A NICE International ICT4D Failure
Victor van Reijswoud
Management and Information Systems for Development - MIS4D.com
This article appeared as blog post on www.mis4d.com
NICE was offering telecenters with sustainable solar energy – so called NICECentres –
to unleash the potential of people in developing countries. The sentence is stated in
the past tense, because NICE Internationalhas closed its doors. An interesting
appropriate ICT project that failed to become sustainable.
The social enterprise NICE was initiated by Energy4All Foundation and Econcern
(bankrupt in 2009) a Dutch company dealing in renewable energy and carbon credits.
The first pilot started in 2006 in Gambia. The goal of NICE was to deploy 250 NICE
Centers in 10 countries in Africa based on a franchise concept that allowed local
communities to own and maintain a centre.
See the Youtube clip in order to get an understanding of the NICE Centres in
operation in Gambia. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1LBo3EajAY
As explained by NICE, the core of the centres is a solar energy system. The batteries
provide a back-up in case of low energy production and a stabilizer guarantees a
stable output to the equipment in the centres. The solar system allows NICE Centres
to operate where there is no grid.
The centres have an energy-efficient and low cost IT-infrastructure with a server a
number of thin clients. This includes a multifunctional printer for document services.
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The server and the clients run Ubuntu-Linux. NICE Centers are connected to the
Internet through an available local Internet Service Provider.
Problems started immediately when the first two pilot centres went live in Gambia.
Problems with the hardware, bugs in the software and the solar panel did not provide
enough energy for the installed equipment. However most problematic proved the
franchise concept; local entrepreneurs or communities were not willing or able to
invest 30.000 Euro. A lease model was therefore introduced.
Although the centres started to make a small profit, finances became a problem. More
funding needed to be found to finance the head-office in the Netherlands. EU funding
was found, but with this type of donor strict rules, regulations and control come
along. This was not foreseen and difficult to manage.
In spite of the new funding things went downhill quickly. The next NICE country
program (Tanzania) never materialised, the profit of the Gambian centres dropped and
local owners of the NICE Centers did not behave as a entrepreneurs but more like
employees of NICE. Combined with the rise and maturation of the mobile market,
telecentres quickly became obsolete and NICE international had to close its doors.
It is always sad to see ICT4D projects go down especially when it are social
enterprises working with appropriate ICT. However, it is important to reflect on
whether the project was viable from the start and how we can learn from what has
happened to NICE International.
Already at the start of the project discussions were questioning the
sustainability of the telecentre concept and organisations like APDIP were
looking for new business models. The so-called Telecentre 2.0 operates
within a ‘national alliance’ that includes government, the private sector and
civil society representatives. Was this the case with the NICE Centres?
Flexibility is key in successful ICT4D projects according to Heeks. We need
to learn from the project experiences early on and constantly adapt what
we are doing. Did the project have this necessary adaptive power and
flexibility? Was rigidity the reason that they were overtaken by the mobile
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Dealing with large donors like the European Union is often underestimated.
The money looks good, but the procedures are killing when you do not have
experience with them. The NICE project is a clear indication of this. Was
there expertise to deal with these types of donors?
The usual suspects: Gambia, Tanzania, the Anglophone countries in general
are target areas of small projects. At the same time, this market is already
saturated and only innovative concepts have a chance. In the other parts
Africa, especially the Francophone countries there is still a lot of room for
new projects and expertise in the area of ICT is highly needed. Did the NICE
initiators do a proper market research, or were just going with the flow?
Doing business in Africa is full of challenges and requires a thorough
understanding of African business values and ethics. Business Schools do
not prepare you for this. Ties Kroezen – one of the initiators of the project
– states in an article in One World that his biggest disappointment was the
behaviour of the local ‘owners’ of the NICE Centres. He saw no maintenance
and no development of the centres. Is this not normal practice? This raises
the question, did the initiators of NICE International had a good enough
understanding and experience of what doing business in Africa entails? Did
they seek support or coaching with experienced ICT4D professionals?
The NICE case is interesting and it is admirable that the initiators have been open and
transparent in their failure to create a successful project. Practitioners in the field
need to learn from these types of cases and hopefully it will help to make their next
Appropriate ICT4D project successful.
This post borrows from the article “Hoe een prachtig businessplan in Afrika mislukte”
in One World magazine – in Dutch.
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