Breaking! – Internet access reaches Bugarula

The small town of Bugarula comes alive on market days, with around 10,000 visitors from across Idjwi.  Ensemble works with UFIN, a womens co-operative that produces textiles for sale at the market. It’s near Bugarula port, so we plan to provide news on shipping and cargo for traders, coffee producers and tungsten miners.  Also the Mwami (King) has his compound here, and as the cultural leader, he has a very important stakeholdership in the network.

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These two women owned the land where our kiosk was to be based.  Very kindly, they offered their help directly opposite Bugarula’s only bar. Being a gathering point for young people already, positioning our kiosk and access point here ensured that internet access would be convenient for local people.

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The final mast here and access point router proved rather problematic, and it took several days to ensure access. This was our first difficult encounter with solar power catering for such delicate and hungry equipment as computer displays. After great tenacity by Mike, unfamiliar with the Raspberry Pi terminal, guided through by Euan and Chuka we managed to get our access point up and running.

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Throughout set-up, as things came online, and the people began accessing the web using smartphones, which had up until now been ineffective on Idjwi.

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The owner of the bar, Chance, a sharp suited, bike-riding local entrepeneur, has been hired by the co-operative as the guardian of the connectivity and kiosk.  Using an Android app we developed in London, he can accept SMS news from local people and easily content manage a public display.  The public display, powered by a Raspberry Pi, loads in the weather and a local and national Twitter news feed from Bukavu.

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On average we are tracking 20-30 people accessing the internet every day, with poignant messages such as asking for help to find lost children having been posted on the display.

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Visitors to the kiosk include doctors from Heal Africa, an NGO hospital in Goma and probably the most important in North Kivu. Yesterday, whilst visiting the island they came to use the service – as apparently did people from the Indépendante National Électoral Commision “CENI” and people from the local police regiment.

We are now embarking on a period of research to understand how the mesh, access and potentially curated educational content must be scaled.  It feels like an exciting glimpse of the future.

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As the community itself learns what the capabilities of the network are, their usage of it will evolve and mature, revealing how it can become truly meaningful and valuable. This can then in turn feed into our design of the infrastructure – both the software it operates on and the technology required.