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Improving access to ICTs for development

This policy brief, published by Panos London, examines Zambia's successes and limitations in using information and communication technologies (ICTs) for development, and suggests how the country can maximise future progress.

The Zambian government has supported ICT use based on their ability to create wealth and improve education, agriculture and health services.

Successful ICT projects include an SMS service, run by the Zambia National Farmers Union, which connects small-scale farmers directly to buyers and provides daily price alerts for local produce. The service helps to ensure farmers achieve the best price without a need for third-party agents.

But several challenges have limited the impact of this technology, says the author, David Souter. Whilst mobile phone use has rocketed, the fixed-line telephone network — the country's principal means of Internet access — has failed to keep up, and is largely limited to urban and industrial areas.

Zambia also suffers from inadequate connections to international communication infrastructures, making Internet access expensive. The costs of line rental and hardware means that home Internet access is out of reach for most Zambians.

The lack of a ministry dedicated to ICT has delayed the implementation of a national policy, which was adopted in 2006. And inflexible regulations make it difficult for service providers to operate and introduce new services.

These constraints, amongst others, must be addressed to improve ICT access for all Zambians, in particular those in rural areas, such as small-scale farmers and female market traders, says Souter.

A key step is to reduce consumer costs. This can be achieved by improving ICT infrastructure, in particular the fibre optics network, or using tax breaks to increase access to cheaper hardware and software.

The government must also develop a more organised and effective ICT strategy based on consultation with partners, including local stakeholders and the private sector. Public-private partnerships should have a key role in building infrastructure and coordinating network installations to reach areas that remain underserved.

Widespread awareness campaigns should be rolled out to improve ICT literacy, especially important in reducing the 'digital divide' between urban and rural communities.

It is crucial that ICT programmes are not just technology driven, says Souter. Policymakers need to learn from experience showing that projects are much more successful when they begin on a small scale, are locally run and focus on meeting the needs of communities.

This policy brief was written by David Souter from Panos London, UK.