"The Internet, which I can fairly describe as the first wonder of the most modern world, stands out as the leading source of information in terms of speed of retrieving and distributing data. The fact that one can go around the world on his/her computer knocking at every door he/she wishes will make acquiring and understanding global issues easier."

Deodatus Chailunga, Zambian student studying in the US.
E-mail message quoted from the Canadian International Development Agency report "The village well, or What happened to us on the Internet while we were planning something else" by Gerry Kenney and Kim Hend. July, 1996.

Who's doing what and where?

The range of locally initiated Internet services in developing countries is remarkable. Many of these services have emerged with little or no external support, and many have become viable commercial services or not-for-profit services operated by NGOs. A large number of these Internet services have been around for almost a decade, coming into existence years before most donor agencies recognized any potential in the Internet as a development tool. Today, however, many international development agencies and international NGOs are finding ways to assist in the development and strengthening of local Internet services, infrastructure and information providers.

The list of these agencies is long. Notable examples include:

Along with the larger agencies working in this field, there are several NGOs which specialize in providing Internet services to NGOs, governments, educational institutions, healthcare organizations and other parts of civil society in developing (and developed) countries. Examples include:

Despite the wide range of organizations supporting Internet services and applications in developing countries, obtaining accurate and up-to-date information on these activities is difficult. Donor agencies and project staff are not communicating about their initiatives very well. Despite the obvious potential of the Internet for sharing information on Internet projects, there is no single source that enables interested parties to quickly access information on specific projects, country activities and donor agency strategies and plans. As a result, the lessons being learned are being lost. Leaders in the donor agency community must remedy this problem soon to ensure that lessons learned are shared and that interested parties can quickly and easily identify opportunities for collaboration and for using Internet services and applications in developing countries. The Bellanet secretariat is making a good start on this, but until the maze of donor agencies and project teams begins to make concerted efforts to contribute to Bellanet's databases, there will still be a lack of coordination and sharing of ideas among programmes.

How did the Internet become such a decentralized "people's network"?

The Internet was conceived in 1963 by Larry Roberts while he was working for the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) with funding from the United States Department of Defence (Negroponte, 1995). The fact that, at its essence, the Internet is a human relationship enhancement tool is reflected in its history, and the very human relationships of its early developers.

ARPAnet, as it was called in the beginning, emerged as a communication tool in the late 1960s for a handful of Defence workers and contractors. It was designed as a fundamentally decentralized network in order to be a fail-safe communication system. Computers could send packets of information from one computer to another, across the United States, and those packets could travel through a variety of different routes to reach their destination. If one or several routes were destroyed or malfunctioning, the packets would find alternative routes and eventually reach their destinations.

The wife of one of the ARPAnet engineers was hearing impaired. To communicate with her while he was at the office and she was at home, the engineer used a telephone attachment that was then commonly used in the United States. A telephone text messaging device (TTY) enabled him and his wife to converse through text messages sent through the telephone system. This relationship enhancing tool influenced the engineer to incorporate text messaging between people (not just between computers) as a feature of ARPAnet (Brummel, 1995). This feature became known as electronic mail or e-mail, and now millions of e-mail messages cries-cross the globe every day. As a result of one person's positive experience with a similar relationship enhancing tool, what was initially a tool for computers to talk to computers became a tool for enhancing relationships.

ARPAnet grew during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s because new "nodes" and routes were added to reach university researchers. As a wider community of faculty members and students outside the Department of Defence began to use the tool, electronic mail quickly gained popularity across university and college campuses in North America. Because it was a decentralized network, there was little way to control its popular expansion, and it soon transcended its Department of Defence mentors.

The Internet today is a peoples' network. Anyone with basic computer equipment and a phone line can connect to it, communicate through it, host information on it, and look through it. Unlike many other media, such as television and radio, every user of the medium can be an information producer and knowledge sharer. No one knows for sure how many people are using the Internet today, but estimates range from 50 to 100 million people, and it is growing fast. In countries such as Thailand, Internet use is growing at a current rate of close to 1 000 percent per year.

The Internet is essentially millions of people connected together via millions of computers that are connected together. By now, almost everyone who reads this paper will know something about the Internet, but not everyone will know quite what it is or what it represents. There are at least five million information-containing computers serving information to the millions and millions of Internet users. Each of those five million computers may contain thousands, or hundreds of thousands of pages of information. If current trends continue, there will be over 100 million computers connected to the Internet by the year 2000 (Carroll and Broadhead, 1995). Any one of those computers linked to the Internet might support one individual or thousands of individuals, together with the wealth of information they can contribute to the Internet.

There are two powerful tools that form the basis of the Internet. The earliest on the scene, and still the most popular, is e-mail. Using a simple address to guide them, e-mail messages jump from computer to computer, rapidly finding their way to their recipients. The more recent tool, and the one that has catapulted the Internet into popular culture, is the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is the part of the Internet where we are witnessing the emergence of a vast global library of information.

