- The telecom revolution yet has to reach the Rwandan countryside, but a new project promises to bring infrastructure and business opportunities for local entrepreneurs. A new "Tel'imbere" service is to provide micro-loans to potential rural mobile phone central operators, who are to provide regions currently offline with affordable telecom services.
With the nearest telephone sometimes kilometres away, a mobile phone is more than just a means of communication for rural communities in Rwanda - it is an economic lifeline. To help spur greater telecommunications access for villagers, national mobile network operator MTN Rwanda together with the US organisation Grameen Foundation today launched an innovative new venture, termed Village Phone Rwanda.
Through its signature product, "Tel'imbere", Village Phone Rwanda has promised to "provide affordable telephone access in places where there is no access to public communications and where power supplies are either unreliable or nonexistent."
Village Phone Rwanda has already partnered with local microfinance institutions to help rural entrepreneurs purchase the equipment kit needed to start "Tel'imbere" businesses. The first Rwandans have already taken "micro-loans" to buy the equipment and Village Phone Rwanda provides special airtime rates to them.
Some 50 Rwandans took part in a one-year pilot programme, which ended in April 2006, and there are currently Tel'imbere operators in ten villages. "Operators will soon be available in 14 of Rwanda's 30 districts, and over the next three years, Village Phone Rwanda hopes to create 3,000 new businesses throughout the country," the project leaders announced this week.
MTN Rwanda CEO Eriksson in a statement noted that "affordable, accessible communications is vital to Rwanda's development," in line with the Kigali government's ambitious telecom policies. "This is a proven partnership model that is good for development and makes good business sense, and we recommend that it be replicated in other developing countries where there is a need for telecommunication services in rural areas," Mr Eriksson added.
"Tel'imbere" was formally launched today in Gashora, in Rwanda's rural Bugesera District, by Per Eriksson, CEO of MTN Rwanda, and the Grameen Foundation's David Keogh. Other dignitaries expected to participate included the Rwanda's Minister of Local Government, Protais Musoni, and several senior government officials, as well as current Tel'imbere business owners.
"Village Phone Rwanda benefits not only the individual business operator, but also the surrounding communities," said Alex Counts, Grameen Foundation President and CEO. "Projects such as this are excellent examples of how microfinance can help the rural poor escape poverty and develop self sustaining businesses that can benefit the entire community and together with other operators create a network that can aid in the economic development of these countries," he added.
"A proven poverty reduction strategy, microfinance gives very poor people access to financial services and a path out of poverty," the Grameen Foundation holds. The US-based foundation has experience in combining microfinance with new technologies to empower rural dwellers in poor countries. The Rwandan project had been inspired by similar village phone programmes in Uganda and Bangladesh.
MTN Village Phone has already created more than 4,200 village phone businesses across Uganda, with over 100 new businesses being added each month, according to the foundation. There are plans to export the business model to other developing countries with a poor telecom infrastructure.
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