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Designing community services that empower women in the Democratic Republic Of Congo

Since it’s kick off in 2015, Project First Light, a collaborative venture in the Republic of Congo between Fjord and Ensemble Pour La Difference, has gone from strength to strength. To date, the project, which aims to apply innovation and design craft to social causes, has brought Pay-as-you-Go Wi-Fi internet to hundreds of remote islanders on Idjwi and installed an open source hospital management system. We have achieved considerable success in positively transforming the way a community in one of the most inhibited countries in the world go about their daily lives.

In 2017, the team is determined to continue to deploy significant developments to further the progress in the area. Following the installation of two new WiFi masts in the past few months, a new hospital, a radio station and police station have recently joined the network.


Yet, it was through connecting the UFIN women’s textile cooperative in August 2016, that the team witnessed first-hand the empowering effect connectivity can have. The UFIN organisation is made up of a strong community of 2,000 resourceful women, led by the Queen of Idjwi, who organise health initiatives, grow and sell coffee and produce textiles. They have been utilising the new connectivity to take ownership of their future, and help others to do so. Our analytics showed only 5% of PamojaNet’s users are females, highlighting that very few women are able to access the network. Fjord and Ensemble Pour La Difference want to change that.

The next vision is to create a connectivity service for women, designed by women. In November 2016, Anneli Westerberg, Service and Interaction Designer at Fjord London, ran a focus group with nine members from UFIN to understand how a service on PamojaNet could be used to empower all women in Idjwi. The feedback was solemn. Most of the women reported feeling afraid for their health and safety on a daily basis. Utilising Fjord’s ‘Design rule of 3’: creating a design culture within Ensemble; applying design thinking to a constrained environment; and design doing, Fjord and partners have committed to implementing a community health care and alarm system on a universally accessible technology.

Most of the population of Idjwi doesn’t own a smartphone, so this neighbourhood watch system has to be based on cellular infrastructure. However, most people cannot afford to use their mobile very often. Open Source has come to the rescue in the recent development of OpenBTS – software that allows 2G capabilities to be run on WiFi infrastructure. This disrupting enabler allows us to use our WiFi network to push and pull automated calls and texts across the island in health and safety emergencies.

Additionally, Accenture and Microsoft joint venture, Avanade, have donated 200 handsets to UFIN women, and Dr Arjuna Sathiaseelan of Cambridge University has offered the support of the Networking for Development Lab as we prototype this approach. Our hope is to install a test in April and roll out the service in July 2017.

Critically, we need to improve the WiFi strength to support this service. AvantiPLC, has agreed to support the cause by increasing PamojaNet’s bandwidth and speed via satellite, whilst a community of open-source developers assists us in helping the community expand the range using home-made antennas.

Ensemble and Fjord want to utilise all this incredible support and expertise from different pockets of the telecommunications sector to drive phase 3 of the project even further. Following the example of successful community Telco’s such as AirJaldi in India and Mawingu in Kenya, and under the guidance of these communities, we want to help the industry reach the underserved and adapt to the changing landscape.


In November last year, Ensemble’s Patrick Byamungu attended the InternetSociety’s 1st Summit on Community Networks in Africa and on 27th January, Euan Millar is presenting at the GAIA conference for community networks at Cambridge University. Anneli, who ran the UFIN focus group, will also be presenting the project at the IxDA – Interaction Design Association – in New York in February, and we’re thrilled that the project has been nominated for an IxDA People’s Choice award. Outreach like this helps us discover the organisations that are equally committed to bringing affordable communication to all people.

Phase 3 of Project First Light is set to bring some incredibly exciting developments to Idjwi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also for Fjord and Ensemble. By designing our first diverse service on top of an open-source infrastructure, we are set to disrupt constraints in the area, and most importantly, help to change lives.

.…Watch this space!

Fjord Family

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