As part of the “Connecting the Unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives” project, 12 community network organisations (four in Africa, four in Asia and four in Latin America) were selected and granted funding towards activities that create and foster a peer learning community. Over the coming weeks we will be sharing stories from the members of this peer community about local impacts of the work they carried out with the help of this funding. Today, we are featuring a story that was shared with us by Ensemble Pour la Différence, based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Ensemble Pour la Différence (recently renamed La Différence) is a social business incubator that empowers entrepreneurs in the eastern DRC to drive positive social and economic change. It also builds technology solutions in collaboration with local communities, such as Pamoja Net, a community-owned Wi-Fi network for people living on the island of Idjwi in Lake Kivu.
The island of Idjwi is remote, with a heavily isolated and impoverished population – 80% of people live on less than USD 1.25 per day. Education outcomes are poor, with very few people completing secondary education. There are also scant income opportunities for young people, and as a result the past decade has seen an exodus of people under 25 to the mainland cities of Bukavu and Goma. This doesn’t even begin to address the extreme digital divide between Idjwi and mainland DRC. For anyone with an interest in digital technology or connectivity, Idjwi is the last place you would look for opportunities.
However, the growth of Pamoja Net – originally co-designed and installed by Ensemble Pour la Différence in collaboration with the local community in 2016 – and specifically the support received through the Connecting the Unconnected learning grant in 2019 have facilitated a significant learning and livelihood opportunity for a small group of young technologists on Idjwi. This small group have been sharing their knowledge with other members of the island community.
By firstly employing and secondly training three technologists on Idjwi to take on a more active role in the management and technical development of the network, Ensemble was able to both bolster community ownership of the network and significantly enhance the skills, expertise and quality of life of this group of young people. The three local technologists (one woman and two men), who had all expressed an interest in and aptitude for digital technology, were able to benefit from an in-depth and highly technical training programme that was tailored to and responsive to their individual needs. Such training would otherwise have been completely unavailable to them, either due to cost or lack of available expertise in the region.
With the support of the Connecting the Connected project learning grant, Ensemble Pour la Différence also invested in strengthening the technical resiliency of the Pamoja Net community network by installing a second mast at Kibanda on North Idjwi. The mast is serving as a technical backup to the original mast at Bugurula. The mast has been utilised to mitigate potential service downtime in poor weather conditions, most notably during thunderstorms where the original mast has been vulnerable to lightning strikes due to its installation design. It has also served as a back-up when technical maintenance has been carried out on the Bugurula mast. As a result, they were able to connect an average of 150 people per day to Pamoja Net with minimal service downtime.
The grant also made it possible to provide each of them with a regular income for the project period, positively impacting their quality of life. This is something that Ensemble will continue to sustain in the short term, as it collaborates with them to increase paid subscribers from 10 to 20 over 2020, in order to make the network financially self-sufficient (including salary for the technologists).
In delivering this training, the lead technologist from Ensemble compiled relevant materials to create a Google classroom on the technical fundamentals of community networks. Although tailored to the DRC context and currently only available in French, this is a resource that could be shared with other community networks and developers for translation and adaptation to other locations where access to practical training in community networks, basic computer equipment and computer networks is out of reach for many young people due to cost or lack of expertise. In general, the training programme helped further strengthen the skills of the lead technologist in training and mentoring young people. Going forward, Ensemble as an organisation is focusing more closely on how it offers tailored technical assistance to young entrepreneurs and developers to adopt human-centred design processes to respond to community engagement and connectivity needs.