January 12, 1999

WHERE IN THE WORLD CAN YOU FIND NEW IDEAS FOR INFORMATION ACCESS?

by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Today we make a virtual journey to a country that lays hold to few resources, but possesses a resourceful computer scientist with a plan to bring the Internet to every village. Her proposal not only may travel well to other countries, but shows that poor communities can strive for information access. And that creativity can flourish in underdeveloped areas as well as the Silicon Valley.

Zambia, a landlocked country in Southern Africa, is one of the few nations in that region that haven’t been featured in the Western media recently. The reason is a shortage of pathos: Zambia has no famine, no massacres, no war. (In fact, the government has been a leader in reconciling the warring groups in the Congo.)

I’m not saying Zambia is a model nation. An Amnesty International report, even one from the U.S. State Department, find injustices and human rights abuses. But the question is not whether impoverished countries suffer from social problems—of course they do, and so do affluent ones—but what hopes exist for breaking the cycle. In this regard, the developments I heard about at a conference from system administrator Sylvia Zulu are well worth reporting.

Over the past three years, Zulu helped put a national satellite network in place for Zambia National Commercial Bank, Ltd., the government-owned bank. While watching this massive investment in the country’s infrastructure fall into place, she asked whether it could also be used to bring information to the population in remote areas.

To understand the Internet initiative, one must look at the social goals of the Zambian government. By offering bank branches in most parts of the country, including rural areas, the Zambia National Commercial Bank promotes micro-enterprises and other development. Among its goals are branchless banking, where a customer can visit a different branch from his usual one one still have all the same access to his account.

Justin Chola, manager of information services at the bank, quickly rejected telephone lines as an infrastructure. Like the public telephone companies in many developing countries, the government-owned Zamtel offered terrible service at high prices. “My own phone worked only 60% of the time,” Chola says.

Shortly after being hired in mid-1995, therefore, Chola decided to use a satellite network for interbranch communications. Satellite communications are quite available and robust in Africa; he settled on a network using PanAmSat offered by the Transtel corporation of South Africa.

A major political battle took place, naturally, over Chola’s rejection of the government monopoly phone company. Zamtel refused to grant the bank a license to operate their network. Through the intervention of a high-level government official and arguments that other institutions like Barclay’s bank were being allowed to use a satellite network, Chola won his license.

The information services group worked fast and effectively. By early 1996, most of the 40 bank branches had satellite dishes. They reached 90% reliability within three or four months and are close to 100% reliable today. Reliability is important and well worth paying for, partly due to the bank’s service goals and partly because there are relatively few technical staff in the country who can fix problems.

According to Zulu, the bank has been socially successful too. Teachers and other public officials in remote areas can get their salaries and pay their bills without traveling many miles. At first, services in rural areas were offered essentially for free as a social subsidy. But now the bank is making a profit. “Investors are small,” says Zulu, “but there are many of them.”

The satellite network is significantly overbuilt, in the sense that it is used only during banking hours. Zulu would now like to see it put to other uses on evenings and weekends—notably, to carry Internet and voice traffic to each village.

Most rural residents of Zambia, of course, do not possess high-tech skills or the means to buy computer equipment. But in every community there is an institution—perhaps a school or a church—that can make a connection and has someone who can represent the villagers.

What sorts of information applications do poor Zambians need? Zulu offers several possibilities.

Zulu could serve as a role model for people bringing technology to developing countries. She obtained her computer science degree in 1991 and worked in both England and Zambia as an information technology consultant. Since coming to the Zambia National Commercial Bank in 1995 she has worked as a system administrator, creating systems and making sure they stay up full-time.

Zulu has currently left behind her job and her three-year-old daughter for a year-long professional development exchange program at the Pennsylvania State University in the United States. She is attending the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship program, sponsored by the United State Information Agency and administered by the Institute for International Education. “The information exchange is two-way,” she says. “People at the university are very interested to hear what’s being done back in Africa.”

In a recent visit back home, Zulu found her colleagues at the bank still concentrating on preparing the bank’s computers for the Year 2000, as organizations around the world are doing. She hopes that she can start her campaign for satellite Internet when she returns to the bank in the summer.

What sort of social support and infrastructure exists in Zambia for information technology? It is modest but growing. When Zulu decided to study computer science a decade ago, she had to go to England because the University of Zambia did not offer enough courses to make a full major. Now the university has the courses, and a sense of social mission as well.

One of its initiatives was Zamnet, the country’s first and largest Internet service provider. Zamnet has just held its first meeting in an attempt to form a Zambian chapter of the Internet Society, a worldwide institution that provides support for the growth of the Internet.

Chola points out that there are problems in dual use of the bank’s systems. For instance, opening up the satellite network for general use poses security risks. Zulu believes that “Some risk exists, but it can be handled safely.”

Even if the bank can’t offer its own satellite dishes, Chola suggests that villages could get Internet access anyway. Satellite dishes are cheap enough for a village to invest in them.

While monthly costs for the bank are fairly high ($400 per banch per month), Chola says, “That is because we are so concerned with reliability, and because the bank was the first user. New users can expect cheaper satellite access, particularly when they reach a high volume of use.”

Can the satellite model for village Internet access be exported? Perhaps. The World Bank, for instance, is funding COMESA (a trading organization of East-southern African countries, comparable to the European Union) to create a satellite network for their banks.

The growth of information technology in southern Africa raises interesting questions about government involvement versus privatization. Chola believes that governments should privatize banks and telephone companies as fast as possible. The inefficiency of these government-monopoly institutions are legendary.

“The reason governments are slow to privatize,” he says, “is that the banks and telephone companies are major sources of revenue.” Chola wants the governments to sacrifice this revenue in pursuit of greater rewards, because if competition leads to better service it will also lead to new industry and economic growth.

But if the Zambia National Commercial Bank had been privatized, it would never have pursued the social goal of putting a branch in every part of the country. Typical private Zambian banks stay in the cities and require a high minimum balance; according to Zulu, the average Zambian never goes near them.

And thus the Zambian experience leaves us pondering a dilemma that each country must resolve on its own. Rural development and universal access to technology require a finely-tuned balance between government investment and private initiative. In each nation, the combination of history, law, resources, and local opportunity will dictate a different solution.


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