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open cellular




project since: 2018


the challenge

Mirroring trends across the DRC, mobile phone penetration is gradually increasing on the remote island of Idjwi on Lake Kivu. Yet despite the decrease in the cost of handsets, network connections remain poor and expensive. 

Idjwi has traditionally lacked any form of communications infrastructure. The more ambitious young people on the island report feeling isolated and disconnected from the mainland, and are thus leaving to study and work in Bukavu and Goma. The Mwami (or King) on Idjwi recognised this challenge and worked with local Chiefs to produce an island development plan to address social and economic needs, high amongst which was communications.


At the invitation of the Mwami, Ensemble initially collaborated with the local community to co-design and install Pamoja Net, the first free public Wifi network on Idjwi. Read more about Pamoja Net here. 

In 2017, Ensemble also installed the first OpenCellular base station on Idjwi. The aim was to offer people free or affordable mobile communication and enable digital services to be delivered through ordinary feature phones using interactive voice response (IVR) technology. 

Given that the majority of people on Idjwi cannot read or write, the ability to install IVR applications in local languages has the potential to make a hugely positive difference to their lives.



Following a successful pilot, we are now collaborating with OpenCellular to install a sustainable community owned communications platform. 

In August 2018, Ensemble was selected as one of eleven recipients of the inaugural OC Grant awards, an OC and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) to improve rural connectivity. The OpenCellular Grants Program was launched to fund, promote and accelerate non-traditional paths to the deployment of OpenCellular (OC) base stations, specifically in rural areas with limited cellular access. 

With support from the OC Grants Programme, Ensemble has implemented phase one of the project, installing three base stations and running a pilot user test to validate the technology. The locations were chosen following careful mapping of geographical barriers and designed to ensure coverage in the major market area of Bugurula down to the main port on North Idjwi.


community-designed DIGITAL SERVICES - salama

We will continue to work to expand coverage on the island and support the community to ensure that it can become a sustainable, locally managed network. 

At the same time, our focus is on using the network to deliver IVR services that improve the economy and well-being of people on Idjwi. The next step is further collaboration with cooperatives and local civil society to design, develop and open-source IVR services, the first of which is Salama, an emergency response service. 


Research carried out by Ensemble into Pamoja Net users revealed that only 23% are women. The low standing of women on Idjwi presents major barriers to digital confidence and engagement with a community Wifi network like Pamoja Net. In response, Ensemble has sought to increase digital awareness and literacy amongst women on Idjwi. 

The first initiative has been collaborating with members of the largest women’s cooperative on Idjwi, UFIN to co-design (using human-centered design processes) an interactive voice response service, Salama, that has the potential to be the island’s first emergency response service. Salama enables users to call an emergency number and record a “help me” message that is immediately forwarded to six pre-nominated family and friends. Anyone who responds can then record and trigger a follow-up message notifying the other recipients that help is on the way.