Electronic publishing of information on the World Wide Web is much less expensive than print publication. It is also very easy to become a provider of information on the World Wide Web and have people use your information almost instantaneously from virtually any location in the world. As a result, the World Wide Web is propagated with information on every subject imaginable. In fact, an Internet user who wants to publish a work can do so for little or no money and make that work available around the globe. The World Wide Web is in its infancy, having only been developed in 1994, yet only three years after its birth it is one of the most popular information sharing tools in the world. Use of the World Wide Web is growing at a rate of 25 percent per month and it is estimated that some 100 to 400 new information sites are established on the World Wide Web each week (Carroll and Broadhead, 1995).

Prior to the World Wide Web, Internet users were limited to e-mail communication and cumbersome methods for retrieving files of information from other computers. The World Wide Web changed that quite dramatically. Now we can retrieve information, documents, and a wide variety of audiovisual material simply by pointing and clicking. We do not even have to know the location of the computer from which we retrieve information. We just click on a highlighted word, or a picture, and within moments a document is transported to the screen in front of us. Some argue that the Internet's World Wide Web is humanity's second major communication revolution, the first being the Gutenburg Press in 1439 (Burke and Ornstein, 1995).

Compared to the costs of using telephones or faxes, communicating and sharing information using e-mail or the World Wide Web can be hundreds of times less expensive. Because information flows through the Internet in discrete packets of digital bits, those packets are able to share telecommunication lines with hundreds of other packets. Where a traditional transatlantic telephone call will tie up a single phone line for only two people, an e-mail message can travel along a phone line with hundreds and even thousands of other messages. Some creative computer software developers have even made use of this feature of the Internet to create Internet telephone services that allow users to speak with other users around the globe, while completely avoiding long distance phone charges.

Twelve common elements

Twelve common elements can be identified among successful rural and agricultural Internet communication and information systems:

  1. Preliminary participatory communication and information needs assessments with intended users.
  2. Awareness building campaigns designed to sensitize decision makers to the possible uses of Internet services.
  3. Executing agency commitment to participatory rural and agricultural development.
  4. Local "champions" identified and supported.
  5. Open participation of user community in design, implementation and management of communication and information services.
  6. Institutional and user commitment to manage and sustain Internet services.
  7. Involvement of the full community of users, including women and youth.
  8. Ongoing provision for technical training, user support and outreach within the user community.
  9. Combination of centralized and decentralized information production, analysis and distribution.
  10. Ongoing provision for technical support and system maintenance/ upgrading.
  11. User community financial commitment in communication and information systems (e.g. ownership of hardware, user fees, salaries, infrastructure, etc.).
  12. Social service orientation of local private sector or not-for-profit (university or NGO) Internet service providers.

Local private sector or not-for-profit Internet service providers tend to be able to operate efficiently and profitably while providing customers with reasonable service prices. They are able to quickly troubleshoot and solve service problems, they can access capital through investment and credit (not as easily obtained with government-focused or donor agency services), and they are able to offer strong local user support, customer troubleshooting (often with house calls), and local training. Because they are dependent upon customer revenue for profitability, they are likely to respond quickly to customer needs and demands. Government operated ISPs tend to be less able to meet customer needs and are often less responsive because they have other sources of support than customer fees. Local private sector and not-for-profit ISPs also contribute to the local economy and stimulate local interest in telecommunication through personal contacts and relationships.

A model initiative: the Mexicali experience -FAO/farmer partnership

"Building a network is a piece of cake... putting people together to use one is difficult"
Marco A. Pena, technical support manager, CETYS Universidad, Mexicali, Mexico discussing his contribution to a FAO supported Internet service for farm organizations (personal communication, June, 1995.

One small FAO supported initiative that exhibits the above elements is in Mexicali, Mexico. In 1994, as part of FAO's Latin American communication for development effort, community animators initiated an extensive participatory communication and information needs assessment among six hundred local farmers and their organizations The results indicated that farmers strongly desired an improved communication system, and local leaders required a better management communication system for organizing activities and for agricultural and irrigation planning among 23 local organizations The farmers also wanted better methods for general communication and information sharing to assist in the planning of current and future work and activities. One strategy that they proposed was a computer-based communication system that would provide for both horizontal and vertical communication.

In the Fall of 1995, 90 farm organization representatives took part in a workshop on development communication where plans were developed for an Internet based computer communication system. Most equipment would be purchased and owned by the farmers' organizations and preliminary technical support would be provided by a local private technical university (CETYS) already offering commercial and not-for-profit Internet services in the region. A communication for development expert from FAO provided initial logistical coordination and technical backstopping for the first nine months of the initiative. A computer network server was installed at the university and each farmer organization was issued an account for dial-in access to a small pool of three modems connected to the server. By June of 1996, 12 farmers' organizations were connected and using the system, several World Wide Web information services were available, and plans were being made to improve the system and involve all 23 farmers' organizations in the Rio Colorado Valley. Existing users make use of e-mail on a daily basis, and submit daily reports on irrigation quotas and planting activities to the local irrigation water authority.

