Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 14, No. 4, April 2018
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Public ICT Centers for Rural Development:
Inclusiveness, Sustainability, and Impact

Francisco J. Proenza

Originally published by
Asian Development Bank, August 2017
under a Creative Commons License


Cybercafés are self-sustaining and common in urban areas. In most countries, the information and communication technology (ICT) penetration frontier lies in rural areas, precisely where commercial venues are unviable. Cybercafés have served as a model behind government efforts to set up one form or another of ICT centers to try to bring the benefits of ICT to rural communities. This report discusses why ICT centers remain popular with governments and rural people, and why it is difficult to serve rural areas. Effective public support practices are identified, based on a review of the record of experience, with special reference to two case studies: a government-run initiative in the Philippines and a public–private partnership in Sri Lanka.

Notes: In this publication, “$” refers to US dollars. The executive summary is provided below, followed by a link to download the full report.


Cybercafés arise as small urban businesses but are not financially viable in rural areas. Telecenters are a governmental response, modeled after cybercafés, to try to bring the benefits of computers and the internet to underserved rural communities. Worldwide, cybercafés are far more numerous than telecenters. There are some urban telecenters, but most are rural.

Telecenters are commonly associated with the provision of physical access to equipment but, ultimately, their objective is to bring the benefits of computers and the internet to underserved rural communities through shared facilities. This usually involves much more than physical access.

There is considerable evidence that shared public access to computers and the internet, whether through cybercafés or telecenters, have had significant positive impacts on users. Telecenters, however, are out of fashion. The reasons for this include the significant challenges that rural initiatives face, the poor record of overly ambitious programs that have tried to reach deep into rural areas that have little potential demand, the disappointment when unrealistic expectations regarding self-sustainability fail to materialize, and the revolution in access that mobile phones have propelled.

We use the terms telecenter and information and communication technology (ICT) center interchangeably, but, as we look forward, the latter term is preferred; not as a radical conceptual departure, but to acknowledge that changes in approach are necessary. Fifteen years ago, the primary role of telecenters and cybercafés was to facilitate communication. Since access through mobiles is becoming increasingly affordable, the demand for computer and internet use through public venues has been falling. Today, it would hardly make sense to set up a telecenter exclusively dedicated to providing access to computers or the internet. It would also be reckless to ignore the lessons of experience.

This report reviews the experience of rural ICT center programs with three objectives in mind: to better understand the challenges that rural initiatives must overcome; to show why, notwithstanding these challenges, ICT centers remain popular; and to identify design features of successful programs that help further rural development.

A frequent objective of state-sponsored rural telecenter programs has been the phasing out of subsidies and eventual achievement of sustainability. In practice, rural telecenters seldom achieve financial self-sustainability. Rural sustainability is challenging because of sponsors’ decision to locate telecenters in rural communities. Cybercafés and related private ICT businesses cannot serve these areas on commercial terms because they face four constraints. Two are supply-driven: (i) high connectivity costs and (ii) high costs of equipment and service maintenance; while the other two are demand-driven and arise because of two features of rural environments: (iii) limited computer literacy, and (iv) low population density. Program features result from choices about the structure of funding and incentives, center location, and the services offered. They either ease or worsen the rural challenge.

The inability of the private sector to serve rural areas has made public assistance and funding indispensable. Some initiatives are orchestrated and run by the government, but different public–private partnerships have been tried. To prepare this report, we conducted two case studies: a government-run initiative in the Philippines, and a public–private partnership in Sri Lanka. This first hand evidence is complemented with findings from the literature.

The first community e-centers (CeCs) in the Philippines were launched in October 2004 and by 2011 there were a total of 550. CeC establishment has been sponsored by the national government. Operations are run and supported by local government units (LGUs). The long-term target is the establishment of a center in each of the country’s 42,000 barangays (villages). There is unfortunately little information about what has happened to many of the CeCs established.

In searching for showcase centers, we visited 12 CeCs, 6 in southern Luzon, and 6 in Western Visayas. Five of the centers visited can be considered showcase. Although CeCs are not meant to be self-sustaining, these successful centers have made a positive impact on the population, especially imparting digital literacy training and developing a blended learning remedial education program to help out-of-school youth. These successful centers were located in relatively large towns. Since they are run by large municipalities they are generally well resourced.

The $83 million e-Sri Lanka Development Project launched in 2004 included a $7.4 million ICT center component. Implementation was completed on 31 December 2013. More than 10 years have passed and many of the centers created, which are known as nenasalas (meaning “wisdom outlets” in Sinhala), have been open for several years, presenting a unique opportunity to assess what happens as ICT centers mature.

A comprehensive monitoring and evaluation survey conducted in 2014–2015 surveyed 884 centers, of which 336 were found closed and 584 were still operating. This report draws on this data with a special focus on 752 centers of the four most common types established (religious, enterprise, community-based organizations, and public library) in four locations (remote, rural, semiurban, and urban). Special attention is given to centers set up between 2003 and 2011 because these show what happens with the passing of time. This is perhaps the most comprehensive data set ever assembled on a significant rural ICT center initiative.

A summary of recommendations directed at governments and donors considering supporting rural ICT center programs follows.


The objective of rural ICT center programs is to introduce a variety of services, in the expectation that the rural population learns to use ICT tools and starts using them like modern societies everywhere do today. This does not require that an ICT center established by the program exist forever. The program’s aim should be for the centers it sponsors to generate long-lasting benefits while they are open.

Should Rural ICT Center Programs be Supported?

ICT centers are dear to governments and to the people they serve. They are seen as harbingers of modernity and progress. Sri Lanka’s nenasala program has shown it is possible to implement a rural ICT center program with efficacy, and to make an impact in rural people’s lives by enhancing digital inclusion. International donors can make a contribution supporting these worthy aspirations, as the World Bank did with the e-Sri Lanka project.


