The first set of Telecenters around the world were established in the 1990s owing to the need to bridge the gap that the internet revolution had created. They were set up in many developing countries and served as an intervention enabled by ICT to achieve rural development. As development projects, the aim was that they would inspire education and communal use of facilities so as to strengthen social connections and growth among communities.
Between the late 90s and well into the early 2000s, Telecenters became popularly known as Cybercafés in Nigeria and went on to play a huge role in the lives of many Nigerians, especially Teenagers. It was the “IT” place where all the Tech-savvy people in the neighbourhood met to satisfy one tech need or the other. A few cybercafés even incorporated call centres; VIP cubicles for customers who needed privacy; and computer classes for people looking to get “Y2K” compliant. It was indeed an interesting time that saw the bloom of many ICT centred businesses as they quickly became a meeting point for professional, academic and recreational users of internet services.
I got my first practical computer lessons from one that wasn’t too far from where we lived and I remember how excited I was the day my tutor announced that we would be creating email accounts, I was 13years old at the time. I later learned how to research information online, then went on to sign up for as many newsletters, create a Hi5 page and register on any other websites I could find just so that I had tons of emails waiting for me in my inbox whenever I got around to checking it. I became a lover of cybercafés from then on and would save part of my pocket money so that the coming Saturday, I could afford a one hour slot which cost about 100naira back then.
The blackberry surge era however, caused peoples’ demand for cybercafé services to plunge. This was because the Blackberry Internet Service (BIS) package provided users with unlimited monthly data (which was later reviewed to limited packages) to browse, chat and enjoy other social media services. People could finally access more of the Information they needed on the go, at their own convenience and with the added advantage of privacy. Cybercafés soon became places where most people went to work with their laptops, print/scan documents, make photocopies, etc.
Today, the trend continues at the disservice of cybercafés as more people are able to afford smartphones, broadband connections, laptops and machines that combine print/scan/copy in one gadget. The existing cybercafés have had to delve into/incorporate other in-demand services like game betting and football viewing centres or rely on people’s “afterthought” need for their ICT services. Many children these days are raised with tablets and other gadgets which they grow well accustomed to before they become teenagers, hence eradicating the need for the sort of basic computer training that people like me had to pay to get.
Notwithstanding the aforementioned progress away from cybercafés, many rural communities still require their services. Some communities still depend on them to enjoy internet access, attain computer literacy and in most cases charge their phones so they can stay in touch with the world. It becomes apparent that the future of cybercafés in Nigeria lies in their ability to evolve to suit people’s current need.
Although this reinvention might change the idea of cybercafés as we once knew, it still provides businesses with a chance to provide ICT services and serve as the social connection centres that they have always been. It is however pertinent that the desire to keep cybercafés in existence does not stop us from accepting when and where we need to give up the idea of its relevance. Regardless of what turn the future takes, there is no doubt that cybercafés would remain an important part of Nigeria’s history and journey with ICT.