Letter from Jeff Cochrane, USAID, 24 June 1999
I confess I do find Uganda one of the most difficult countries in which to work. Starting Sunday afternoon and then from about 5pm each day thereafter I was forced to partake in an unending stream of Uganda's local beers with a host of good friends and superb conversation, which made my usual quiet time in the evenings typing reports unsuitable for anything but sleep. Fortunately, they don't allow my friends into the airport departure lounge...
I was fascinated by a remarkable innovation at one of Uganda's new telecenters, funded in large measure by Acacia with contributions from the local community and one of the country's big cell phone providers -- yes, there is cell phone competition in Uganda! Everyone spends their spare time complaining about which one is better, threatening to switch. If only my friends in Ethiopia had such complaints... 8*)
Ah yes, about that innovation...
Charles Musisi, now transformed from Internet pioneer to successful international consultant and small businessman with an office and several employees, collected me in Entebbe. We drove just outside of Kampala, off the main road and up a small hill through a modest community of banana traders and small dry goods shops. The dirt road wound past a small school and small homes to the peak of the hill with a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside and Kampala center.
In a cleared grassy area at the top was a small building with perhaps 10 rooms, all in a row and opening to the outdoors as is the fashion in countries with mild climates -- Kampala has a superb climate by the way, never really cold or hot. Half of the rooms housed local community government offices. The other half were donated to the telecenter. In one small room was a VCR and color television playing CNN, but to be used for showing informational videos to community groups. In another was a photocopy and fax machine. Outside along the corridor between the telecenter rooms and the local government rooms was a place for future installation of wireless card phones to be installed by the cell phone company.
The room at the end was bigger than the rest, extending out from both sides of the rectangle like the letter T. It housed I think five late-model computers, one acting as a server to the rest on a local area network, and connected dialup to a local Internet service provider.
There were perhaps three people crowded around each computer, all busily typing in notes or studying screen displays, speaking in hushed voices, all quite intent. We asked the center manager about these people, and he explained that they were all volunteers from the surrounding community, a middle- to low-income suburb of Kampala. In return for excellent access to the computers themselves, they agreed to help others in their community who visit the telecenter for access to information on CDs, surfing the Net, or sending and receiving email.
An apprenticeship program. The paid manager trains volunteers who in turn train their neighbors on computer usage. Seems like a simple thing, but in my experience it is often these simple administrative innovations that make the technology truly affordable and accessible.
The manager looks to be quite a dynamic fellow. His further innovations will likely make or break this telecenter from the point of view of sustainability. He's already talking about marketing strategies and a big kick-off gala opening. He lobbied me intensively for additional support as we walked to Charles' car. I suggested we might think about some of USAID's partners such as primary schools and health clinics becoming customers of the telecenter.
The center only opened its doors two weeks ago. They are expecting a grand opening shortly, once the volunteers are well trained.
After another briefing for USAID in Kampala, and a further sampling of the Grand Imperial's fermented liquids, I retired to Entebbe by speedy taxi on the excellent new road, now a 45 minute trip that used to take as much as two hours depending on traffic.
I thought about collecting my email from the hotel room at the Lake Victoria, but unfortunately they've not quite got their software configured for automated billing to take advantage of the new fiber optic lines and digital exchange linking Entebbe to Kampala. New roads, new lines... what will Uganda think of next?!?
Staff were kind enough to allow me to connect to a line in the office switchboard room, however, and I've no doubt on my next visit there will be Internet access through the rooms for IPASS and through the business center for visitor access to Infocom.
SETA Corporation Senior Analyst