regulatory aspects and policy/ plan implementation. For example providing banking facilities through telecentres. There are many problems in this sphere and one of them is related to the strategy to engage the government.
There are many ways in which the government can be engaged. Like motivating the government to channel their services through the telecentres. The government needs to be convinced to do so. The citizens require a lot of government services from the government (Reshan).
The services and products that the telecentres can sell should be franchised instead of the individual as a franchisee. The basic needs at the community level are government services, health and livelihood support. Right now, there are not enough e-government services to offer. Therefore, government support is essential for telecentre sustainability. The network has to find some strategy to influence and motivate the government to consider the telecentres as delivery channels for e-government services.
The government can function both as service providers and clients.
The franchisee model does not address the social inclusion challenge, especially in societies like India where the caste system is still prevalent and dominant. If the people from this excluded section are not given the franchisee, the whole community will be excluded, because the higher caste operators can prevent these excluded from accessing the telecentres.
In the community model, even the excluded are included. The franchisee model has operators from the top 20% of the pyramid. It does not cater to the needs of those at the bottom of the pyramid (Vignesh).
Different telecentre networks can also collaborate together to build the capacity of the telecentre managers.
Reaching the bottom of the pyramid is also important. The telecentres can also ensure the efficient functioning of the government agencies at the village level, like the primary health centre.
It is important to come up with some balance between financial and social sustainability. It should provide demand driven services.

(report made with courtesy of Shipra Sharma, India).


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