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Net Gain for the Third World

Computer Users in Poor Nations Log On for Contacts


LIMA, Peru — Using tropical fish for bait, Edgar Panduro casts his line into the Internet, hoping to reel in First World profits for his Third World business.

"I look for fish on the Internet," he says, punching the words "tropical fish" on a World Wide Web search engine, hitting the enter key and watching a list of entries roll down the screen.

"I make contact, introduce myself and leave my address. Later I send or fax them more information," he adds.

Panduro's family-owned company sells tropical fish and other products from the Amazon jungle. His World Wide Web connections already have netted him a $5,000 contract with a German buyer for wild pigskin to make gloves.

He is one of a growing number of businessmen and other professionals in poor countries using the Internet as an electronic shortcut to profits, expertise and other resources in wealthy countries.

A few examples:

* Brazilian rubber tappers set up a Web page to post prices for rain forest products like Brazil nuts, and also to promote rain forest conservation and disseminate information about environmental martyr Chico Mendes.

* Doctors in 23 African nations use the Internet to get help in diagnosing and treating patients, going directly to colleagues at some of the best medical centers in the world for advice.

* Computer programmers in India work for large U.S. corporations, writing programs and sending their work via the Internet to their home offices.

* A Venezuelan nonprofit cooperative that provides small loans to low-income families for home repairs and buying used cars has a Web page in hopes of attracting donations and expanding its services.

Whether trying to make a living, heal the sick or preserve nature, all see the Internet as a way to bridge geographical, social and economic distances.

Officials in the West African nation of Benin credit cyberspace for former dictator Mathieu Kerekou's upset victory in the March presidential election over incumbent Nicephore Soglo. Kerekou used the Internet to lobby political and business leaders around the world for support, which gave him more money for his campaign.

His government is now committed to the Internet.

"In its relations with the external world, Benin is no longer limited. We have 45 million subscribers to whom we can address our problems," Albert Tevoedjre, Benin's public works minister, said, referring to the estimated number of Internet users worldwide.

He said the government has several projects in the works involving the Internet, including one looking for ways to attract jobs to the former French colony.

Elsewhere in Africa, the Internet is being used to save lives.

Dr. Fred Bukachi, who runs the Kenyan part of Healthnet from Kenyatta Hospital in Nairobi, said at least two patients lived because of treatment recommendations made over the Internet.

In one case, a doctor got urgently needed help for a patient with kidney failure from a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In the other, a doctor in Britain with experience in Africa advised how to treat a patient severely ill with sickle cell anemia.

In South Africa, former apartheid prisoner Jacob Moatshe uses electronic mail to make contacts to help his township of Oukasie, 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg.

"In the old [apartheid] days, nobody wanted to develop Oukasie," Moatshe said. "Now we have to convert our struggle from being militant to a struggle for development."

In a township where old car tires weigh down corrugated metal roofs so the wind does not blow them away, Moatshe sends e-mail with a computer donated by the U.S. government.

He uses e-mail to pitch Oukasie as a hub for business development in South Africa and to keep in touch with local teachers training in Berkeley, Calif., Oukasie's sister city.

Tanzanian officials expect to use the Internet in their 10-year master plan to promote the tourist industry, which is expected to be Tanzania's top foreign exchange earner by 2000. The project is being financed with $261 million from the European Union.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, residents will soon be able to literally step off a muddy, potholed street near the central market into "virtual markets" at the country's first computer cafe.

Housed in a former restaurant, the cafe is being set up by a Cambodian professional association to provide public Internet access to everyone from lawyers to bicycle cabbies.

From coffee growers in Costa Rica to tea merchants in Sri Lanka, people in different parts of the developing world see the huge potential of a global network that lets them go right to customers sitting at their home computers.

But in many parts of the developing world, access to the Internet--for those who have even heard of it--is still largely unobtainable.

Eighty-five percent of the people in poor countries do not have telephones and only a privileged 5% have computers. Poor and intermittent telephone service often makes just a simple telephone call an accomplishment.

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