Far off the beaten track but just a click away

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Opening ceremony of the knowledge fair in Bario attended by foreign and local experts (photo credit: Edwin Meru)

Opening ceremony of the knowledge fair in Bario attended by foreign and local experts (photo credit: Edwin Meru)

By Carolyn Hong

When a travel agent from Kuala Lumpur was scouting for new places to promote, she came across the remote village of Ba Kelalan in Sarawak. She sent an email to Edwin Meru, the owner of a blog promoting homestays in Borneo seeking help to arrange a visit.

Edwin, who lives in this mountain village, organised a visit so pleasant that this travel company is now planning to offer tour packages to Ba Kelalan from Peninsular Malaysia. He was able to arrange her visit smoothly, thanks to Ba Kelalan’s Internet access via a telecentre set up a decade ago.

“She was interested in helping the community so she contacted us,” said Edwin who also manages Ba Kelalan’s Internet telecentre as a volunteer.

Ba Kelalan is in the cyberworld despite being 150km away from the nearest town, thanks to a project set up by University Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) about 10 years ago to bring technology to this village. The satellite Internet is powered by solar as Ba Kelalan is not linked to the national grid.

“The telecentre has helped Ba Kelalan a lot, especially in tourism promotion as we are a village so hidden in the interior of Sarawak,” Edwin said. “It has helped to bring us to the attention of people within and outside Malaysia.”

Besides helping to uplift its economy, he said it has also enabled the local children to become familiar with technology and keep pace with children in the city. School-leavers in Ba Kelalan have been able to apply online for college instead of traveling four hours on a logging road to the nearest town.

These telecentres were created as a solution to the urban-rural digital divide, as about one-third of Malaysians still live in the rural areas. Surveys have shown that up to eight in 10 rural households cannot afford to buy computers and Internet access. Today, there are over 2,000 such centres, mostly set up by the federal and state governments, and some by private companies or non-governmental organisations.

Kudos to Unimas

Ba Kelalan’s telecentre was a Unimas research project looking into sustainable development for isolated rural communities using technology. Unimas first began this programme in 1999 in Bario, another remote settlement in Sarawak, and gradually expanded it to other communities.

Telecentres, which provide free or cheap services, are generally equipped with computers, printers and Internet access. In some cases, they have become successful enough to spin off into other activities like a community radio and aerial mapping.

Bario, which has won international awards for its telecentre, recently hosted local and foreign experts at a knowledge fair to exchange views and experiences on the applications of telecentres.

Dr Roger Harris, a visiting professor at Unimas’ Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovation who was instrumental in the telecentre initiative, said the knowledge fair had enabled experts to interact with members of the rural communities.

“We generated a range of problems and research opportunities that we can study and develop solutions for,” he said. “These ranged from handicraft development and sales to
language recording.”

Besides providing Internet access and computer-related services, some telecentres are now also being used to facilitate grassroots solutions to developmental issues such as the recent aerial mapping of Ba Kelalan.

The telecentre’s facilities were used to organise aerial mapping, with the maps and photographs to be made available for the community to use. The telecentre was also used recently to record traditional music of the community for permanent documentation.

Dr Harris said as long as computers and Internet access are priced beyond most domestic budgets in the rural areas, telecentres will remain an important to tool to help bridge the digital divide.

“Telecentres are the most effective means of including low-income communities in the fast-expanding information society,” he said.

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