COMMUNITY-OWNED WIFI NETWORK ON THE ISLAND OF IDJWI
Sector: digital technology
location: idjwi island
Project Since: 2017
300,000 people live on Idjwi, an island on Lake Kivu with a surface area of just 310km. Distance from major markets, poor infrastructure and absence of industry have contributed to chronic poverty and low level of health and well-being. One of the few population studies conducted on Idjwi by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (2011) revealed, “miserable health and economic conditions, which tend to be worse than those in the DRC”. 80% of households live on less than $1 per day (HHI, 2011), well below the World Bank international poverty line ($1.90 per day).
This lack of infrastructure and investment has also contributed to an absence of interest amongst international telecommunications companies to make communications networks accessible on Idjwi. In Eastern Congo as a whole, the source of most people’s telecommunication or internet connection is via complex and expensive ($200 mb/month) third party arrangements with Rwandan suppliers. For communities in Eastern Congo, like on Idjwi - many of who live in remote, off grid areas - to benefit from connectivity there is a need to innovate, low-cost, locally manageable solutions that can be sustained at a community level.
In 2016 - at the invitation of the Mwami (or King) on Idjwi - Ensemble began collaborating with local stakeholders to co-design and install the island’s first WiFi network, Pamoja Net.
Pamoja means “together” in Swahili. The Mwami recognised the potential for communications infrastructure to positively impact social cohesion on Idjwi, as well as economic development (through strengthening commerce and exports) and connection to the mainland. He was particularly keen to stop the mass exodus of young people from the island.
With a commitment from local businesses to fund the $800 monthly connection cost, Ensemble - with support from technologists and designers at Fjord - was able to provide start-up infrastructure investment. We transported equipment, built masts with lightning protection and powered everything with solar energy. We connected mountain-top to mountain-top, mast to mast, down to a public access internet kiosk we built at the island’s major market town of Bugurula.
Ensemble has since built many more masts through phased deployment, connecting more businesses and cooperatives.
Over 3,900 people have now benefitted from free access to Pamoja Net. Research carried out by Ensemble revealed that 98% of users felt that Pamoja Net had contributed to a positive change in their life from a new-found ability to connect with family and friends to conducting educational research, making job applications, checking weather reports before fishing on Lake Kivu and saving money.
A focus group of local businesses revealed the significant of internet connectivity to their operations with staff from the coffee cooperative CPNCK questioning, “How did we manage before?” and explaining how Pamoja Net enables professional interaction with buyers, speeds-up communication, provides the ability to send reports, share video content and recruit buyers. For example, CPNCK has been able to secure partnerships with international buyers including Starbucks and Blanchards.
Local businesses now fund 60% of the monthly operating costs and we have continued to provide paid connection to local businesses during working hours, which then enables free public access to Pamoja Net from 1600hrs and at weekends.
In April 2019, Pamoja Net was selected as one of the 12 community networks from Africa, Asia and Latin America to be part of the Association of Progressive Communication’s (APC) Connecting the Unconnected Initiative. This project focuses on strengthening community networks through online and offline knowledge exchange and technical resiliency initiatives.
Under the Connecting the Unconnected Initiative, Ensemble Technologists will run a training programme for technologists on Idjwi to gradually take-on technical management of Pamoja Net. We will also install an additional mast at Kibanda that will help mitigate the risk of network downtime in the event of lightning strike and provide the foundation for longer-term service expansion to South Idjwi.
Our aim is also for Pamoja Net to become a technically resilient network that reaches across North Idjwi and can be technically managed and financially sustained by the local community.