Community Networks are a Model for Future Development

Community Networks are a Model for Future Development

Social business incubator Ensemble Pour La Difference (Ensemble) is working to empower entrepreneurs in the Democratic Republic of Congo to drive positive social and economic change.

Ensemble is based in Bukavu, in the Kivu region of eastern DRC – a vast and very poor country, which is also troubled by political instability and insecurity. Nonetheless, the organisation’s Mike Beeston describes it as a rewarding, if challenging, place to work. The group focuses on the agriculture, energy, healthcare and connectivity sectors in order to deliver a systemic difference to daily life.

One of Ensemble’s key connectivity projects is based on the island of Idjwi in Lake Kivu, which Beeston describes as “a beautiful and safe area, but very poor.” The island is very isolated, with poor mobile phone coverage, which makes it difficult for its 350,000 inhabitants to receive updates on the news or weather.

This has serious implications as the lake is prone to frequent storms, which pose a threat to the small canoes that many of the islanders use for transportation. Having access to a weather forecast would let them know when a storm is imminent, potentially saving lives.

Idjwi’s Mwami (local king) asked Ensemble to help deliver internet access to the island in order to help stem emigration and lay the foundations for progress. The task has proved challenging, since bandwidth has to be brought in from neighbouring Rwanda and the associated costs are high.

However, the demand is there. The islanders recognise that the lack of connectivity is detrimental to local business, and they wish to be connected rather than isolated – currently, the mobile coverage is so unreliable that many islanders prefer to use Motorola walkie-talkies for local calls.

Ensemble agreed to explore implementing a Wi-Fi and communications network, with the mission statement to “use the power of the internet and computer technology to practically improve the quality of everyday life for the majority of people in the community and to strengthen the well-being of the community as a whole. To develop a service that is perceived by the community as a community-owned project to which the community is prepared to contribute.”

Communications masts are manufactured in Bukavu, and with the help of the local community are transported across the lake to Idjwi Island. The initiative is carried out entirely by the islanders, who carry the masts, antennae, solar panels, batteries, sand and cement up to the hilltops and install the equipment themselves, with support from Ensemble.

Wi-Fi signal is provided by a supplier 35 km away in Rwanda to a mast in Bukavu that relays the signal 60 km across Lake Kivu to a high mountain on the island, where a mast and antenna distributes the Wi-Fi signal to communities and businesses. Ensemble has built and installed taller masts at strategic points, as well as shorter masts for Wi-Fi hotspots.

idjwi internet kios 600The network supplies six businesses between 8am and 4pm each day and people can use it for free after 4pm. Payments cover 60% of overheads. More than 3500 devices have connected. Local people - who two years ago had never seen a computer - now chat instantly with friends and family afar using WhatsApp.

Crucially, says Beeston, people feel more informed and connected. Helped by some of the island’s inhabitants, Ensemble surveyed around 80 respondents who confirmed that they used the service fairly regularly – at least three times a week – and felt that it had delivered a benefit to their lives, whether by allowing them to study more efficiently, speak to friends and family, or keeping them informed of current events.

According to Beeston, Ensemble has “the beginnings of a model for remote communities who are being ignored”, but notes that it differs to models currently supported by the mobile industry, focusing on three core elements of community ownership, adapted infrastructure, and collaborative service development.

Taking a deep dive into these three pillars of the model, Beeston explains:

1. Community ownership: involve people

  • Invite people to participate in every aspect of the project
  • Pay them when appropriate for the work they do. For example, we pay those who help carry a mast 1.5kms up a hill. After all, this is no small task!
  • Don’t just do it and leave: train local people to install and maintain the service
  • However, train them in how to use a smart phone, how to protect privacy and what impact it can have on social interaction

2. Adapt the infrastructure to the local situation

  • Make as much as possible locally, using local people
  • Use designs that are drawn up locally and which recognise that everything has to be carried by hand, and that equipment has to be accessible using local wooden ladders. Someone drawing up the plans at a desk in the UK wouldn’t necessarily consider this
  • Install and maintain locally, which keeps costs down and ensures the infrastructure is fit for purpose
  • Use people who understand the local geography to align the antenna and solve local environmental problems such as lightning (which is a serious and frequent problem on Idjwi)

3. This is about more than connectivity - it’s a service design platform

  • We started with a screen in a kiosk showing the weather report, and realised we could deliver more via onscreen messages – for example if a child went missing and was found
  • We now have a collaborative design group with 10 women who know there is a low level of literacy in the community and have started to think about IVR and an open cellular network on top of the Wi-Fi network
  • We are in the process of developing a service called “Salama” which could be an essential safety tool. But we need support and expertise from the telecoms industry to continue

Beeston concludes: “We know we still have many things to do, and that support for a poor community in the poorest country in the world is not everyone’s priority, but the Mwami is committed and so are we. We will move forward, whatever that takes, until we have a model for remote communities that can be packaged and repeated and is financially viable as well as useful for everyone in the community.”

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