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Digital Deliverance

I enjoyed this story, because I felt it corrected a common assumption among journalists and commentators: that all technology deployed in the developing world to “assist” development is good, well thought out, and well-intentioned. My skepticism, however, didn’t seem to stop one of the companies mentioned here from trumpeting this piece as evidence they were doing the right thing.

Stefen Yauwanta

Digital deliverance — Asia’s technology conundrum

By Jeremy Wagstaff

27 July 2007

The Wall Street Journal Asia

Batu Hijau, Indonesia — From where David Rambet is sitting, the digital divide may not look very wide — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get to the other side.

Across from him sits a 50-something local man, Salamudin. Mr. Salamudin gave up farming in 2003 to act as an agent supplying construction materials to the U.S.-owned copper mine where Mr. Rambet works as a technology specialist. Mr. Rambet is trying to persuade his host to start using an Internet-based supply management system designed for PT Newmont Nusa Tenggara, which operates the mine on Sumbawa, an island in eastern Indonesia. The system, built by U.S.-based Quadrem International Ltd., shifts the cumbersome, paper-based supply process to a single Web-based system that both suppliers and Newmont can access from any Internet-ready computer.

Mr. Salamudin, who goes by a single name, is one reason 33-year-old Mr. Rambet’s project — getting all the suppliers based near the mine to use the Quadrem system — is already three months behind schedule. Mr. Salamudin is reluctant to ditch his mobile office based on a cellphone and an ink stamp, used to authenticate documents, for the uncertain benefits of a new computer center Newmont built for suppliers like him to use that will soon be up and running.

“Three months is quite long, but it should be OK,” says Mr. Rambet, who comes from the Indonesian province of Papua, trying to appear confident. “We can do this.” Mr. Salamudin sits upright, his hands by his side. “Yes,” he says, less enthusiastically. “We have to.”

Mr. Salamudin’s reluctance illustrates one of the key problems of the digital divide — the split, largely along economic lines, between those who have the means to access and use computing technology and those who don’t: It isn’t always enough to give people access to a computer and a fast Internet connection.

In Mr. Salamudin’s case, it’s about persuading him to abandon a low-tech but effective way of doing business. At the moment, Mr. Salamudin usually relies on Newmont staff calling him when a supply order is ready, but he concedes that isn’t always easy because he keeps having to change his phone number and forgets to tell people the new one. “It’s true, I do keep losing my cellphone. That’s my problem,” he says, laughing in embarrassment.

Newmont’s supply-system project is typical of many around Asia — by the private sector, by governments, by grass-roots organizations and international agencies — that attempt to improve the lot of ordinary people by giving them access to technology. But some people are skeptical that top-down projects like this give the people what they really need. In particular, can the dreams of big organizations really match the needs of ordinary individuals, especially when, as is often the case, those individuals aren’t asked what it is that they actually want? The digital divide often reflects wider social issues, and bridging it may represent little more than applying a Band-Aid to a deep-rooted problem.

“People want technology that is easy to use and serves a definite purpose,” says Savita Bailur of the information systems group at the London School of Economics’s department of management. “Many critics say that development agencies have focused too much on the information aspect of technology rather than the communication aspect.”

Mr. Salamudin’s cellphone headaches aren’t his only problem. When asked if he has a computer, he says he rents one. When Mr. Rambet asks if he can see it, Mr. Salamudin gets on his motorbike and leads him past the mine to another town, a 15-minute drive away. There, in a tiny kiosk containing two aging computers and a stack of broken printers, Mr. Salamudin shows how he processes his orders — by having the owner transcribe his scrawled notes into a computer, then print them. Since the kiosk has no phone line or Internet connection, Mr. Salamudin gets back on his bike and takes the printouts to another kiosk a few minutes away, which then faxes them to Newmont. When asked whether he has an email account, Mr. Salamudin says he has, but later admits he doesn’t use it.

Newmont has managed to convert many of the hundreds of its suppliers that are off Sumbawa or outside Indonesia altogether, all of them well-established businesses, to the system. But most suppliers near the mine itself, largely former farmers like Mr. Salamudin, have yet to sign up. Winning them over would improve efficiency, and that, Newmont hopes, could help with the company’s goal of improving sometimes fractious relations with the local community. “Instead of trying to be some big bully mining company, the idea is to try to make sure everyone benefits,” says Peter Ferrigno, purchasing manager at Newmont and Mr. Rambet’s boss. Among those benefits, Newmont says, is making the community more literate in information technology.

But it isn’t just Mr. Salamudin who is proving a tough sell. The computer center, a purpose-built hut just outside the Newmont gates with eight shiny Dell desktop computers, cubicles and chairs that are still covered in plastic, has just been finished, but its computers are so far unused and Mr. Rambet is frustrated that he cannot yet establish a network connection to the ordering system. As of last month, there was one supplier in the towns and villages around the mine already using the system: a ramshackle compound consisting of a shed and an office made from shipping containers. In fact, the company turns out to be the local subsidiary of a Brisbane-based welding company, and its general manager, Astrada Barnazs, hails from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Neither is Mr. Barnazs particularly happy with the new system: “It takes me more than an hour to process an order,” he says, as he stares at the screen waiting for the dial-up connection to complete. Before, when he processed orders by fax, “it took me 45 minutes.”

