Integration, Telecommunication and Development: Rural Tele Service Systems in Bénin -- a Summary

Per Hetland, Director, Department of Media and Communications, University of Oslo

[From: Eastern Norway Research Institute, Report no. 24/92, ISBN 82-7356-226-3]

When people use a telephone they are suddenly part of the most extensive network in the world. Together with one billion other social actors they are part of a network for communication and action. People organise their work or private lives, participate in transactions or just chat with family or friends. In doing so they are also actors in a social network, acting at a distance. However, in this network we do not only find social actors, but also the telephones, the transmission lines, the exchanges and all the necessary technology that make this network into a super-machine.

The case-study presented is partly a presentation of a) different aspects of economic integration, telecommunications and development and b) some results from research in the context of four local pilot projects with Community Tele Service Centres (CTSC) in Bénin where the aim is to develop new models for rural telecommunications. By CTSC in this context is meant a local telecommunication and data-processing unit which may or may not include other media services, and which serves to increase the competence of community members and to catalyse the social, economic, and cultural processes in the region in which the CTSC is implemented.

When we use the term communication technology, we are talking about a kind of technology developed with the purpose of "manipulating" social and economic relations between different social actors. The black box of communication technology is therefore something quite different from the simple black box consisting of the artifacts that we in social analysis usually want to forget. The black box of information and communication technology is more like a set of Chinese boxes consisting of at least three levels or frames of meaning; 1) The first level of interaction - actors in communication with artifacts. This first frame of meaning may also be called the technological frame and refers to the ways in which relevant social groups attribute various meanings to an artifact. 2) The second level of interaction - actors communicating with the help of artifacts. This second frame of meaning may be called the communicative frame and refers to the ways in which relevant social groups organise their social interaction and thereby communication. 3) The third level of interaction - actors, artifacts, nature and society making systems for communication. This third frame of meaning may be called the integrative frame and refers to the ways in which a) relevant social groups take part in the economy and thereby create needs for communication and b) structural arrangements for communication.

In developing countries economic activities are mainly organised in local production and employment systems such as in the Northern provinces of Bénin where about 80-90% of the population are peasants. Among the users of public telephones only 1,9% were peasants, which among other things indicates a strong orientation towards the local community with little "need" for telecommunication technology. A majority of the users of public telephones were "professional" users. Among the professional telephone calls to Cotonou from Northern Bénin, 63% were linked to the trading/transport sector, while 32,6% were linked to the public sector. Looking at the international calls the trading/transport sector counted for 84,6%, while 7,7% were linked to the public sector. In fact the trading and transport sector are strongly interlinked and the sector constitutes the only important national production and employment system besides the public sector.

The report, "The Missing Link", was submitted to the International Telecommunication Union in 1985. The "Missing Link" report calls attention to the fact that while telecommunications is considered a key factor in economic, commercial, social and cultural activity in industrialised countries and an engine of growth, the telecommunication system is not adequate in most developing countries even to sustain essential services. The consequence of the geographically uneven distribution of telecommunications is that only 30% of the population lives in regions with an existing telecommunication system. Atacora has not only a small proportion of the national telephone-traffic, but also the smallest proportion of the local population in reach of a telephone. A tentative projection of the population figures will result in a telephone density of about one telephone per 100 inhabitants in the regions with an existing telecommunication infrastructure, while the rest of the population has virtually no access to tele services. According to expressed demands for telephones, 15.911 are on the waiting lists. So only to meet expressed demands Bénin has to double the number of mainline telephones. However the expressed demand does not reflect the real demand for two reasons; a) many potential owners of private telephones don't bother to register as the prospect for getting a telephone installed is rather meagre and b) the expressed demand is only for private telephones and not for "shared" public telephones.

In order to meet the rising demand for tele services in rural areas and also ensure that the implementation of new tele services will improve the possibilities for rural development, it is therefore important to look into a wide range of possible solutions. To study these possibilities Office des Postes et Telecommunication of Bénin and International Association of Community Tele Service Centres have chosen to implement four pilot studies, and the following four communities were selected: Kraké, Malanville, Parakou, Djougou. Because CTSCs provide rural communities with communal access to information and communication equipment, they reduce the cost barriers of establishing and running small rural firms. Because they are based on communal use of the telephone line instead of individual connections, CTSCs reduce the network problem of establishing telephone systems in rural areas. CTSCs reduce the qualification barriers of rural citizens since they are directed by trained, competent CTSC-caretakers. Finally, since they offer tele services and competence at a level normally only provided in bigger towns and cities, CTSCs reduce the service barriers of isolated rural communities.

In spite of the fact that the tele service centres studied are placed in the three largest towns in northern Bénin, only 2,3% of the telephone calls were local calls. This is not surprising since the telephone density is very low and it is in fact not unusual to travel for long distances to make a telephone call. People even cross national borders like the people in Dosso in Niger who travel for 145 km. to Malanville to be able to telephone. The public telephone is therefore a tool for long-distance communication. 30,7% of the telephone calls are calls within the two northern provinces, 15,5% are calls to other provinces, while 30,7% are calls to Cotonou (de facto capital) and 20,8% are calls to foreign countries.

To understand the innovation and diffusion of new tele services in rural Africa we must identify the social carriers in the innovation process. How do these social carriers organise their activities and which factors determine their use of tele services? To summarise this rather complex picture in a policy context I will relate the policy implications to the three different frames of meaning; technological, communicative and integrative frames.

The technological frame of the service-producer is partly shaped by the perception of who are the dominant social group of users. The technological solution sought, such as the public card-telephone, is framed by the prescribed users being professional users making long distance telephone calls. This social group consist mainly of traders, public servants and transporters. As this group is an important group in economic and social development in Bénin it is not surprising that their needs are given priority. However, other groups like handicapped people, illiterate users etc. are in need of a better user interface. This user-interface may be improved by the full establishment of community tele service centres, with better access and better guidance.

At a smaller scale, at the level of a tele centre, it will be important to strengthen the tele centres' ability to train and educate quite different groups of users in the field of communication and thereby ensure that larger social groups belong to the same communicative frame, not only by putting emphasis on fancy technological solutions, but also by trying to blend old and new patterns of communication. A message-system combining the telecommunication system and the old courier-system is an example in this respect. One important goal, however, will be to improve the possibilities for communication inside the local community. Changes in the communicative frame of different user-groups are not only shaped by the arriving technology, but also by an active involvement in the life of society. In this respect the community tele service centre have the potential to be something more than only a place filled up with new communication technology.

To handle these complex processes of economic and political interaction and social learning in technological transfer it will be useful to open up the transfer process and organise it as social experiments and thereby visualise the potentials in the integrative frame. Governments and international organisations still attempt to use planning and management techniques to control development activities rather than facilitating and encouraging the flexibility, experimentation, and social learning essential to implementing development projects successfully. This is a more open ended strategy and best characterised as a strategy trying to cope with the complexity and uncertainty of the development process. The basic element in this strategy is to use the social experiment as a tool for formulating a strategy adapted to the local needs. The pilot projects in Bénin are developed along these lines. Some policy considerations are mentioned in this report and some are still in their shaping.

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