From Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands
Upon arriving in the Solomon Islands, I flew from the capital, Honiara, to a very small landing-strip-of-an-airport in Seghe.
From there, it was a half-hour boat ride to the Uepi Island in the Marovo Lagoon.
Due to the availability of flights, I arrived on a Friday afternoon, and knew I wouldn’t have the chance to see the OLPC schools in action until Monday, so I spent a day and a half at Uepi Resort, because I had heard that there had been a public-private partnership (PPP) formed, which made possible the Internet connectivity for the schools in the OLPC pilot project in the Solomons, and I wanted to interview the Uepi Resort owners, as they were instrumental in this partnership—especially because PPPs are my other area of expertise/research specialization, and I believe they can be combined with technology-in-the-schools projects. And here was a perfect example.
Pictured above are Grant and Jill Kelly, and I got to sit down with Grant and Jason Kelly (Grant and Jill’s son), to ask about the Internet situation there. They explained to me that the satellite Internet being used by both the schools and the resort came to them by way of a Pacific RICS project of the SPC. The PacRICS initiative was launched in early 2008 by Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) with funding from AusAID (The Australian Governmental Overseas Aid Agency). RICS stands for Rural Internet Connectivity System or Site. There were 16 RICS pilot sites that were deployed across the Pacific Islands between 2007 and 2009, and Patukae, Solomon Islands, was one of them.
Grant and Jason explained to me that the idea behind these RICS programs was to form Public-Private Partnerships, so that the projects would become self-sustainable after two years, because one of the partners was a member of the business community—they would be the partner paying for (at least the majority) of the recurring, monthly Internet connectivity/subscription fees. The Kellys were actually approached by the principal from the Patukae schools (Brian Bird), to become a partner in this project, because SPC had set up the project in such a way that required a business partner to be of the stakeholders/participants. As I understood the breakdown of the project costs and responsibilities, SPC/AusAID shared the hardware costs (e.g. Uepi paid for its towers, while AusAID covered the base station), and at present, payment for Internet connectivity is realized on a four month cycle: the first is covered by Uepi Lodge itself. The second month is covered by the donations from guests staying at Uepi. The third is covered by Jason’s company, which he also runs locally, and the fourth month is covered by the village of Patukae (which generally means the school of Patukae). Maintenance of the hardware is covered by Uepi, or the school, depending on who has the skills, who is closer to the issue, etc.
As the Kellys figured, this instance of a Public Private Partnership bringing about Internet connectivity in Patukae/the Marovo Lagoon, was one of the few such successful initiatives in the world, due to the unique features of the various partners. Not all rural/developing areas have a profitable resort nearby, or, more generally, a profitable business located nearby, that is willing to shoulder the majority of the costs so that those who cannot afford them (i.e. schools) can still benefit from connectivity. All contact with the Aid agencies ended on schedule, and this partnership has been functioning and functional for a few years now—it is operational since August, 2008.
For the Uepi resort, having Internet connectivity is essential to running their business—I’m sure I’m not even aware of all the ways in which this is the case, but I certainly came to be able to find out more about them, and ultimately made my reservation, because of their web presence; because of the Internet. They also have a number of guests who make use of the internet while staying at the resort, and they not only charge them a fee that will help cover the costs associated with Internet for the local school’s connectivity, but they also take the opportunity to educate the guests about the partnership they have going on.
This has led to a number of the guests asking how they can become involved further—through additional monetary donations, sometimes even visits to the schools themselves, and in one case, it has led to a partnership between the Patukae schools and a (K-12 level) school based in Sydney (Scots College), which has sent visitors to the Patukae schools in the past, and plans to return with more technological equipment (such as servers and more computers) along with people to provide training in Patukae, as early as this fall.
I also wanted to mention that the Kellys employ all local staff members, the majority of whom are from a neighboring village (which I saw on the way to Patukae), and their resort is 100% ecologically friendly, environmentally sustainable…I can’t say enough positive things…
Even though this particular PPP seems to be a shining example and a successful case, Grant and Jason were not overly optimistic for the replicability of such a project elsewhere. As noted above, it’s not easy to find an oasis that is a profitable business, focused on the long-term well-being of the local area within which it operates, in rural/developing areas. They made the case that a well-functioning public sector partner (such as a public hospital) could play this role, but given governmental propensities to underfund, or be late in paying its promised funds, etc., for many of these developing countries, this seems something to strive for in the future, rather than search for in the present.
The Kellys, for their part, are thrilled with what’s happening in the Patukae schools, in terms of making use of technology (the OLPC XOs) and of the Internet. Grant believes strongly that the future leaders of the Solomon Islands (or of any developing country) will necessarily come from within—from the locals themselves. Access to information is a prerequisite for a quality education that will lead to a generation of leaders capable of governing in a way that brings about (development) change.
Even so, they also believe that this project has the potential to do a great deal more—the Internet could reach a great deal further. However, that would take the presence of another paying customer, another profitable business, like them, and at this point, that doesn’t seem likely in this geographic locale.
For my part, I believe that it’s important to celebrate when there are successful instances. So, hooray for this PPP!
On to Patukae…