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Internet project brings hope to rural areas

Tuesday, 06 May 2008


Sakhile High School in Peebles Valley now has internet access thanks to the FMFI mesh network

Bordering the Kruger National Park in the Mpumalanga Province is the small rural town of Peebles Valley. Subject to extreme poverty and inadequate resources, few would believe that clinics, schools, farms and modest homes of Peebles Valley have access to the World Wide Web

Peebles Valley is an example of the success of the First Mile First Inch (FMFI) project.  Co-ordinated by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) Meraka Institute, the project is aimed at economically empowering rural communities and bridging social barriers through the use of low cost wireless connectivity.

Launched in 2003, FMFI challenged the telecommunication industry’s notion that the final line of connectivity that brings the internet to its users is the ‘last mile’.  FMFI suggested that the user should be the basis of internet infrastructure; hence the term ‘first mile’. ‘First inch’ refers to the need for applications that are easy to use by the communities they are designed to assist.

The desire to address the needs of rural communities led the FMFI team to begin establishing a mesh network in 2005, that would transform internet availability in Peebles Valley. The main hub of the network is based at the Valley’s AIDS Care Training and Support (ACTS) Clinic, with connectivity distributed across the valley. Today the ACTS Clinic, the Hospice, an NGO, a high school and some farms and homes all have access to the net.

Similar projects have been launched in other parts of Southern Africa, with the assistance of FMFI’s partners in Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.  The projects have particularly focused on bringing telecommunications technology to schools and health care centres.

Principal Researcher at the CSIR Chris Morris says the success of FMFI is visible through significant user uptake and behavioural use of ICT.

Some of FMFI’s successes include the introduction of interactive learning in rural schools in Mozambique as scholars share resources and information with other schools across the internet.

Clinics in rural areas of the Transkei in the Eastern Cape have become connected to each other via a network and can now share information on diagnosis, referrals and patient history.

“People often question the sense in putting PCs on the tables of people who don’t even have food but when we speak to these communities we can safely say that the internet provides hope; it paves a way for the success of future generations. This is really for the benefit of the youth,” says Morris.

Morris says the next step in the FMFI projects is to see communities take ownership of the technology. “The idea is to help local communities build their own networks and develop a business model for village-based telecommunications companies.”

At the launch of FMFI, part of the CSIR’s objective was to demonstrate to African government leaders and policy makers that internet connectivity for rural areas was viable, important and can be achieved at a low-cost.  It is hoped that these decision makers will support the sustainability and scalability of the project and drive the growth of community based ICT projects through Africa.

For more information on FMFI visit their official website .  

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