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Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Internet makes inroads in rural Uganda

The spread of the Internet to rural areas has sparked off excitement among residents giving them hope for future flourishing businesses through communication with the outside world writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

The rate at which Ugandans are tapping into the Internet especially after the introduction of District Information Portals countrywide is exciting analysts who see it more than President Museveni’s fascination with industrialisation and modernisation of agriculture as the fastest way through which natives will be pulled from the doldrums of poverty by availing them with important information and changing the way they do business.

The portals project started five years ago under the Rural Communication Development Fund from the World Bank with Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) acting as the regulatory body.

The initiative fits in the larger Rural Communication drive of expanding Internet to rural communities by having as many Internet kiosks and setting up what are called Internet points of presence at every district headquarter. To make this possible, UCC availed private proprietors of Internet cafes in rural districts with more computers, strong bandwidth, generators and the necessary software, and also contracted MTN and UTL telecom companies to fix the said Internet points of presence in the 80 districts of Uganda.

The vibrancy of Internet in districts brought by these Internet kiosks and Internet points of presence coupled with the village phones programme has roused many even in the far-flung districts of Uganda to value the use of Internet which they see as a potent factor in communication throughout the world.

Also, they have learnt that whoever controls content in this generation has power because more people want to know what’s happening and what’s new.

Yet the websites remained stagnant until May last year when they were officially handed over to be managed by the respective districts.

Before this, UCC would meet the cost of hosting, updating and maintenance. Each district now pays an annual cost of Shs1.2m for the domain name, registration, hosting and maintenance but whatever information they want on their websites is for the district officials to decide.

“Since 2005, we’ve been trying to have our district portals running, unfortunately due to managerial problems we didn’t have access to these websites but things have changed because we now have full authority of our access,” says Iganga District Information officer, Mr Daniel Saire. “This is the way to go because it gives the districts an opportunity to market themselves and communicate to the outside world. As a district, we need to mobilise and interest our people in the use of Internet. We can start with schools and if we start with the youngsters, by the time they turn 30 or 50, every body will have caught up.”

Busia, Pallisa to Rukungiri among others are vigorously posting new information on their websites. Although updates are lacking and a lot is still desired in how some of these websites look, it’s a step in the right direction; the revolution is in gear.

Besides the coverage of their social, political and economic infrastructure, including human interest stories intended to entice potential investors and tourists, the districts are also branding themselves on their home pages. Bushenyi is ‘officially’ “a model district”, Gulu is the seen as the “Hub of NGOs”, Rukungiri is the “Land of Bahororo” and Kabale is the “Switzerland of Africa.”

To live up to the perception that that they are referral centres as far as local information is concerned, digital maps showing the location of the district, tenders, jobs, district budgets and development plans are now accessible on the district websites.

The plan is to work with the private sector as well, so that a visitor to the district can find information on where to get the best accommodation, hospitals, schools, hotels and where to start a business.

The websites also communicate market prices so vendors can for example visit the sites of multiple districts to compare prices and then purchase from those they think will boost their profits. The businessmen in rural Uganda can as well take advantage of the district websites to market their products or services globally without being limited by their geographical positions. This has been made easy by search engines like Google or Yahoo, which pick up uploaded content for online researchers and other users.

In fact, it’s because Google knows the future of Internet depends on local content, experts say, that it has registered many a country’s domain. Computer geek and one of the trainers of the first batch of district officials, Yuda Muganda, says once Ugandans are given a reason as why they should be on the net, a mass criteria will happen whereby even farmers in the remotest district will be rushing to their district website for information on where to find the best market for their products or services.

Muganda uses a simple illustration to shed more light on this: “I’ve always been looking for a Blackberry phone on the Ugandan market and the cheapest I found is Shs500,000 but by using the Internet I’ve discovered that in Kenya I can get it for Shs200,000,” he says

As districts continue to handle their information, a private company, Rural Digital Media (RDM), still plays its part in regard to training; equipping the district officials with the necessary skills to update and sustain their sites, changing the layouts of the websites to make them distinct from others, as well as helping out in difficult technical aspects.

The project coordinator of District Information Portals under RDM, Mr Brian Rwehabura says database is being created to be tied with the SMS component. This means if one wanted know how many kilometres there are to travel to Soroti from Kampala, the person merely uses his phone to send a code to 188 which will automatically go to the databases on website and pick the desired information.

Mr Rwehabura added: “Most of the content on the websites has actually been translated into the local languages. You find most of the websites in western Uganda are in Runyankole-Rukiga, if you go to northern Uganda you have the Luo, the Lugbara, in east and we have Lusoga and Ateso for the north east.”

He says the information portals project has helped some districts generate money by selling advertising space to companies and NGOs who well know the websites attract multitude readers in the diaspora.

As the Internet is the world’s biggest library and therefore an essential ingredient of the information superhighway, it makes sense that its usage is being encouraged throughout the country but of more significance is that even those in the remotest parts of the country are empowered to transform their lives and define the greater socio-economic destiny of this country.

--Daily Monitor, Wenesday, October 15, 2008