Newmont isn’t alone in finding that bridging the digital divide is more complicated than building a system. Take Indonesia’s Open University, for example, built on the outskirts of Jakarta in 1984 to provide distance learning for those who couldn’t study full time. Tian Belawati, vice rector for academic affairs, has built an impressive Web site full of supplementary course and reference materials for her 400,000 students. But less than a quarter of those students have used the Web site. “The response of the students has not been encouraging,” she says, as she scrolls down through the meager proportion of students who have accessed online modules. Some are empty.

Part of the problem is that most of Ms. Belawati’s students are schoolteachers working in far-flung villages, nowhere near an Internet cafe. But that isn’t the whole story. She also learned in a survey five years ago that nearly half her students weren’t using online materials because they were unsure about how to use email. Her conclusion: Students need to be prepared mentally for the digital age. “We need to educate them first,” she says.

Indeed, the problem of the digital divide is often that the divide itself isn’t only digital. When U.S. researchers, mostly from Princeton University, tried to improve education to rural India by distributing DVD recordings of teachers, they ran into problems they hadn’t anticipated: differing levels of student ability, different languages used by the teachers, and winning over teachers and officials who were suspicious of the initiative and protective of their turf. Their lesson? Technology may be only part of the answer — and not a very big part. Other factors play a big role such as education and an understanding that the new technology won’t eliminate jobs. “There’s definitely a tech component, but 70% to 80% of the work is setting up the correct social structure that actually maximizes the benefits,” says Kentaro Toyama of Bangalore-based Microsoft Research India, which has supported the project.

That’s not to say technology isn’t the answer. But which technology? In 1998, India invested half a million dollars in a project to connect 40,000 farmers in Maharashtra state via 54 Internet kiosks. When a Microsoft researcher, Rajesh Veeraraghavan, visited the villages last year he was surprised to find that the kiosks were still working. Only they weren’t fulfilling their goals of providing farmers with Internet access, accurate market price information, automated land records or access to agricultural experts. With little online content to interest them and their concerns less about market prices and more about storing and transporting their goods to market, farmers had ended up using the kiosks as pesticide stores and the computers as places to simply record their sugarcane harvests and fertilizer usage.

This wasn’t a bad solution, mused Mr. Veeraraghavan, but it was costly and inefficient. The computers were breaking down, sucked up power and still required the farmers to make a trip to the kiosk to check their information. What if the PCs could be replaced by cellphones? Seven months on and seven villages have replaced their dusty PCs with a single smart phone, stored in the main village, that serves as a gateway to accept and transmit data to and from the farmers, who can now check how much sugarcane they have in the warehouse via SMS. It isn’t a solution for everyone, but it works for those who don’t need to access or record vast spreadsheets of figures. “This is an interesting model,” says Mr. Veeraraghavan, “for where the data needs are small.”

Rohana the vegetable seller, JakartaIndeed, there’s a tendency to think that the Internet and computers are the only technological bridges across the digital divide. But both are still expensive and inaccessible compared with the ubiquity and price of a cellphone. In a place like Indonesia, where landlines have long been expensive and hard to come by, and many people eke out a living by peddling goods or services on the street, the cellphone has become the perfect business tool. Take Rohana, a vegetable vendor in south Jakarta whose year-old cellphone now allows her to take orders from customers before she goes to the morning market, meaning they get them a day earlier. Or Abdul Majid, a 54-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, who bought a cellphone two months ago, and for a little over $1 a month is now able to take bookings by phone call or SMS. Thousands of builders, tailors, toy sellers and other microentrepreneurs across Indonesia now rely on cellphones.

All this is done on inexpensive phones using their most basic features: voice and short message. But that’s just the start. Companies such as credit-card company Visa see the cellphone as the future for how we pay for things, by swiping the phone over a reader, for example. “We see the mobile phone as a ubiquitous necessity and people using it in more and more ways,” says Rahul Khosla, an executive vice president of Visa Asia Pacific.

In fact, the cellphone is already being used as a kind of banking tool. Most Indonesians use prepaid cellphone vouchers to top up their credit, activated by entering 16-digit codes into their phones. Some prisoners dependent on cash to get by in the country’s jails have turned this into a form of currency. Instead of spending money and time traveling often from remote locations to the jail, relatives and friends SMS the 16-digit prepaid code to the inmate, who passes the code onto another inmate in exchange for cash, less a discount, one former inmate says. Outside prison the idea is catching on: Indonesian Internet guru Budi Rahardjo, noticing his 15-year-old daughter was accepting prepaid credit for helping her friends with their homework, has decided to adopt the same approach by accepting donations on his blog in the form of prepaid cellphone credit. Similarly, Filipinos in Malaysia, for instance, can also remit money to friends and family back home via cellphone services provided by a tie-up between Malaysian and Philippine phone providers. Even easier to use, since it doesn’t require the recipient to set up an account, is a service from London-based Mukuru Ltd., which allows people to send vouchers — 10-digit codes transmitted by SMS — to friends and relatives in troubled Zimbabwe. Those people can then immediately redeem the vouchers for specific items (right now, for fuel, money and TV subscriptions) at certain outlets.

