SOMETIMES, money can’t make problems go away.
In 1971, the Norwegian government made a generous donation of $22 million to Kenya. The funding would go to building a fish-processing plant on Lake Turkana in the hope of providing the residents with gainful employment.
The plant was up and running immediately after completion but was shut down after only a few days. Why?
What was meant to give work to the Turkana people through fishing and fish processing for export became a drain on finances. The cost to operate freezers was phenomenal and the demand for clean water in the Kenyan desert too high.
To add insult to injury, the Turkana people they were trying to help were desert nomads with no history of fishing or even eating fish.
Add this to the list of other failed development projects and too many times, you’ll see such funded projects around the world flopping because project-managers just don’t ask the right questions.
Which is what the Rural Informatics Team at Unimas did.
Bario, for all its isolation and remoteness, was the perfect testing ground for a daring project — e-Bario, comprising eight academics from various disciplines such as anthropology, cognitive science, community development, education, electrical engineering and computer science.
“The thrust of the e-Bario project was twofold — bring sustainable social and economic development to a remote community, and use Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to uplift the people’s well-being,” said Dr Alvin Yeo Wee, e-Bario project team leader and today, director of the Centre of Excellence for Rural Informatics (COERI).
It was 1998. Barring several weeks of travelling across rivers, valleys and mountain ridges, there was only one practical way to get to Bario — daily flight by Twin Otter.
Moreover, the remote community had no telephone or Internet access to Bario.
While the community had developed their own means of communication between Bario and the rest of Sarawak (including a tedious two-way radio service hookup), they would gather at the airport and wait for passengers to Kuching to deliver letters to loved ones. The urgency for speedy communication was essential.
“At this time, nobody thought about using satellite technology for rural areas,” Dr Yeo noted.
But they weren’t going headlong into it either without getting the community onboard first.
Although Bario was already familiar with Unimas from a previous biodiversity project, the community were still skeptical about the ICT project. They had already had bad experiences when another organisation failed to bring technologies in as promised.
Creating rapport and building trust with the community then was key.
“We wanted to make sure they were involved because this kind of partnership gives the community a sense of ownership and pride,” he said.
The exchange of ideas and the brainstorming between the team and the community leaders as well as planning took about two years from first contact to the actual introduction of ICT.
The first step was to understand the community — how they live, their cultures, existing uses and access to information sources as well as their needs for improved information delivery.
“The project was very much community and technology-based. When community development happens, you have community empowerment,” Dr Yeo added.
So while the researchers learned about life in Bario from the community, the community learned about ICTs from the researchers. Together, they would mutually benefit from the project.
It also helped that Kelabit lecturer Poline Bala was part of the e-Bario Project Team. Besides, a steering committee, comprising community leaders and local champions like John Tarawe (project coordinator in Bario) and Lucy Bulan (SMK Bario principal), were vital in keeping the momentum going to the end.
“For the people in Bario, communication, especially Internet connectivity for their children, was the first thing they wanted,” Dr Yeo said.
“The community played an equal and active role throughout the project. For example, proposals for information systems using the Internet were agreed upon together with the community representatives.”
In the next phase, two schools received computers with training provided for teachers and the community.
They would surf the Internet through VSATs (a satellite communication system) before computers and Internet access were made available through a telecentre — Gatuman Bario.
Transport was an issue. Without road access, everything had to be flown in, including fuel for generators.
Today, the telecentre may be running on solar panels but in 2002 when first opened, it was partly dependent on diesel generators — not practical for a region where logistic costs are sky high.
In 2000, one gallon of diesel in Bario cost RM12 compared to a paltry RM3.21 in the city.
Today, it costs RM25. Imagine the cost when a generator needs a gallon of fuel to run for three to four hours. So the generator was dropped.
Now, the power problem has been solved with collaboration and funding from the Organisation for Sustainable Engineering in South East Asian Nations (Osean), Unimas, Cambridge University and Engineers without Borders, UK.
In June 2005, more solar panels were installed, enabling the telecentre to run six hours a day, six days a week. More activities have been made possible with the power solution resolved like training, and using the telecentre as a resource centre for government workshops.
Today, bringing ICT into Bario has brought a wealth of benefits not just to that community but also the rest of Sarawak and Sabah. Tourist traffic via Internet has increased, giving birth to at least seven homestays and lodges in Bario. The more subtle but no less significant offshoots of bringing business to Bario means the community enjoys a sustainable income to keep the community thriving.
From e-Bario, COERI was formed. Anchored at Unimas’ Faculty of Computer Science and Information technology (FCSIT), the centre was created to replicate the success of e-Bario in other remote locations like Long Lamai, Ba Kelalan and the most recent addition — the island of Larapan in Sabah.
Perhaps, most notable is the role (centre of operations) the telecentre played in the search and rescue mission when a helicopter crash in July 2004 claimed four lives.
On the global scale, e-Bario has become a model of sustainable development via ICT. The project has garnered a slew of awards, the most outstanding one being the International Innovations Awards, Commonwealth 2006 when they beat out 112 submissions from Commonwealth countries for the gold medal.
The e-Bario project is a true reflection of innovation, more significantly perhaps, for its emphasis on the most important part of development — the people.
From BorneoPostonline. 23rd March, 2010