BRINGING THE INTERNET TO AFRICA’S FORGOTTEN ISLAND
On paper, the Democratic Republic of Congo is extremely rich in natural resources, having an estimated $24 trillion in untapped mineral deposits. However, it is still ranked 176th in the world, in the lowest tier of countries in terms of human development by the U.N.
Over the past few years one of Fjord’s founders, Mike Beeston, has been working hard in the most troubled region of Kivu in the east of the country. Together with local people he has founded ‘Ensemble Pour La Difference’, a fantastic not-for-profit organisation that provides design and innovation mentorship, along with loans to small businesses that provide value to the community.
Fjord has been involved with Ensemble, most recently in one of their core initiatives called ‘First Light’. The aim of First Light is to help Congolese people build prosperous, sustainable businesses owned and run by local people – empowering Congolese people to own their own development and foster progress, peace and stability.
Fjord has been able to get involved thanks to the Fjord Innovation Fund – The Innovation Fund provides support for great ideas that apply the design craft to social causes and extend the boundaries of the design discipline.
With project First Light, we are showcasing how designers and technologists in the developed and developing world can collaborate to roll-out and scale achievable and meaningful changes.
INTERNET FOR THE ISLAND OF IDJWI
So far we’ve been involved with two First Light projects – the first was on the island of Idjwi. This untouched island in the middle of Lake Kivu is inhabited by subsistence farmers, coffee growers, fishing communities and tungsten miners. Sadly, despite its exquisite natural beauty, the island is under considerable pressure. The only way to trade is by sailing back to the mainland, and lives are often lost leaving scores of single-parent families with an average of seven children. And while there is a school, few can afford the fees. The result is most young people are leaving the island in search of other opportunities.
An urgent need for connectivity
On Idjwi, Ensemble Pour La Difference supports several small coffee businesses and a women’s textile co-operative. However, one of the big problems is many islanders can’t even call or send texts to their customers on the mainland, let alone send emails. This isolates them and provides a big hindrance to regular trade.
It’s a problem readily recognised by island leaders. As a result of Ensemble’s work Mike was invited to meet the King (Mwami) of the island in early 2015. At the meeting the Mwami asked Mike to try to bring the Internet to the island. The Mwami’s hope was that internet connectivity would provide the commercial opportunities, information, education and life-saving alerts that are so essential for an island such as Idjwi to prosper and progress. It was a request readily accepted. The challenge of course was how to provide it? Our task at Fjord: to research and develop the solution.
FINDING A LOW-COST LOCAL SOLUTION
Tech giants are involved in many ‘moonshot’ ideas for blanket internet coverage, like balloons and solar planes. However the fact is these are years away. We needed to find a low-cost, locally maintainable solution. Looking at connectivity solutions in other challenging parts of the world such as rural Afghanistan and the favelas in Brazil, we came across ‘Internet Mesh Networking’. It’s a process where an internet access point on the main grid is first transmitted long distance via high powered WiFi antennas – and then spread out over an area via a web of homemade antennas. It basically allows communities to create their own mini network, and it was the perfect solution on Idjwi.
To Scotland for testing
The nearest internet connection to Idjwi was in Bukavu, 50km away on the mainland. So first we had to figure out how we could direct WiFi such a long distance through a system of antennas. Having built a prototype, the immediate challenge was how to test it without going the whole way to the Congo! We needed a rural area with hills, and little or no interference from other signals. The highlands of Scotland seemed the ideal option. In April 2016 we packed up our prototype and headed north. And with the great help of Alex Matheison, who offered his Brahan Estate near Inverness as a testing ground, and Mike Hicks of Cromarty Firth Wireless Networks, we were able to perform a successful test at 30km, reaching speeds of 100mb/s.
Pamoja Net is an opportunity to show Idjwi - our ideas and projects - to the outside world, so we can attract investment
Another interesting part of this project was how to design an internet service that Idjwi residents can actually benefit from. Very few islanders have a device with which they can access the internet. So through a Fjord Makeshop (a co-creation session with people from Fjord, Ensemble and Idjwi) we sketched user journeys for the management of a public display system. We also researched screens for displaying news and weather at Bugarula, Idjwi’s busiest market. We built an Android app that the King could use to send messages to the display. And we developed kiosked internet services using Raspberry Pi computers that would enable islanders to call, text and go online.
Planning the island mesh
The next challenge? How to create the WiFi mesh on the island. It meant scouting out antenna positions at the right elevation and with the right line of sight. One unexpected feature we also had to deal with was that it turns out Idjwi is in the zone labeled the lightning capital of the world! So we needed to plan for strikes and groundings and protect the equipment as much as possible.
There is now a functioning service in Bugurula that provides internet for those with enabled devices and a public information service for those without.
ACCESS TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD AT LAST
Finally, in May 2016 we networked the system together, using a virtual private network provided to us by an internet café – Liason Congo in Bukavu. Mike, with his colleagues at Ensemble, and Anders Olsson from Ensemble’s partner charity, Falling Whistles, spent two weeks installing three connecting antenna links, crossing a total of 70km using our instructions. On the 16th May, internet arrived at Bugarula. Our display system is now giving weather and news information to passers by and 20 – 30 users are connecting to our WiFi access point on a daily basis. We have brought public access to the outside world at last.
We are now defining the community operational model for the internet, bringing more employment, health services and educational content to hospitals and schools.
You can learn more about our project on our website here.
Pamoja Net helps us be more informed about what is happening around us, both in our country and abroad. It helps us participate in the development of our country