Sunday, July 27, 2008

Making ICT more relevant and practical for SMEs in rural areas

Many development practitioners and researchers – including Papua New Guinea - have traditionally regarded the area of communication either as a technical field, or as a means of "delivering messages" and not so much as a tool for enterprise development.
Yet, these assumptions are increasingly questioned, as media and communication tools become more accessible to marginalised people, particularly those in micro and small enterprises in rural areas.
Rural areas such as Memyamya in Morobe province, Marawaka in Eastern Highlands province, Oksapmin in Sandaun province, Karimui in Chimbu province, Kaintiba in Gulf province, and the list goes on and on.
We have to find ways of making Information and Communications Technology (ICT) more relevant and practical for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in rural areas. Information and Communications Technology can also be used as a powerful weapon in the battle against the scourge of HIV/AIDS that is sweeping the world, including Papua New Guinea, where it now threatens the very livelihood of our people.
Examples can be found in uses of participatory video, community radio, print media such as newspapers and magazines, theatre-for-development, music, Internet, community television, and mobile phones and many other various forms of media.
These are used all over Papua New Guinea but have not been harnessed as much as a tool for enterprise development.
The technology is already there to take Internet to the rural areas of our country, such as Very Short Aperture Terminal (VSATs), but for reasons known to themselves; those in authority seem to be working at a snail’s pace to let our rural areas see the light of ICT. We have to make ICT affordable and accessible for our people or they will continue to remain in the dark.
All over this increasingly-globalised world, a massive Information Revolution is taking place as economies use ICT as a passport to what economists call the “New Economy”.
Papua New Guinea will continue to remain light years behind the rest of the world if we do not jump on the ICT bandwagon in this globalised world.
Success in this globalised world is predicated on ICT knowledge and successful knowledge-based economies will be based on the efficient and widespread use of ICT by all sectors within any given country.
On the other hand, an increasing number of development projects on promoting mass media for development, such as the International Labour Organisation’s Business Development Services (BDS) Zambia project, are beginning to demonstrate creative and innovative ways of unleashing the power of mass media for accelerating market information services and creating relevant and accessible social dialogue platforms for lobbying for enabling small business environments. Leap-frogging technologies such as mobile Short Messaging Services (SMS) are enabling Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs) in rural areas to access market information and opportunities in real time.
We only need to look within our own country to see the massive improvements in accessing market information and opportunities in real time since the introduction of mobile phone competition through Digicel.
There are real life stories of farmers, fishermen, artisans, PMV owners, trade store operators and many more seeing marked improvements in developing markets through their mobile phones.
The days of yodelling over the mountaintops to broker barter of goods is long over and our rural areas must also reap the benefits of the massive Information Revolution that is sweeping the globe.
Journalists also have a very important role in disseminating information to the bulk of our people in the rural areas rather than the bread-and-butter “shock and horror” stories. The BDS Zambia project has been facilitating the capacity building of mass media and target MSEs in a few ways:
* Building the capacity of media to deliver market information services that are relevant and practical to MSMEs in rural and urban communities;
* Training and sensitising journalists on role of media in promoting access to service and commodity markets, creating a business enabling environment and promoting an entrepreneurial culture;
* Promoting a community journalism culture among farming communities to talk back to the media and make their views on access to services, information, markets known. And in turn, promote sustainable social enterprises whose business models thrive on harnessing a market of satisfied audiences;
* Enhance their participation in social dialogue processes and bottom-up communication on issues that concern micro-enterprise and community development, particularly at local government level by empowering Micro Small Medium Enterprise (MSME) rural and urban business communities to support and work with media that addresses their specific needs;
* Helping people in small businesses on how to cope with AIDS through relevant and practical information materials such as the HIV and AIDS Handbook for Entrepreneurs in Zambia. The project has produced short videos highlighting the lessons and experiences of the ILO Business Development Services project in Zambia, working with media to facilitate information services for micro and small enterprises in rural markets.
Perhaps Papua New Guinea can take a leaf out of Zambia’s book as we ponder the future of ICT in our beloved country.

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