Current plans include providing a directory of each farmer organization, its membership, its agricultural activities and production figures, and information about local conditions. Much of this information will be gathered through electronic mail, and retrievable through an Internet World Wide Web site. The farmers are proud of their community and its history, so they decided to organize a photography contest to collect historical photographs of the region and its agricultural heritage to place on their World Wide Web homepage. They are planning to post their newsletters on the homepage as well, and hope to provide easy access to locally relevant market and weather information. Links will soon be made with the Technical Information and Communication Unit (TICU) (another FAO supported initiative in Sonora, Mexico) to expand access to TlCU's market information bulletin (currently distributed in Sonora by fax) (Fraser, 1996) by placing bulletin information on the CETYS University server for access throughout Mexico and the world (personal communication with Emilio Canton, FAO-Mexico).

These farmers' organizations have proven that Internet communication and information services are practical and beneficial when developed with full participation of users. While the system has a long way to go in order to develop further applications and enhance user involvement with new applications, it is already attracting significant interest within the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture and other farmer organizations in Mexico. For example, Assistance and Services for Agricultural Marketing (ASERCA) is investigating the Mexicali experience in order to develop strategies for expanding farmer access to electronic information services related to marketing and the development of national and international trading links. There are even plans for developing an electronic trading system for agricultural products and services. The development communication approach used to form the Mexicali system is the key to its initial success and its future sustainability. Using this approach has enabled the organizational leaders to fully understand the value of the system and its applications, and led to the farmers' decision to take ownership of the infrastructure and network development.

The Chilean experience: starting with small producers and their needs

In Chile, FAO's Communication for Development in Latin America Project (GCP/RLA/114/ITA) is pioneering a participatory approach to the development of Internet information and communication networks among the farmer organizations of small-scale producers. These networks provide farmer organizations with data on crops, international crop status and market timing, prices, market conditions (regional, national, international), weather, technical and training information, and information about the various organizations that support their work. The users also have full access to the Internet to find other information relevant to their lives and communities (e.g. health, social service, education, etc.), and they can use electronic mail to communicate with other farm organizations in Chile, as well as any of the millions of people using the global Internet.

The most important aspect of this initiative is its specific attention to local information needs assessments, and provision of assistance to farm organization personnel to help them develop the skills necessary to analyse and disseminate information that is locally relevant. This methodology emerged from previous development communication experiences using small format video, print media and rural radio (described previously in section 3.1). It is very likely the most user oriented approach to developing Internet services in the developing world, and it is focused on rural and remote agricultural communities that would normally have little opportunity to access the benefits of Internet tools.

Small information centres are located within the offices of farmer organizations and NGOs, and some of these offices are beginning to open up their Internet resources to non-agricultural community members such as youth groups and social service agencies. The network of users is currently small (five organizations and may become a model for the development of a much wider network within Chile, and, with some external assistance, throughout Latin America.

Much of the information available through the Chilean network is useful to other Spanish speaking Internet users (the same is true for the Mexican initiatives discussed above). Indeed, after only a few weeks "on-line", the statistics generated for the Chilean World Wide Web site show that within a one month period, there were over 1 000 "hits" (Internet jargon for the number of accesses) from Latin Americans outside of Chile, and a further 1 000 hits from Internet users everywhere from Europe and North America to Asia and Australia. The site is now listed on the popular "Yahoo" Internet index, and is accessible through comprehensive keyword searches on various Internet search tools.

The Chilean experience provides a model for an integrated approach to Internet service development that is sustainable and can be replicated in other regions of Latin America and the world. It clearly combines horizontal communication with vertical communication.

Other experiences

The Mexican and Chilean experiences are unique examples of using a communication for development approach to create horizontal and vertical communication systems for small producers and rural and remote communities. Throughout the other countries visited on the author's FAO fact-finding mission, it was generally observed that access to the Internet in rural and remote areas is emerging slowly. To their credit, many organizations in Africa, including FAO and its supported projects, are developing World Wide Web based information tools that may someday be of direct benefit to small producers and rural and remote communities. In Zambia and Zimbabwe, for example, FAO projects are busy developing Internet-based market information tools, household food security information systems, famine early warning systems and ether sophisticated tools to assist decision makers. These systems are developed primarily by researchers and policy making bodies to fulfill their own internal information needs. Thus far, links to the ultimate beneficiaries of these initiatives are weak.

In Africa, local and regional Internet service providers such as ZamNet (which also services the HealthNet project that connects rural health centres to the Internet), SangoNet, MangoNet, Enda-Dakar and Internet Africa, appear to be the only organizations with the tangible experience of providing Internet services to organizations and individuals in rural and remote areas. Their track records speak for themselves. They have managed to provide Internet services to many of the intermediary organizations that serve small producers, rural communities and agricultural organizations.

Many of the field officers of UN agencies and multilateral donor projects make use of electronic mail and Internet information services provided by these local services. The individuals who work within these Internet service providers tend to be extremely dedicated to their work and to improving Internet service in Africa. These services are "natural" examples of the horizontal and vertical communication channels essential to the integrated approach promoted in this paper.

Future Internet development activities for rural communities and farm organizations in Africa and Latin America ought to begin with the experiences and services of existing Internet service providers and existing user groups. There is a wealth of experience, talent, creativity and local understanding available, and development agencies would be wise to utilize these resources at every opportunity.