Forthcoming in the Fall issue of In Media Res, the newsletter of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program.
We arrived in Cajamarca in northern Peru just in time for an information and communications technology (ICT) training session for local internet entrepreneurs from rural villages across the country. The training site was picturesque – a large house surrounded by cows, streams, mountains, dirt. The minister of technology was in attendance, as was the project manager from FITEL – a public fund distributing subsidies to national telecommunications companies to set up wireless internet in thousands of villages – as well as representatives from various NGOs. I had come to film some of the trainings and try to get a sense of how technology for development was being implemented.
All this was part of a documentary I was making on the use of new wireless internet in extremely rural areas of the Peruvian Andes and Amazon, a project funded in part by the Carroll Wilson Award via MIT’s Entrepreneurship Center. An old friend of mine had become the chief project manager for Rural Telecom, a Peruvian company based in Lima. The company had won a government subsidy to provide internet and basic tech and business management training to people in 2,000 rural villages, locals who volunteered to become entrepreneurs and start their own internet “cabinas” or cabins.
The idea was that cabina proprietors would independently finance the purchase of a few computers (often by selling cattle or taking out bank loans), and Rural Telecom would build a wireless tower to provide internet access and sometimes public pay phones, then conduct an initial training with end users in the community. Entrepreneurs would charge a small hourly fee for local internet users, often young people, which they would use to pay monthly connection fees (about $40 USD) to the telecom.
The project, dubbed Banda Ancha Rural, began in 2007, and I had come to assess its progress and the impact the internet was having on communities. Due to safety and language concerns, I hired Maurice, a bilingual Peruvian photographer and videographer, to accompany me on the trip and help conduct interviews in Spanish with entrepreneurs. He was an invaluable asset, but neither of us really understood what we were getting into.
Over the course of six weeks, we spent endless hours on buses, planes, taxis, four-by-fours and hiking on foot to visit communities in Andean regions (Cajamarca, Huancayo), rural areas outside Lima (Cañete, Huaral) and tribal areas in the Central Amazon (Satipo, Pangoa). I had expected to find mixed reactions by villagers: perhaps the adults are wary of the internet and computers, I thought. Perhaps they don’t feel it’s valuable for agricultural societies. Perhaps some entrepreneurs have gained advanced skills from the technology trainings and are now using the internet to sell their goods online and improve their local economy. Perhaps they’ve learned to blog but don’t want to write about their village because they’re not interested in encouraging tourism.
I was wrong about all that.
What we did find were communities that had embraced internet implementation, understood its value and its potential for education and business development, but who had not received enough training to fully utilize internet services and most often had huge problems with the wireless connection. We visited over 40 villages, more than half of which had slow or broken connections.
But telecom representatives had no idea there were problems because the government subsidy they received was not sufficient to cover further technical assessments or in-person trainings for every internet cabina, especially since these communities were often difficult or impossible to access by public transportation. And the communities that did have working internet still needed help promoting its use since their financial intake was usually barely enough to break even after paying for electricity and internet.
To counter this, Rural Telecom has endeavored to forge private contracts with NGOs, universities and technology corporations interested in supplementing funds for the project. They also hold ICT trainings a few times a year for groups of internet entrepreneurs who have the time and money to attend. Presently they are beginning a pilot project to provide online trainings (via the open source platform Moodle) to 120 entrepreneurs with reliable internet connections.
‘Critical Hub’ for Learning
What struck me was how internet proprietors see themselves: sure, they are entrepreneurs running a business, but they also see themselves as contributing to the cultural and technological development of their community. A majority of cabina owners define themselves as educators, responsible for training children and young adults in media literacy. Most villages have one local school, usually without internet, and no library; the internet cabina therefore becomes a critical hub for learning.
Cabina proprietors help kids with their homework online, teach them how to search for information and make sure they don’t visit questionable websites. Although many adults lack the time or literacy level to use computers, some farmers come to research agricultural prices; mining areas often receive business from engineers and other professionals who rely on the internet for communication; and some local adults learn to use email and chat for communicating with family members in other areas.
It was striking to see how important computers became for cabina proprietors whose standard of living was otherwise extremely low. In one village outside of Cajamarca, we visited a cabina that was part of the entrepreneur’s house. It had dirt floors, thatched roofs, chickens everywhere and an outhouse several meters away. But for the proprietor, keeping the computers in his home was a top priority. This man had studied computer science and was also an elementary schoolteacher; local kids saw him as a resource, and began to rely on the internet cabina as a place they could go to get help online with math or history lessons.
