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Rural IT project progresses

Pilot ‘telecentres’ in undeveloped areas to help farmers connect to the Internet

FARMERS in 20 remote areas could find themselves surfing the Internet for facts about seeds and insecticide in the next few years, as a rural information and communications technology project gets under way.

Over the next three years, 20 pilot “telecentres” will be set up in the provinces of Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Cham and Kampong Thom to provide remote communities with a hub where they can access the Web to improve farming methods.

Government adviser Dr Roger Harris told the Post Monday that access to such information could help farmers decide which crops to grow and which pesticides to use, and help them understand how to add value to their goods or find the best markets to sell them.

“At each stage of production, information has a real part to play,” said Harris, who has 12 years of experience working with similar projects in Vietnam, India and Malaysia.

Together with Hum Sophon, managing director of the Cambodia Village Phone Company, Harris is in the process of analysing where and how to introduce telecentres.

The information hubs can cost as little as a few hundred dollars, for a basic computer centre, and up to US$15,000 for a state-of-the-art complex. Advisors for the programme hope the centres will run like franchises, with private investors running a profitable centre that won’t need funding when the project ends.

The $3.6 million scheme is being funded as part of Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) wider project to improve the Tonle Sap basin. Danish engineering consultancy NIRAS, which is working with the Ministry of Agriculture and the National ICT Developments Authority (NiDA), will coordinate the effort.

The team will face challenges along the way. One major question is how to create computer centers in un-electrified communities, where connectivity is limited.

Harris said computers could be connected to the Web via satellite, using Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs). VSATs are so compact they can be carried in backpacks, but they can provide communities with wireless connections to the Internet. Solar panels and generators could power the computers, Harris said.

“But providing access is only one part of the story,” he said, speaking at his office in the Ministry of Agriculture. “The other half is making the Internet relevant to the average Cambodian farmer.

“We want to make telecentres sustainable,” he said. “They cannot survive by providing agricultural information alone.”

Project advisors hope that in the long run telecentres can help provide resources to aid rural education, health and enterprise development. Dr Harris pointed out that, in the future, local clinics could use telecenters to connect with major hospitals to provide remote diagnosis for hard-to-reach communities.

If the pilot projects prove successful, 80 centres will be rolled out nationwide. This would set up Cambodia to follow other Asian nations, such as India, where rural telecenters are widespread.

The Internet may not be the only solution to passing knowledge on to communities. Spreading information through community radio stations and the television could also help disseminate farming knowledge.

China’s ministry of agriculture, for example, broadcasts programmes about farming, Harris said. But whether such a scheme will be implemented in Cambodia is unclear.

“We are at the early stages of the project,” he said.

Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication, Moa Chakrya, said at a conference last week that studies on Internet access are also being carried out in northern and western provinces of Cambodia.

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