The main risks are insufficient service demand, proclivity for decisions to become politicized, and rapid technological change.

Rural ICT center programs must achieve a delicate balance. Subsidized centers should not compete with urban cybercafés. They are justifiable in underserved villages that are not too small, i.e., which have a large enough pool of potential customers. Achieving this balance can be challenging.

The dream of blanketing a country with ICT centers is a common political aspiration. In Sri Lanka, the President decided to increase the target number of nenasalas from 200 to 1,000, and the evidence suggests that the program paid dearly in terms of high closure rates and wasted resources.

With the rapid spread of mobile phones, the demand for access to communications has drastically fallen, affecting such services as fax and voice over internet protocol (VOIP). Concentrating on services that can be frequently upgraded, such as skills development in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, makes ICT center programs less susceptible to technological obsolescence.

Center Type

Sri Lanka’s experience with four center types suggests each has positive and negative features.

  • Enterprise centers were the most resilient. They had the largest number of visitors and the lowest closure rates. Only a few were established in 2003–2011 and even fewer were located in rural areas, so it is not clear whether they would have fared as well in large numbers to serve rural communities.
  • ICT centers run by community-based organizations in Sri Lanka were more resilient than religious centers, but less so than entrepreneurial centers. A significant number of nongovernment organization centers served rural communities.
  • ICT centers in libraries are resilient, e.g., in Chile and in Sri Lanka. Because state funding is usually secure, financial incentives may be lacking and special efforts may be necessary to expand outreach and enhance impact.
  • Religious centers fared poorly. In principle, these centers should have done better. They had infrastructure, a service vocation, and a suitable locale. Their poor performance may have been due to overly ambitious program targets, which fell primarily on religious centers to fulfill.


Serving all rural people may be a lofty and even popular objective, but grand schemes that propose to blanket a country with ICT centers with little regard for potential demand should be avoided. Choosing to set up ICT centers in remote locations or small villages courts disappointment and failure.

The number of people that will use a given ICT center regularly is circumscribed to a relatively small catchment radius of around 3 kilometers, with variations depending on population density and transportation facilities. For program planning purposes, a minimum-sized village is needed to ensure there is sufficient potential demand for the centers. Future rural ICT center programs are unlikely to be very large, simply because rural areas generally have only a limited number of suitably sized towns.


Access to computers and the internet should not be the exclusive or even primary function of ICT centers. Nevertheless, access should be provided so that novice users can practice their skills; be a supplementary source of income for the centers; be a complementary service for agencies that already provide a public service, such as post offices and libraries; and to foster gender-balanced environments that can serve as a model for urban cybercafés.

Training in ICT skills is a potentially high impact intervention that can empower disenfranchised peoples. Curious interest in acquiring ICT skills does not become willingness to pay for training, particularly among rural people, because of information asymmetries—nonusers seldom know the benefits they might derive. Encouragement and the opportunity to try out the tools are required. Government intervention is justified on efficiency and equity grounds.

Service aggregation should be pursued. Each center should provide a range of remedial education courses, along with other services that are important for rural populations; namely, e-government services, basic ICT skills training, and access to computers and the internet.

The need for English language training is patent in India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries that want to expand their information technology business outsourcing sector. Training apps like Duolingo are available to self-learners. What is missing is a program to help youngsters get started and accompanies them through the early stages of English language training. This form of remedial education is worth pursuing as part of a rural ICT center initiative.

To use ICT centers to deliver government services is sensible, but has limitations. ICT center programs cannot provide for process reengineering, which is usually needed to deliver government services online. Further, it is doubtful that an ICT center can achieve financial self-sustainability solely on e-government service fees.

Presently, the most effective way to improve agricultural markets appears to be to expand mobile phone coverage. Rural ICT centers can however be useful as training venues where farmers can communicate with other farmers; and traders, using e-mail and social media, learn how to search for information, and learn how to learn on their own using ICT.

Service Fees

Fees do not determine whether a center will have impact or not, but fees affect incentives. Programs that assign high priority to self-sustainability should charge for services. Programs that do not charge fees should specify beforehand where the funds to maintain the centers would come from. Nonfee centers should also implement an aggressive outreach program. Otherwise, there is a risk that the ICT centers set up and maintained by government end up serving only a few users.

Time-Limited Subsidies

Malaysia’s public–private partnership approach to ICT center management, using 5-year contracts to run and staff the centers, limits the extent and duration of subsidies. This model can be applied elsewhere to service financially weak rural communities.

Gender Balance

There are differences in gender balance by venue type. Cybercafés often cater to young men’s demand for gaming and pornography, creating a hostile environment for women. Simple design decisions, e.g., locating terminals so that they are visible to operator and other users, avoiding partitions between workstations, can help governments promote gender balance in ICT centers and cybercafés.

Digital Inclusion and the Future of Rural ICT Centers

Rural ICT centers can help achieve the ambitious agenda set out by the Sustainable Development Goals. To do so, they must be seen as technology hubs, as places where rural young people can learn ICT skills and learn to learn on their own, and as catalysts for digital inclusion in rural areas. Their role is to amplify citizen access to a variety of digital services, most importantly to skills that enable young people to get rewarding jobs and participate in the process of innovation that ICT makes possible.



Francisco J. Proenza, professor of Information and Communication Technology for Development in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, prepared this report under the guidance of Seok Yong Yoon, senior public management specialist (e-Governance), of the Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department (SDCC) of Asian Development Bank (ADB). ADB colleagues, Portia Y. Gonzales and Lizette B. Francisco, and ADB consultant, Mary Grace Santos- Mirandilla are gratefully acknowledged for their support in the realization of this assignment.

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