Empowering rural communities in Niger through digital technologies

A three-hour drive from Niamey, Niger’s Capital city, is Borgou-Darey. Tucked underneath a cloud of dust, which on the day we visited painted the sky in a yellowish tint, the village is the first implementation of an ambitious government initiative called “Smart Villages”. The Building Smart Villages: A Blueprint report has been published and will be presented in a webinar today, June 25th.  

Spearheaded by the National Agency for Information Systems (ANSI) in Niger, this initiative aims at connecting 15,000 villages across the country in a bid to promote universal access to ICT services, particularly in the rural areas where more than 80 percent of the population lives.

In late February, DIAL was invited to join the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on a follow up visit to Niger to see progress of activities around the Smart Villages initiative. This initiative aims to lay the foundation of both hardware and software infrastructure upon which critical population services can be built.

I travelled to Borgou-Dare on a 30-seater bus, alongside colleagues from various other organizations. The road heading into the village was flanked by dry and dusty vegetation, characteristic of regions adjacent to the Sahara Desert.

As soon as we arrived at the village, I pulled out my phone and was able to stream a YouTube video uninterrupted using satellite-based internet connection installed at the village as part of this project. This level of connectivity, however, is not yet commonplace in Niger. Only about 5 percent of Niger’s population uses the internet. Smart Villages has connected this village by setting up a satellite dish and a router onsite, and distributing other equipment such as tablets, projector, and “Talking Book” devices which have pre-recorded educational messages in local language. This initiative could significantly expand internet coverage to more people in the country, unlocking several opportunities for the mostly rural population.

A Whole-of-government (WGA) approach

This initiative is the first implementation and testing ground of the SDG Digital Investment Framework developed through a partnership between ITU and DIAL. This framework advocates for a Whole-of-Government approach to investment in digital technology. What we will learn from the Smart Villages initiative will help inform the merits of such an approach against alternatives in a real-life test case.

Besides the hardware infrastructure, the Smart Villages initiate built a common platform which provides Client Management and Client Communication workflows, and supports various messaging channels such as IVR, SMS, USSD, and data/Internet.

This common digital platform is being rolled out for villages across rural areas in Niger. When it is working at scale, different government agencies will be able to use it to provide services to citizens without having to set up parallel systems. Agronomists can share farming techniques with rural farmers, health officials can offer tips on disease control, and the Ministry of Education can share learning content using a common platform. Local populations will have better access to information and educational content without making the long trip to Niamey.

From Whole-of-Government to Whole of Society

The Smart Villages initiative was made possible by a multi-stakeholder partnership which ANSI put together for this project. This initiative is led by ANSI with the support of ITU and other partners. DIAL’s funding support specifically helped with some of the groundwork for the Smart Villages project. This partnership brings diverse knowledge and expertise to the table which will be critical to the success of the Smart Village Initiative.

The initiative will harness not only local knowledge and expertise but also successful regional initiatives, such as the rollout of an electronic Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (eIMCI) protocol in neighboring Burkina Faso which has showed to have positive effects on the health care system in rural areas. The phased implementation of this initiative is a great opportunity for learning and could bring a wealth of knowledge and evidence to inform those who seek to learn from or emulate Niger’s example.

Photo Credit: Sanjay Acharya

Improving resilience of rural communities

As the world struggles to tackle the recent COVID-19 pandemic, strengthening local health systems through technology or other means is critically important. Having a communication system readily available to quickly convey health messaging to communities is key to prevention work and fighting misinformation, among other things.

It is too early to assess the impact of this initiative at the moment, as it is now in its pilot phase in Borgou-Darey and another village called Sadore. As it expands to more villages, there will be hurdles that come with implementing such an ambitious initiative in resource-constrained settings. Maintenance of equipment, following up with villages spread across large distances, and extending coverage to the “Villages des nomades” (nomadic populations whose settlements move location) will all be challenges. It is clear that only a coalition of partners, funders, and various stakeholders like the one assembled by ANSI will bring this work together.

As evening fell, we boarded our bus back to Niamey. Borgou-Darey will be the first of a 15,000-village network, connected through a common digital platform and unleashing numerous opportunities for rural populations. As the benefits of this initiative materialize across other communities, farmers will get market prices, rural populations will have access to telemedicine, and emergency alerts about floods, dust storms, diseases or other hazards will be easier to share with communities across the country. I’m excited about the benefits this initiative could bring to rural communities, and the wealth of lessons that will come with such a large-scale implementation.