Access challenges among rural communities and local solutions

9 Nov 2020 18:20h - 19:50h

Event report

The aims of the session were to discuss the unique experiences and challenges that rural communities face in accessing and using ICT-based initiatives in the areas of education, health, financial inclusion, and agriculture; and to discuss some of the strategic local solutions that have been identified to address them.

Prof. Christopher Yoo (University of Pennsylvania) moderated the session. He set the agenda by giving brief background information on rural connectivity initiatives, including barriers and opportunities as driven by evidence-based research covering 120 case studies around the world.

This introduction then ushered in the panellists, who introduced their own unique ICT initiatives targeting rural communities, their challenges, and the approaches used to address the challenges using local solutions.

Ms Mary Olushoga (Founder, African Women Power Network (AWPN)) started by giving a brief description of the work of her organisation. According to her, AWPN works with women farmers in rural communities across three states in Nigeria. The initiative started when the organisation secured funding in 2014 to build a comprehensive vendor database to allow women farmers to access the products that they produced, thereby enriching and improving their livelihoods. Through the project, they have been able to establish a partnership with Shoprite Nigeria that will ensure that their produce lands on the shelves of one of the largest department stores in Africa.

Mr Michael Spencer (Co-founder and CEO of Smart Money International) also gave a brief background to his organisation, which provides financial services for the underserved in rural Uganda. According to Spencer, Smart Money gives opportunity for rural folks to own a digital wallet, which then leads to the promotion of savings as a pathway to property for their users. Currently about 2000 digital wallet holders use the service and the monies are invested to generate revenue for businesses. He further highlighted the opportunities that the service has brought to the users, which include the accumulation of funds to support the education of their children and expansion of their farms.

Prof. Yoo then posed a question to the panellists regarding the challenges they have faced and overcome to keep their initiatives going. Ms Olushoga identified language, insecurity, and data as the main challenges that her organisation faced. Language was an issue because most of the rural farmers had achieved a very low educational level and it took considerable time for the users to comprehend the content of their trainings. Security issues also arose since kidnapping incidents were recorded in the project communities; also the project fell in areas where Boko Haram insurgents operate. Finally, data was a problem because a database documenting rural farmers was completely non-existent. According to her, the project sought to address these challenges and still drives their on-going progress. Completing the largest database of women farmers has given them access to work with Shoprite Nigeria. Insecurity still exists, but the women are poised to be undeterred. The constant training effort has also broken the language barrier, making it easier for the farmers to understand the content of their trainings.

Mr Spencer, on the other hand, also identified the issue of non-existent data that they had to surmount by building from scratch. He mentioned that they had to try different models of marketing and training before identifying what works for a product and a consumer segment that lacked trust in the process. His company adopted a hands-on training approach and built the right relationships, which in turn promoted transparency about their solutions.

The panellists also took turns to address the issue of how to keep their initiatives sustainable. They agreed that one sure way for sustaining their initiatives is funding by people who believe in the initiative. They mentioned that it takes time to break even for initiatives targeting rural communities and, so far, support from partners such as the International Financial Corporation (IFC), Mastercard Foundation, and Shoprite has kept them going.

Prof. Yoo then summarised the lessons learned and the important conclusions from the discussions. He further led a discussion among the panellists on how policy can facilitate the meaningful access of ICT-based initiatives in rural settings in a manner that will ensure maximum benefit for the communities.

The panel then opened up the floor for questions from the audience as well as from online participants for contributions and questions, after which the session was brought to a close.