29 May 2012

Zimbabwe: ICTs Can Improve Life in Rural Settlements


ICT is an acronym for Information Communication Technology, which is the methodology and systems applied in the organisation, manipulation, transmission and interpretation or reception of various forms of information in mainly digital form nowadays.

It is a very dynamic field, having evolved over the years from primitivity to modernity in a short space of time, affecting human civilisation in many spheres.

The principles of ICT have assisted in the various modern ways of other fields like agriculture, politics, medicine, science, finance, tourism, research, archaeology, learning, commerce, business and engineering.

There are specialised documented effects that ICT has made and continues to make on these and many other fields of study today.

If one chooses to ignore ICT, that means ignoring the progressive effects it has made on all the mentioned and other disciplines affecting humanity and that will be at one's peril. Imagine trying to invite subjects for a meeting by beating a drum!

In Zimbabwe rural settlements are synonymous with poor living conditions, in terms of income and general cost of living. Most rural dwellers eke out a living from subsistence farming (crops and livestock) in non-arable lands and devastating unstable weather patterns that never produce enough to last them on food, drinking and irrigation water plus extras to invest in their upkeep for services like electricity, sewer reticulation and communication gadgets.

Normally, they are always at the receiving end from politicians who continue to lie to them with wide promises for upgrading their living conditions at every election time, ignoring them back into their poverty as soon as the ballot is cast, until the next election.

With few and unsustainable methods or/and facilities of tracking down the politicians or the so called "donors" on their promises, they remain as one analyst put it, "at the mercy of severe poverty, year after year".

If nature tries to come to their rescue by providing better rains in one year, remote as they live due to very poor and outdated means of communication, the sweet talking urban dwellers rush to bribe them off their produce at minimal rates as middle men. Very few rural dwellers will be aware of the newly gazetted prices of their produce, due to information breakdown as they almost never lay their hands on available information sources like newspapers as "current affairs is never current".

Farming is about maximising yields and profit, defined by net difference between input and output, but practising it without adequate resources and modern techniques proves to be uneconomic. Education is another handicap as learning institutions, both conventional and vocational, are normally far away and very poorly equipped in terms of trained teachers, tools and books, among other factors.

Rainfall harnessing for irrigation and other purposes has achieved limited success due to poor and outdated erosion and sediment control

practices which are vital in dam construction, scarcity of organic-enriched fertilisers, knowledge of approved and certified application methods and development of organised markets for produces.

Artificial insemination of livestock is also lacking due to resistance to change for adopting new and upcoming practices like heat detection, which in the long-term controls the detrimental effects of inbreeding. Banking, agricultural and health facilities are either non-existent or very far, making these territories breeding ground for financial and medical "fly-by-night" advisers/crooks.

One would be forgiven for isolating Zimbabwean rural problems to modern ICT, but if we consider globalisation aspects of ICT, then it would make a lot of sense reconsidering the subject. Most problems of the rural dwellers emanate from their remote location from the territories where most modernisations actually begin, that is, in the cities, due to poor communication links.

The old, poor and outdated communication infrastructures derail sources of information like newspapers and journals, rapid maintenance of copper wired telephone networks, servicing of schools and colleges, attraction of trained teachers, updating and reviewing medical programmes like combating the the HIV and Aids scourge, holding of information disseminating seminars and following up on various projects with the relative authorities when they return to their bases.

ICT comes with a rescue package by bridging the gap between rural and urban (world) dwellers. Fibre-optic cables and wireless technologies replace the old copper wired telephony infrastructures by removing the limited bandwidth and penetration handicap of communication services, introducing flexibility and remote access of mobile phones, smart phones, computers and other broadband services.

These are ICT communication services with no boundaries, no fixed station and minimum service costs at the user end, enhance connectivity for communication and information dissemination, e-learning, e-commerce and crime prevention purposes.

Zimbabwe's phone penetration rate improved from 24 percent in 2009 to 64 percent today, according to Potraz statistical office review of October 2011, partly in celebration of the de-monopolisation of the sector in 1998, growth in mobile phone usage, installation of fibre-optic linkages and improvement in the national economy lately. Unfortunately, this hasn't resulted in any meaningful improvement in the life of the rural dweller.

