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Thursday, October 14, 1999 Published at 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK


Networking locally

The Internet is not yet a reality for Burkina Faso

By BBC News Online's Kate Milner

If the Internet is supposed to be a tool to open up communication for all and enrich all our lives, what better test than a project involving illiterate farmers in Burkina Faso?

Information rich, information poor - Digital divide
  • Introduction
  • The widening gap

    Case studies

  • Burkina Faso
  • Mongolia
  • Morocco
  • United States
  • Father Maurice Oudet is doing just that. A priest who has lived in Burkina Faso for 30 years, he is using the Internet to gather information and publish a magazine for farmers in some of the country's 71 local dialects.

    Father Oudet knows well what it is like to be out of touch. When he first arrived in Burkina Faso, he was based in a remote parish with no telephone. The closest post office was 20km (12 miles) away.

    Today Father Oudet is a little more connected. In Koudougou, a town about 100km (62 miles) from the capital Ouagadougou where he now lives, he has a telephone and Internet access.

    But he still doesn't buy the Internet hype. The Internet cannot change the lives of the poorest people because it doesn't put food in mouths.

    Land-locked Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has few natural resources and a poor soil. Life expectancy at birth is around 45 years. Although around 90% of people live on the land, many families still struggle to eat.

    The average farmer's income is around a 60p a day and they may live far from towns and telephone lines. This is one of the chronic problems of bringing the Internet to the developing world. The information gap may be getting wider but the world's poorest still don't see it as a priority.

    But Father Oudet believes it can help in other ways. Besides a chronic shortage of food, Burkina Faso also has a largely illiterate population. Only 19.2% of people speak and read French, the official language. The farmers who can read and write are learning their own dialects.

    Father Oudet's magazine, published every three months, uses many of the diverse languages of Burkina Faso to help them learn. Agricultural workers can contribute to the magazine, by sending in their views and experiences and passing on farming advice.

    The magazine is produced using desktop publishing facilities in Koudougou, but the editorial content is gathered from volunteers from each region and language. Outside resources have also proved useful. Websites as far away as Canada provide feature material.

    The magazine is not yet published online - but the possibility is an appealing one. The online magazine would create a community of farmers, using technology to exchange ideas and information, a world where everyone, rich and poor, can access information with the click of a mouse.

    There are some encouraging signs. Burkina Faso is one of 13 African countries where local telecom operators have set up a special 'area-code' for Internet access. That means that a call to the Internet only costs as much as a local call even if the Internet Service Provider is far away in a major city.

    But there is some way to go before the average Burkinabe is truly represented on the Internet.



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