While most residents in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, enjoy modern digital lifestyles with smart phones, broadband and new e-services, those in rural and remote areas of the country often miss out on digitalization and the resulting socio-economic benefits.
In the southern region of Malekula, the second largest island of the archipelago, villagers lack access to high-quality healthcare services, banking and payment systems, and even reliable power and clean water supplies.
The only means to leave the island is often a treacherous banana boat ride to the nearest town. At about USD 150 for a one-way trip, the cost is out of reach for most locals, even to make payments for school fees or get essential paperwork done.
The remote coastal area is prone to natural disasters, which are on the rise due to climate change.
Cyclone Harold, in 2020, caused tremendous damage. Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific, graduated from the United Nations least developed country (LDC) list the same year.
But primary education was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and basic school supplies are running thin for many students in remote villages.
Digital transformation at the grassroots level
Recognizing how connectivity and digital technologies could enhance village life, Vanuatu’s government joined forces with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to launch the Smart Villages and Smart Islands initiative pilot in Malekula.
“The Smart Villages and Smart Islands initiative addresses development challenges by accelerating digital transformation at the grassroots level,” said Cosmas Zavazava, Director, ITU Development Bureau. “Driven by community needs, the initiative strengthens connectivity infrastructure, builds digital skills, and facilitates digital services that are cost-effective and fit-for-purpose.”
ITU launched the pilot initiative in 2020, with support from Australia’s Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts (DITRDCA) and Vanuatu’s Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO). Since then, ITU experts have conducted five missions to assess needs, build basic digital skills, raise awareness of the initiative, and enhance the uptake of digital services in the six villages.
A taskforce comprised of 12 community leaders, including two women, has been constituted to work with local communities – to identify priority sectors and the services to be digitized first.
“We hope the Smart Villages and Smart Islands initiative will bring us to the next level of daily service operations through the power of connectivity and digital technologies,”said Wils Obed, vice chair of the taskforce for the initiative in South Malekula.
In October 2022, the initiative entered a new stage, with the onboarding of technology service providers and other United Nations agencies, along with the launch of a pilot digital application. The Asian Development Bank and the Joint SDG fund – an inter-agency mechanism supporting UN Sustainable Development Goals – have provided additional funding.
The United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) is extending support to provide solar power to an additional cellular tower the Vanuatu government is building. The tower should make connectivity more reliable and affordable for Southern Malekula’s schools, health facilities and communities.
Other UN partners, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the UN Resident Coordinator Office, as well as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and ITU, are working together in the SDG Fund Joint Programme to promote a “whole-of-government” approach. Together, they aim to implement the Smart Villages and Smart Islands initiative under the leadership of UN Resident Coordinator Office.
What lies ahead
In 2023, the initiative is set to double down on providing digital literacy training for villagers, including young people, women, and people with disabilities.
The positive impact of the initiative is already becoming apparent in communities across South Malekula. For example, villagers have been reconnected to the Internet with VSAT (very small aperture terminal) infrastructure, enabling students at South Malekula Secondary school to resume their studies online.
People now gather at a community centre to use social media and browse the Internet.
A group of local coconut producers, after training by experts from ITU and Vanuatu’s Department of Trade, have put their new digital skills to use in creating marketing materials to reach more customers.
School teachers started learning – and practicing – new teaching methods for the digital era.
As the initiative continues, more stories like this are sure to emerge – a testament of Vanuatu’s transformation from small island to ‘Smart Island’.
Originally published on the UN Specalized Agency for ITU