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Volume 19, No. 1, February 2009


Table of Contents

Running ICT Telecenters in Rural India

Arvindd Narayanan and Gaurav Chakraverty

The Energy & Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi

arvindd.narayanan@gmail.com

gchakraverty@gmail.com

 

[This article is an abstract of the unpublished manual compiled by the authors on “Running ICT Telecenters in Rural India”. The aim of the manual is to lay down guidelines to be followed by professionals handling operations of these networks, so as to enable a better success rate and low burnout. The article is based on the authors’ understanding of hurdles faced by community and telecenter operators gained through their field experience of working with them.] 

Harnessing technology for human development has been advocated worldwide. The ICT kiosk movement has been able to create a stir in local communities in terms of knowledge and know-how about the use of technology for accessing information and using it as a means to a better livelihood. Delivery of services has also been made easy through these ICT telecenters.  

Many instances of ICT telecenters have been seen and heard of in different parts of India . Many private and government entities have experimented with different models of ICT telecenters. Under its National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), the Government of India has proposed the setting up of Common Service Centers (CSC) or ICT telecenters covering the length and breadth of Indian Villages (6 villages: 1 ICT kiosk).  As envisaged, the CSC would act as a one stop solution for products and services (mainly e-government services).  Some of these centers have already come up in states such as Jharkhand, Haryana, West Bengal, etc.

Through experience, it has been seen that running an ICT telecenter requires prior experience in the field of knowledge and an understanding of the dynamics of how rural society responds to it. The following steps are suggested for setting up of ICT telecenters in rural India , and have evolved through our practical experience of setting up and running ICT telecenters. We also hope that it would equip the center manager and the people managing the telecenter network with better knowledge and certain best practices to run a telecenter running on any model, whether it is COCO (Company Owned Company Operated), COFO (Company Owned Franchisee Operated), FOFO (Franchisee Owned Franchisee Operated), entrepreneur-based or any other hybrid model.

1.   Geographical Survey of the Area

The very first and foremost step in setting up an ICT kiosk is to do a survey of the area where the center is to be set up. The following parameters should be considered, especially when setting up an ICT kiosk in a rural location in India :

(a)    Population - A population of 5,000 to 10,000 is necessary for the sustainability of the telecenter.  However, excessive number of people would result in a dearth of servicing.

(b)    Socio-economic indicators such as GDP of the village, health conditions, literacy level, etc. play an important role in the selection of a location for a telecenter. These indicators help to determine the direction towards which the village is moving on the developmental aspect. For instance, the distance from town of a telecenter will determine if the telecenter will be sustainable as larger the distance, the more the number of people who will come to assess the services from the telecenter.

(c)    Government policy/ political atmosphere - Although this is not a very important factor in the setting up of a telecenter, it needs to be taken into consideration as it can affect the telecenter in the long run. Though most Government policies are pro-ICT, the political environment might trigger some unwanted situations, which need to be taken care of right from the beginning. Also, since the entrepreneur running the center will depend on it for his livelihood, there should be minimum interference or pressure from outside on the day-to-day operations of the telecenter. Connectivity is the main challenge facing many states in India , but with the private operators coming in, this should be taken care of very soon. The Government is also working towards providing connectivity through their respective State-Wide Area Networks (SWAN).

(d)    Climatic condition/Natural hazards - Can disrupt services of the telecenter by affecting electricity, internet or physical connectivity. There is a great social requirement of telecenters in locations with such conditions since it is one of the main tools for the people to keep in touch with the outside world, especially during the hours of need. Though there are some examples of telecenters being set up in remote parts of the country, their sustainability is an issue that needs to be well-considered.

(e)    Input from the community is one of the driving forces behind the success of the telecenter. The model requires participation from the community in terms of being the customers of the telecenter and using its services.

(f)     IT vendors - Care should be taken to identify a suitable vendor (hardware) who could take care of the equipment’s maintenance. Availability of such vendors is very important as this will directly affect the profitability of the center in the long run with potential customers being turned away due to frequent hardware breakdown. It has been seen in several telecenters that lack of regular servicing of equipment at the center affects the smooth functioning of the center. Since most of the services are delivered through a computer, its regular breakdown affects the sustainability of the center.

(g)    Other factors that may impact the viability of telecenter such as its accessibility (whether it is located in a marketplace, on the highway, near a bus stop, at a distance from the school, near the government administration office, etc.) and ownership (owned or rented premises).

2.      Community Meeting and Selecting Suitable Entrepreneurs

Since the ICT kiosk is going to be established for a community, it is very important to explain to the community why such an initiative is required for its development. This is one factor that is often taken up just to fulfill a checklist but not considered important in the operations, leading to distancing of the centre from the community. Such steps cease after the center is opened whereas the key lies in repeating the exercise for at least every quarter and then gradually reducing the contact options but not closing all options. Some steps that can be followed are:

§     Meeting community elders/school teachers first and telling them about the plan

§      Organizing a meeting with villagers (especially the youth) and telling them about this exciting entrepreneurship opportunity

§      Explaining the role of ICT as a catalyst in developing the village economy and how it has shaped India and the world’s economies.

§      Widely publicizing the meeting so that most people attend it. Radio, local newspaper, print flyers, loud speakers on local transport, etc can be used as advertising means

§      Organising wall paintings, meetings with select groups, SHGs, farmer unions.

