Local Entrepreneurial Skills & Sustainability in Rwandas Community Internet Centers
The Telecenter Sustainability Challenge
Telecenters and their equivalents, whether they are called Community Internet Centers (CICs) in Rwanda or Community Learning and Information Centers (CLICs) in Mali, have emerged around developing countries under a wide range of different models. Whether they are entirely donor- funded and emphasize social benefits to the community or whether they are privately run based on business profit motivations, they are all likely to face sustainability challenges. The sustainability solutions are likely to be as varied as the models that have emerged as it is unlikely that a single sustainability solution can apply universally.
In Mali, the CLICs have enhanced their sustainability by getting together as an association. An article in the previous issue of the DOT-COMments newsletter mentioned capacity building efforts as well. In Rwanda, the Community Internet Centers (CICs) are following a business model. In that business environment, strong entrepreneurial skills are essential to move towards profitability and sustainability.
Practical Training Based on Local Experience and Proven Training Tools
In October 2004, a team of local entrepreneurs and an international consultant spent two weeks working together monitoring and evaluating progress in three Rwandan Community Internet Centers (CICs). The CICs were established as part of the Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) for Elections and Community Access Project. (Links to arlier articles about the CICs are listed at the bottom of this article)
Part of the first week was spent visiting three existing CICs to understand their daily challenges and successes in more depth. The second week was spent tailoring and delivering a business services workshop suited to the local needs of Rwandan CIC owners, managers and staff members.
Part of the training was delivered via a web-based (and local PC-based) software toolkit (www.SMEToolkit.org) created by the IFC/ World Bank for small and medium sized enterprises. Participants learned about financial management, accounting, sales, marketing, business planning, human resources and technology as it related to their business in their local economy.
Clearing the Road for Sustainability
The training activities included a chance for the local entrepreneurs to articulate the largest obstacles to doing business in Rwanda. Their list of obstacles included the following:
The group addressed all of these concerns and came away from the training with new solutions and new strategies. For example, three of the telecenters had been using batteries to keep their centers functional when the power would go out. This did have positive results. However, many of the outages outlasted the duration of the batteries charge, so one of the CICs had successfully implemented a generator to supplement the battery packs. This solution increased that CICs productivity more than 30%. The group discussed how to monitor productivity, link it to potential revenue and how to address related issues, such as how to fund new capital growth expenditures like a new generator.
The training participants prepared income statements for their businesses and discussed how to package that as a consulting service to other clients. The participants learned how to strategically create and implement a marketing plan. To illustrate certain marketing concepts, the group targeted Rwandan women as their first target market and created a plan to attract more women into their CICs.
The participants discussed the value of business planning and its elements, how to generate business ideas and how to determine which ones might be suitable revenue streams for the future (i.e. web development services, VoIP or voice over Internet, call center creation, financial services, digital photographs). The group learned how to create a dynamic, in-depth risk analysis to keep their finger on the pulse of a rapidly changing marketplace and how to make effective business decisions accordingly.
Evaluation of the Training and Follow up
Training participants rated the workshop as either Excellent or Very good and noted that the workshop was very relevant to their needs and interests. The participants found the business planning segment the most useful. In fact, one telecenters business plan was selected in Nov 2004 as a finalist in the Rwandan Private Sector Federation competition.
The next most useful segments of the training as determined by the class were marketing/sales and human resources. When asked about specific skills learned thanks to the workshop, some responses were, I learned how to attract new customers to my business and how to retain existing customers, Integrating excel spreadsheets into my day-to-day work , I learned via many practical examples, and I learned how to train others.
Other respondents added This training will help me (my business) act faster and more accurately and Now I can prepare business plans for business people in my district. As a result of using one of the excel tools, two of the telecenters reported 30% increases in operational productivity.
In terms of specific follow-up, Excel accounting and operations tools were put in place to monitor the availability of power and internet uptime. After having monitored this for one or two months, the CICs will be able to better understand their operational capacity trends and how to anticipate turning challenges into revenue and/or customer service opportunities. In addition, the CICs began using market research via questionnaires from their clients to better serve them in the future. This type of real-time feedback will allow the CICs to remain closer to their customers needs.
Finally, one participant added, This workshop is a must for anyone going into formal business. Seventy (70%) percent of the participants specifically requested follow-up training and support for their businesses for near-, medium- and long-term business planning.
Article by Michael Tetelman & James McKenna
AED, under the dot-ORG project, was awarded the Rwanda Project July 3, 2002 for a period of two years (Award No. G23-G-00-02-00056-00).