Digital Inclusion – Are remote communities benefiting?

In this post I summarize a presentation given at the 2019 EUROSEAS conference in Berlin on a topic I have been interested in a while as a result of my research into digital inclusion in remote villages, which I am currently turning into a published paper. The presentation was part of a panel with the title “Industry 4.0 in Southeast Asia: Strategies and Implications” organised by Arndt Graf from Goethe University in Frankfurt/Oder.

The main question of this presentation was whether, in the context of the rapid uptake of mobile technologies in rural and remote communities, people are able to leverage these tools for socio-economic benefit.

Other questions that arose in this context were what definition of “benefit” is appropriate in this context? What are people’s obstacles and barriers around the uptake and use of digital technologies? ICT in a development context does not always deliver the potential benefits it promises (Heeks 2002; Heeks 2010; Heeks & Stanforth 2015). Our research suggests that there is no automatic progression from non-user to a proficient participant in the digital economy. However, access to the Internet and use of ICTs provides real advantages to people in the region, in particular when local needs and practices are taken into account.


Picture: Local small cell tower


The paper is based on research carried out between 2015 and 2017 including a survey with ca. 330 survey participants and 35 in-depth interviews. The research was carried out by a team of 6 researchers from Australia and Malaysia, together with local research assistants. A full report for the project is also available (Horn, Rennie, Gifford, Riman, Wee,: ‘Digital inclusion and mobile media in remote Sarawak’, 2018). The project was funded through Swinburne University of Technology Mebourne / Sarawak grant.

The survey data for the research was collected in 11 villages, in a region of the state that is remote with no paved road, grid electricity or piped water. 4 villages had no connectivity at all and 7 villages had some connectivity (see map). Out of a total of 331 respondents, 36% or 119 respondents had used the Internet. 64% or 212 participants reported that they had never used the Internet.


Participants held a range of occupations, with most of them practicing subsistence agriculture. As the table below shows, many had more than one occupation, and very few had stable incomes. The high percentage of people who chose ‘other’ also suggests that people followed a range of livelihood strategies. Teachers and other government staff such as medical staff in rural clinics were almost an exception in that they held salaried positions. They were also exceptional in that they were the only ones whose professions required them to use digital technologies and connect to the Internet.

Table 1: Participants occupations

Agriculture 204  (61%)
Handicrafts 64  (19%)
Look after children & family members 61  (18%)
Fishing 41 (12%)
Sell agricultural products 40 (12%)
Government staff 31  (9%)
Teacher 28 (8%)
Hunting 23 (7%)
Transportation 7 (2%)
Shop 5 (2%)
Office work 2 (1%)
Other 90  (27%)


The data indicates that participants in our research were eager to engage with digital technologies, in particular with mobile technologies such as mobile and smartphones. Most used these technologies to connect with friends and family rather than for economic purposes. :

Table 2: Participants online activities


Activity  n  (%)
Use messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger 114  (96%)
Post pictures or videos on your social media accounts 108  (91%)
Look for information on topics of interest 100  (84%)
Watch TV or videos 99 (83%)
Read the news 90 (76%)
Read and send emails 75 (63%)
Play games 69  (58%)
Read and chat about current social and political issues 69  (58%)
Make calls using Skype or other apps 47  (40%)
Access e-government sites to pay fines, bills, or seek information 43  (36%)
Buy products online 36 (30%)
Look for work 36  (30%)
Online banking and financial transactions 36  (30%)
Sell or promote products online 20  (17%)

n 119 (for the full table, please see the report)

Availability of mobile devices facilitated the uptake of digital technologies. 82% of respondents owned a mobile device. The rate of device ownership for laptops was relatively much lower, in particular when government staff and teachers are taken into account, who owned such devices as part of their occupation. The lack of stable grid electricity explains the scarcity of desktop computers.

Table 3: Only mobile phone, only smartphone, or both?*

Type of mobile device owned n  (%)
Only mobile phone 89 (27%)
Only smartphone 82 (25%)
Both mobile & smartphone 102 (31%)
Neither 58 (18%)
Laptop 74 (21%)
Desktop 15 (5%)
Total 331 (100%)

*Due to rounding, some totals may not correspond with the sum of the separate figures.


From our survey we understood that older participants were less likely to engage with digital media. This also became clear during interviews and conversations, where many older participants expressed their feeling of inadequacy and their inability to carry out some functions including responding to messages. They often nevertheless owned digital devices, although not as much as younger participants, as this chart shows.

Chart 1: Age groups

Chart 1

Education was another strong factor determining Internet use and non-use. One reason is that Internet use is dependent on literacy, and lower educational obtainments suggest lower levels of literacy. It may also suggest lower socio-economic status and ability to afford devices and access. In addition, older participants were less likely to have attended school, since the area had been relatively more inaccessible and with fewer local schools in the past compared to the time during which the research was carried out, and so older participants generally had lower educational obtainments as well as lower ICT participation levels.

Chart 2

Our qualitative data suggests that there were some ways in which participants engaged with ICTs for economic purposes. As one participant explained:

“I just post to my friends, ‘You want to buy fish?’… Sometimes, you post something [like], ‘I got the wild boar, do you need it? Inbox me.’ That’s how I promote my products sometimes.” Local participant, contractor and owner of a small business

Another participant also managed to use ICTs, in particular social media, to sell products:

“I sell parangs [locally produced machetes] to people using Facebook. I put the picture online, and people can order from me. They buy from West Malaysia and also from overseas… I bring them down to the city and then package them, and post them by mail.” Local participant, transporter and entrepreneur

Others perceived lack of reliable access as a hindrance to their business, for example this shop owner:

“If [internet] was available I will surely use it. To help me, to make it easier for me to contact my [supplier]. For instance, when I want to order supplies, I would not have to go down [to the city]. If there is a proper internet connection, I could order directly from here. But as it is not available, I am forced to go down myself to order.” Local shop owner

IMG_0937Picture: Many participants practiced subsistence agriculture, and few held professions that required the use of ICTs


The lack of reliable, affordable mobile phone and Internet connections were one of many infrastructure issues experienced by our participants. Many participants perceived the lack of road accessibility and healthcare as greater disadvantages compared to connectivity. However, connectivity emerged as highly important above other infrastructure in the maintenance of social and family relationships. This was because many people had family and friends in the city and even overseas, and the maintenance of these relationships was very important to many.

Some few residents successfully engaged online business, in particular in the tourism sector and the sale of products. Many participants did not envision ways to participate in the digital economy, or if so they used ICTs to facilitate simple transactions such as ordering stock or talking to suppliers. Few people had ever considered buying or selling goods online, or using the Internet as a platform for business. Some had used the Internet for training purposes, but for many the lack of work opportunities in the village meant that they followed already established livelihood strategies or migrated to the city to work instead.

While older participants were keen to learn and use new skills but often not very confident in their abilities, many participants worried for the younger generation and their ability to compete in the jobs market because of a lack of digital skills. Better reliable connectivity and specific training might help people to better leverage technologies.



Heeks, R. (2002). Information Systems and Developing Countries: Failure, Success, and Local Improvisations. The Information Society, 18(2), 101–112.

Heeks, R. (2010). Do information and communication technologies (ICTs) contribute to development? Journal of International Development, 22(5), 625–640.

Heeks, R., & Ospina, A. V. (2019). Conceptualising the link between information systems and resilience: A developing country field study. Information Systems Journal, 29(1), 70–96.

Heeks, R., & Stanforth, C. (2015). Technological change in developing countries: Opening the black box of process using actor–network theory. Development Studies Research, 2(1), 33–50.









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