As cellphones get smarter and connection speeds faster, expect to see more of this kind of thing. But it isn’t enough for everyone. It isn’t possible, or convenient, to do everything the Internet offers on a small mobile phone screen. And as developing countries grow, so do their appetites for access. Most companies, organizations and governments focus on the digital divide at the bottom: Qualcomm Inc., a U.S. wireless equipment maker, for example, has invested in two projects to build impressive telecenters for schools in Sumatra and central Java, providing them with desktop computers and fast Internet connections. The two projects were opened with some fanfare last year: Two ministers flew by special jet to a nearby military airfield to open the Sumatran telecenter, those attending the opening said, rather than endure a bone-jarring 12-hour ride to and from the nearest airport. (The other was opened by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.)

For some technology activists, this sort of project, trying to dramatically improve the technological lot of a few, misses the point. For one thing, such projects need to be sustainable; once the funding has dried up, those using the system need to be able to make enough money from it to keep it going. One solution in Sri Lanka, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is the “telecenter in a box,” where entrepreneurs share the risk of setting up kiosks and charge people for using the computers to make cheap Internet calls to relatives overseas or access information online. Singapore-based Tony Nash, who heads the project, says it’s not about giving people technology as much as “giving a business model to entrepreneurs.”

In Indonesia, the digital divide is most obvious not in the boondocks but among the middle class, those families earning, say, $500 a month or more. For them, going to an Internet cafe or accessing email at the office is no longer enough. They can afford a low-cost computer, which might be about $250 to $300, but not Internet access. A combination of government red tape and restricted competition means reliable access remains out of reach of most pockets, with fees of $80 a month common. In the suburbs of many towns, the Internet is nonexistent or accessible only by costly, slow and unreliable dial-up connections.

One solution can be found in a ramshackle home in a run-down suburb of Jakarta, where computer teacher and handyman Stefen Yauwanta is in his front yard rigging up a wireless antenna from a wok, some PVC tubing, aluminum foil, a long cable and a USB Wi-Fi dongle, a small, thumb-shaped device containing a Wi-Fi receiver. This he attaches to a 10-meter pole and sets it up atop a neighbor’s roof. He points the dish toward his house, several streets away, where a mast protrudes into the sky. That mast is rigged to both receive a signal from an Internet service provider several kilometers away and to push the signal out again to share between Mr. Yauwanta’s dozen or so subscribers. The subscribers pay the cost of the dish (about $25) and a monthly fee: $33, compared with the $90 a month the only other cable provider in the area charges for unlimited access. (The legality of the practice is untested, but its operators liken it to a kind of wide-area Internet cafe.)

These wajan bolic (meaning “wok antenna”) networks have sprung up all over Indonesia, from commercial operations like Mr. Yauwanta’s to more socially oriented programs such as that of teacher Asep Ikhwan, who has set up a wireless network in his school in the hills of West Java. Onno Purbo, a technology writer and consultant who has helped popularize the wajan bolic, sees the unfunded initiative as one that more closely matches what Indonesians need than the more eye-catching projects of donors and governments: The access to information, learning and other people that the Internet brings. “What I see from the government and the World Bank and (United Nations Development Program) initiatives is that they seem to aim for their dreams rather than people’s needs,” he says. “What the Indonesian people need now is low-cost Internet access.”

BurhanBack in Sumbawa, Newmont’s Mr. Rambet is learning a similar lesson: Connectivity isn’t just digital. Across the street from the tiny kiosk Mr. Salamudin uses to transcribe his scrawled notes, Mr. Rambet is getting a more enthusiastic reception for his e-business project from another supplier, 31-year-old Burhan Nudin. Since arriving from the nearby island of Flores four years ago, Mr. Nudin has helped transform this village into a wild west town: Besides a warehouse full of photocopy paper he supplies to Newmont, he has with his wife built a mini empire there, including a beauty salon, a roadside restaurant and a souvenir shop. On the surface, the successful Mr. Nudin is excited about the possibilities of visiting the Newmont Internet center. But when he explains why, it’s clear he’s hoping it will fix a more pressing problem: The isolation he feels in this fast-growing town. “Over there,” he says, pointing toward the Newmont mine, “I can meet with other suppliers, I can interact with each others, I can check what are the things I should improve. In the office or at home, I’m on my own.”

Mr. Rambet is lukewarm on the idea, saying the facility isn’t an Internet cafe. But Mr. Nudin’s hopes point to the heart of the digital divide: That it’s often just part of a bigger problem. As Microsoft’s Mr. Toyama puts it: “Even the term ‘digital divide’ suggests that there is a divide that is purely digital in nature, and that somehow fixing the digital divide will solve all sorts of problems.” In fact, he says, “the divide itself is a symptom of other divisions that have always been there.”

Jeremy Wagstaff is a Jakarta-based writer.

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