After the community meeting is over, interested youth/person can fill up the application form to set up the telecenter.  It has to be made clear to them that they would be selected on a competitive basis. The forms should be properly scrutinized to filter those who meet the necessary criteria such as:

§         the person should be from the same locality that the center is going to be set-up in

§        he/she should be in the age group of 20-40 and should have completed Higher Secondary school education

§        he/she should not hold any criminal record

§        he/she should have some basic knowledge of computers, though it is not absolutely necessary that the person is computer literate

§        should not be necessarily from among the financially affluent of the village

Other factors that which need to be considered are:

§         Does he/she have a vision/ aim in life, or is just a fly-by-night operator - someone seeing a money making opportunity?

§        Is he there for the long term, is he seeing it as a self-employment option or just taking it up till something else comes up

§         Does he have the patience to see the center grow?

§         Is he a hands on kind of person who is willing to work for himself or is he looking for an opportunity to boss over others?

In any case, a fall-back option to whom the center can be transferred must always be included in the scheme of things, as it would be wrong to assume that the entrepreneur would always remain.

3.      Building & Equipment

Building and equipment include the hardware, furniture/fixtures and the room of the telecenter. Usually, in rural areas the kiosk is started in a small space (typically an area measuring 6 feet X 4 feet) due to space constraints. The basic strip down model of the kiosk contains the following hardware

§      Computer with multi media kit

§      Multi Functional Device (printer/ scanner/ photocopier/ fax)

§      Telephone or other connectivity

§      Digital camera and/or webcam

It is advisable that one starts small with a single computer rather than a full-fledged 3-4 computer establishment. The reason is simple during the initial months the entrepreneur is also in a learning mode so having a larger setup with little services to offer would unnecessarily block his funds and also increase the operational expense. A gradual start with addition of hardware as per the requirements would not only ease the cash-flow but also encourage the entrepreneur to put in more effort as he sees the enterprise grow.

4.      Management of Hardware

Stress should be laid on obtaining hardware from a local vendor who can provide onsite maintenance within a specified time. It is advisable to draw up an Annual Maintenance Contract with the hardware vendor so that problems can be rectified as soon as they arise. This is important since “hardware not functional” would account for nearly 70% of the time that the centre is not working. When training on computers is given, a session on hardware and trouble shooting should be given so that the center manager can himself manage small problems like loose cables, improper connections, etc.

5.      Security

The security of the center and its equipment is another challenge that telecenters face. Theft has been one of the major concerns. Apart from securing the center with locks, it is also suggested that other protection like locking the computer with a password, insuring the equipment, etc. be considered for adverse circumstances.

6.      Use of Alternate Sources of Energy

One of the main constraints in setting up a kiosk in a rural area is the availability of power. Though storing power in batteries is a solution, alternative sources of energy such as solar energy are viable in places with inadequate power supply. Though the initial investment required for these equipments may be slightly higher, their long term benefits such as reduced operating/maintenance cost, clean and green energy plus accrual of carbon credits definitely outweigh the initial set-up cost.

7.      Management of the Center

Training and refresher training tops the list of management practices at the center. These may include training to strengthen the computer skills of the kiosk operator, and entrepreneurship development programs to develop skills at accounting/book keeping, planning for growth and expansion, rural empowerment, strategies for promotion, sales and marketing of products and services, environment/natural resources management, upkeep of the center and harnessing local opportunities.

8.      Services and Products

The services and products provided by the ICT kiosk are extremely important to the community around it as it bridges the gap between modern information technology and local culture, and creates an opportunity for development of the community. Since the customer is the most important factor for the ICT kiosk’s sustainability, the telecenter entrepreneur should ensure that maximum outreach activities are undertaken to attract customers.  Services offered will depend largely on the type of population that lives in the community where the ICT kiosk is being established. Customers would be of diverse demographic backgrounds (children, women, farmers, government servants, students, etc.) so the kiosk manager should provide a diverse basket of services to address their different needs.

Apart from providing commercial services, ICT telecenters have been known to organize training, educational workshops, publish local newspapers, spread awareness and serve the needs of the local government, business and civil societies. These act as incentives to the local community thus increasing footfalls at the centre. ICT telecenters can also serve as local information centers for the tourists on booking and transportation arrangements. E-governance has also been one of the most important services through the ICT kiosk in the Indian context. Apart from these services, the center can also undertake certain social services such as testing of water quality, organizing health camps in association with the nearby Public Health Center, and support and organize environmental and natural resource management camps, etc.

9.      Sales & Marketing

An important activity after the ICT kiosk is functional is the promotion of services offered by the ICT kiosk. Sales and marketing in rural areas is not the same as in urban areas. A basic difference is the importance that the rural population lays on trust. It is very important that trust be created among them in the beginning prior to service rollout.  When the ICT kiosk is being set up, it is important to sufficiently and clearly disseminate information on what the ICT kiosk is and how it is going to help the population.

10.  Financial Management

It is important to have a sound financial management system in place at the ICT kiosk in order for it to function at its best with little room for risks and errors.  Financial management would include book keeping, budgeting (estimate of income and expenditure), tracking and analyzing in-flow and out-flow, and controlling expenses. The first step to a better financial management is to record each transaction (debit/credit) in a register or to maintain it electronically. Transactions also need to be classified under the heads of capital expenditure and operating expenditure.

11.  Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)

It is important to establish and document a standardized procedure for the operations of the ICT telecenters. All equipment manuals must be filed in an easily accessible place so that it can be located promptly at the time of need.  The operating procedure is usually difficult to document and its importance is overlooked as coordinators/center managers who are kept busy dealing with routine tasks and issues. However, its importance is felt when a staff member is on leave and another person has to fill in for him.

12.  Customer Service

Certain steps can be taken to make the customer feel welcome such as: keeping the kiosk premises clean and tidy; providing signs at the kiosk to provide easy directions to the customer; making brochures, leaflets and information material available at the kiosk to brief the customer on the activities and services that the kiosk has to offer; etc.