The proprietor’s six-year-old son worked quietly at one computer as we interviewed his father. When the interview was finished, I asked the child what he was doing on the internet. “I’m looking for my favorite video,” he told me in Spanish, inputting the word “dinosaur” (in English) into YouTube’s search field. “This is it,” he said, clicking on an animation about dinosaurs and hooking up external audio speakers into the hard drive so he could hear the narration. A few minutes later, he was searching for juegos, online games, from an educational gaming site in Spanish.
Although the proprietor joked with me about his son’s technological prowess, it spoke to a crucial need for ICT projects in rural communities: sustainability. Many entrepreneurs start internet businesses but then leave the area to pursue job opportunities elsewhere; conversely, older cabina owners rely on their children to run the business, only to be left without managerial or technical skills once their kids go elsewhere for college or to find employment. Training the younger generation is essential, the proprietor told me, not just for their own education but for the continuation of the business itself, and to enable villagers to communicate with the outside world.
A few hours away was another teacher who doubled as an internet entrepreneur. She complained about the inconsistent internet connection and the competition from cheaper internet cafés in the nearby city of Cajamarca but explained that young customers from the village still preferred to come to her cabina because of the personal assistance they received. She envisioned turning her small cabina into a library of sorts, not with books but with online references and one-to-one teaching. She wanted to learn VoIP applications like Skype to allow users to make free calls online, as well as upload news and information about her community to a website. Although Rural Telecom offers a section of their website for entrepreneurs to upload information about their village (contactorural.com.pe), many proprietors don’t receive enough training on the web interface or don’t fully understand citizen journalism and the incentive for publicizing their village.
Paying for Access
The downside of garnering a loyal clientele is that internet users become upset when the connection goes down. We met young users, now used to relying on the internet for information and communication, who will commute to the nearest city to find an internet café – a trip that is often long and unsafe. A few proprietors we met have begun to supplement internet services with offline gaming consoles, such as Playstation, so that thy can stay open and make a little money even when the internet connection breaks. One woman used the revenue from gaming to pay her electricity bill, which had gone up with the installation of new computers.
Some entrepreneurs we met were also artisans, hoping to sell their stone carvings or painted crafts online, although still without the tech knowledge to do so. Alejandro Cipriano lives in a mountainous area outside Huancayo and runs a family business making traditional painted gourds (mates burilados). He became an internet entrepreneur after a friend in Lima started taking orders for his crafts via email, which came in from as far away as Japan. Although his internet connection has been down for months, he still hopes to eventually have his own website and sell his goods directly to international consumers online.
We also heard about a nearby Andean village that had transformed their economy through online self-education. A governmental ICT manager told us how the community made money from selling fresh river trout but could only sell the fish to local buyers. With the arrival of the internet, they found online resources outlining the process for canning trout. This revitalized their industry, allowing them to sell preserved river trout as far away as Lima.
The Peruvian jungle presented a completely different context. Native tribes still live throughout the Amazon, and despite tribal protests over land disputes that blocked roadways for weeks, we were able to visit two native villages where internet had been set up. Although leaders from both villages were wary of tourism and wanted to preserve their traditional way of life, culture and language, they saw technology as a critical means through which to develop their community – to further education for children, to stay informed about the latest prices for agricultural products, and to communicate with people in other areas.
We spoke to a teacher in one native community who emphasized the need for more governmental support for technology education, including more computers and lower rates for internet connections. “I would also like my school to have a video camera like yours,” he told me, “so the students would be able to put footage from this village online.”
Perhaps if I embarked on this project five years from now, I would be able to focus on the innovative uses of internet and communication technology in areas previously cut off from all forms of communication. But the rural internet project is still in development. Until the government or private telecoms can increase funding to secure stable, affordable wireless connections and expand training for entrepreneurs, there is little progress.
While pressing needs for basic services in extremely rural areas remain – for better education, phone lines, improved roads – there still exists a great desire by rural Peruvians to develop their communities through technology. Cell phones, for instance, have become the primary means of communication in remote areas. Perhaps the next time I visit Peru, internet will be in wider use through mobile devices, and I can make an entirely new documentary – from my phone.