Yesterday I stumbled again upon one of these small scale appropriate ICT initiatives that are put forward by another young entrepreneur. These, mostly young people from developed countries, have good intentions and good ideas and a personal drive to bring alternative ICT solutions to Africa. Nice International is one of these initiatives.

As stated on their website, NICE has the mission to unleash the potential of people in developing countries through powering ICT with sustainable energy. To do this, they have developed a concept that is based on three components: sustainable energy, an ICT infrastructure, and value added services. The solar panel forms the foundation for a computer center with an ICT-infrastructure consisting of a number of linux based thin clients, connected to a central server. In the larger centers they also install a flatscreen TV with a home cinema and dvd system. Value added services like computer courses, the ‘cinema’ and small website building need to make the technology investment sustainable.

The combination of the ICT component with the solar power makes the project interesting. Most of the ICT initiatives, especially in the rural areas and slums of the larger town, suffer from the frequent power outages. This easily drives the potential users away, especially with disappears during one of the Africa Cup or Premier League matches.

Except from the solar component, the NICE International solution stays close the traditional telecenter approach. This approach has been challenged a lot over the past couple of years because few of the telecenters survive after the donor stops the funding. The NICE initiative is prone to the same problem.

In order to survive, telecenter-like projects will have innovate or offer services in areas where ICT penetration and internet access is very rare. The focus countries as mentioned on their website are all countries that have relatively good IT and internet penetration. The challenging countries like DR Congo, Central African Republic, Cameroon etc are left aside. The director Ties Kroezen stated that he has no intention targeting these really challenging countries.

Then only innovation can help the project survive!

In a time where it is expected that soon the majority of people in Africa will have smartphones (see this interesting article in TechCrunch), traditional telecenters will even have a more difficult task to survive. Potential clients stay away because they now respond to their Facebook friends on their smart phones. At the same time this new situation also holds the key to innovation. Smartphones will have to integrated in the concept. Electric charging alone – as stated in the website – is not enough. More innovative ideas like using the center’s wireless connection for mobile gaming or supporting low cost international calls will determine the success.

Entrepreneurial drive alone is not enough for appropriate ICT innovations in Africa. In-depth knowledge about success and failure factors of ICT in the African context and the willingness to learn from the experiences of others will determine success of these projects. In this way the impact of the projects will be as high as they deserve to be and the people at base of the pyramid will benefit.

UPDATE: Solar-Computer-Lab-in-a-Box is another solar-powered initiative worth looking at