The better schools programme of 2000, the Basic Education Assistance Module (Beam) of 2001, the President's rural schools computerisation program of 2009 including the recent partnering with Apple on solar powered iPads, national HIV and Aids strategic plan (ZNASP) of 2006-2010 and the members of parliament outreach programs of 2010 also availed a sizeable amount of new ICT services in rural settlements, unlocking the potential for their influence but to a very limited extent.

Many researchers like Unicef (Dec 2004) outlined several shortcomings of these and other earlier efforts and measures as being attributed to information dissemination, programs management and control systems, resistance to change, among other factors, caused by the very important missing link, the "how" aspect which requires addressing by this research proposal.

A Unesco-sponsored pilot study on the impact of new ICTs on socio-economic and educational development of Africa and the Asia-Pacific by Levi Obijiofor and Sohail Inayatullah with Tony Stevenson in 1998/9 established that serious barriers like infrastructure support, access, training, skills development and hierarchical social relations inhibit ICT adoption, but "how" that adoption can influence lives need to be thoroughly investigated in order to address the obstacles.

Another paper on ICT in education for development by Brian Gutterman, Shahreen Rahman, Jorge Supelano, Laura Thies and Mai Yang (July 2009) considered ICT as a powerful tool to promote social and economic development and explained how it is being used in education, but there is need to elaborate on "how" it can benefit the under-developed communities in a developing country like Zimbabwe.

On the few Zimbabwean rural settlements that managed to receive and enjoy the light, case studies need to be undertaken as part of this research for use in enriching and proving possible achievements that this proposal is clamouring for. These are schools, villages, administration centres, district hospitals/clinics handling HIV and Aids and TB programmes and agricultural extension service points.

Establishing the "how" aspect remains on top of the agenda, as we also enquire on other related issues like what benefits, extent of benefits, who benefited, when, further handicaps, etc, on individuals, the community, healthy personnel, HIV and Aids and TB patients, administration personnel, teaching staff, the curriculum and learning students.

This will be accomplished both qualitatively and quantitatively in an interactive research strategy on the ground, in an operational period of about 12 months.

Implementing new ICT in the Zimbabwean rural areas will bring the rural dweller at the face of the entire world as they can communicate real-time with all responsible authorities and organisations.

Remote participation in neurology, bio-technology, business process outsourcing, project management, market sourcing and development and others become easily achievable.

These facilities will transform the rural areas through exposing them to many development opportunities and techniques.

Mobile phones may be used in communicating and sharing ideas with peers and linking with authorities on various projects being undertaken, timely, addressing all unexpected delays and gray areas.

The Internet will be used in e-learning and keeping abreast with modern technologies and techniques in all areas of interest, encouraging active participation in world technological advancement.

It will also lead to cloud computing, a new trend in ICT which is capable of seeing various learning institutions, social clubs and administrative organisations enjoying full ICT services at very reduced and manageable budgets, as equipment and network infrastructures purchasing and maintenance costs become a thing of the past.

These facilities will be helpful in speedy tracking of criminals on the run and broadband communications for video conferencing, demonstrations and field day functions.

This will lead to transformation of the rural areas through exposing them to development opportunities, securing their hard-earned monetary valuables and protecting them by speedy manhandling of criminals, both social and financial.

E-banking brings in modern banking practices, investment and money transfer facilities.

When the un-banked population in Zimbabwe's remote settlements get access to these financial services, their cash flow management will be enhanced and their savings improve with increased options of providing for themselves and their relations.

Cash-less banking, using smart card technology can be used to provide insurance to villagers, social grants through supermarket chains, distribution of anti-retroviral drugs, payments for agro inputs and produce and distribution of pensions to the deserving recipients in their localities.

This facility has an enhanced security feature, beyond the usual Point of Sale (POS) and automated teller machine (ATM) hardware infrastructure or back-end host that utilises biometric fingerprint technology as the method of identification throughout the entire system.

Eng Maxwell Mago is a lecturer in Applied Information Communications Technology at the University of Zimbabwe School of Technology.

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