In spite of huge leaps in IT infrastructure in Armenia, major segments of the population in rural villages lack ways to access technology and the knowledge to use it. These same communities are faced with youth unemployment often reaching 30 percent or more. A growing “digital divide” leaves rural communities and the poor unconnected to an economy and society increasingly based on information technology.
In Armenia, a government initiative aims for every family to own a computer, along with improvements in broadband capacity. However, no more that 10 percent of Armenian villagers has knowledge of computers or the Internet, a reality that prevents information dissemination in rural areas.
NEF and its partners, Business Pareta and the Gegharkunik Chamber of Commerce and Industry, have worked with local entrepreneurs to establish 15 rural IT centers under the Zartnir (Wake Up!) brand. The centers are creating jobs and new sources of income, serving as hubs for education and skills training, and providing access to technology.
Though modest in size – a start-up has 4 computer stations – these IT centers have quickly become vital parts of their communities. In the village of Noratus, for example, the IT center is full from morning to night in peak seasons, and the training sessions fill quickly – with 300 people trained in the first year. Some IT centers have begun providing training in advanced topics, including game programming, to youth who aspire to work in Armenia’s burgeoning programming industry.
Each IT center is located within a rural village, providing everyone in the community with convenient and affordable access to the Internet. The centers are locally owned and operated, fostering local entrepreneurship and trust among community members. Each month, centers provide a number of trainings in computer and program use for a fee and provide some targeted training for disadvantaged groups, such as women heads of households, on a pro bono basis – grassroots corporate social responsibility. Income is generated through computer sales and service, training, and computer/Internet access.
Microfranchises offer entrepreneurs with limited or no business experience a way to start a new business with relatively low risk. NEF and its partners provide entrepreneurs with business training, business planning, technology training, marketing, and quality control training. The trained entrepreneurs are connected with financing as needed, and credit/loans are used to acquire the necessary technology, equipment and raw material to start the business.
The IT centers have developed into successful businesses, generating revenue and creating jobs by offering internet access (internet café), training (in programming, software packages, internet use), and computer equipment sales. Each business creates at least 2 permanent jobs and generates an average of $600 dollars per month in profit in their first year – significant figures in the context of rural Armenia. Each center serves a population of approximately 200 people on a regular basis and offers four multi-week courses for basic computer literacy.
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