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Why Digital villages project ran out of steam

By -Macharia Kamau
Updated Tue, May 21st 2013 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Macharia Kamau

Nairobi,Kenya:A combination of factors including harassment by local council officials have resulted in the slowed growth of the digital villages project, a public private partnership initiative that was expected to deepen use of ICT in rural areas.

The entrepreneurs that received loans from the digital villages revolving kitty to set up the digital villages – referred to as pasha Centres – say the project has failed to take off as initially expected due to misunderstood nature of the centres by the local authorities and subject Pasha Centre owners to constant harassment.

The project, started in 2011, was meant to deepen use of ICT in the rural and bridge the digital divide with urban areas, and is implemented in a public private partnership fashion. Entrepreneurs are advanced loans from the digital villages revolving fund to operate the Pasha Centres.

A recent report commissioned by the Kenya ICT Board noted that more than half of the about 60 entrepreneurs that had been advanced loans to set up digital villages have been undergoing difficulties and are unable to service their loans.

Geoffrey Gitau, chair Pasha Centres Association of Kenya says many digital villages have been undergoing difficulties due to little or no support by government. He said failure by government to support the entrepreneurs in a true Public Private Partnership (PPP) model has resulted in stunted growth of the project.

Offer free access

Gitau – who also runs a Pasha Centre in Juja – said many licence fees that the centres have to pay as well as the structuring of the loan that entrepreneurs received to start of the digital villages has been crippling to the project.

“We have to pay for a variety of licences for all the services that we offer at the centres. These include licences for training, offering connectivity, not understanding that the Centres are social enterprises in nature. Some of these are public services aimed at deepening digital literacy and the Pasha Centres do not generate revenue from all these services as ICT knowledge is still dismal in the rural areas,” he said.

 “Pasha Centre owners have been subjected to all kinds of harassment by local authority officials in their respective towns and at times they go ahead and confiscate their equipment grounding their businesses,” he said.

“The ministry of education has threatened to close down many of the centres because they are not accredited to train but what Pasha Centres do is not educational training but digital literacy.”

Gitau wants the Government to adopt the Pasha Centres as a public project noting that despite being privately owned and run, the centres have a facet that offers social services that should be of interest to the government including ICT literacy.

“We feel the Government should have adopted the Pasha Centres as their own project from the go and give them a code such that the licence fees that they pay are reduced or waived.

“We have the task of making rural population digital-aware and this way, create demand for the products offered at the Pasha Centres. This means that we have to offer free access to Internet so that we can pull them in.”

Immaculate Mutuku who runs a Pasha Centre in Kitengela noted that the centres have been burdened with what should be a government function of deepening ICT literacy but have been getting marginal assistance from the government.

“The entrepreneurs are ambitious. Investing Sh1 million in an ICT facility in the rural areas should not be taken lightly. But the challenges that many have faced is now forcing them to scale down and offer just a few services that will guarantee them a return on investment and enable them to service their loans as well as to ward off the council officials,” she said.

She added that unfavourable conditions by the financial institution that disbursed the money from the revolving fund have also been a factor in the failure to take off by the digital villages.

“There are stringent rules to access the money once you have been approved, there are many other fees that we were not told in an upfront manner that have made the loans seem like other commercial despite,” she said.

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