In the middle of Lake Kivu lies the untouched island of Idjwi, inhabited by subsistence farmers, coffee growers, fishing communities and rudimentary tungsten miners.
Sadly, despite its exquisite natural beauty, it is an island under considerable pressure. In recent times, upheaval in neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi has driven an influx of refugees to the safety of the island. Yet there is barely enough resources here to support the local people, who are on desperately low incomes. In this video, local people describe life on the island:
As people sail with commodities to the mainland to trade lives are often lost, leaving behind scores of single parent families with an average of 10 children. Bad weather, accident, unfair trading and banditry are daily challenges. Without safety information, access to agricultural and mining methods, climate and weather data, the odds are stacked against people to be able to ever sustainably improve their situation.
There is a school here but few can afford the fees, keeping the population largely illiterate.
To add insult to injury, under the lake is a deadly dormant reservoir of poisonous methane gas. Volcanologists fear that a volcanic eruption or earthquake could be disastrous. The island’s remote location, has led to it being referred to as “Africa’s most forgotten island.”
In this moving video, Mamma Janette, a single mother and coffee grower explains her challenges:
Mike was invited to meet the King (Mwami) of the island. The Mwami explained to Mike that the hard life and isolation was causing most young people to leave. He asked Mike to try to bring the internet to the island, in the hope that the connectivity might boost the local economy, education and quality of life. Fjord London were tasked to research and develop how to do this.
The service challenge
On Idjwi, Ensemble Pour La Difference supports small businesses that export coffee, and a women’s textiles manufacturing cooperative based in a refuge for victims of domestic violence.
There are interested buyers for the commodities here, but customers need to be able to regularly contact sellers and track their orders. Although many people have a legacy mobile phone, they cannot afford to make calls or texts. Without any way to communicate internally or externally, or to schedule and collectivise their efforts, operations are uncoordinated.
Internet connectivity could give residents the commerce opportunity they so desperately need. Information, education and life-saving alerts are so essential to the people here to sustain their progress. Never has there been an area in more vital need of the power of the internet.
Technology giants are involved in “moonshot” approaches for blanket internet coverage of the developing world using balloons and solar planes. However laudable the attempt, we knew that these solutions are years away, and fraught with political and technical hurdles. We needed a grass-roots, low-cost, locally maintainable solution.
Looking to connectivity solutions that were made by people in challenging situations the world over, such as rural Afghanistan, the favelas in Brazil and the projects of Detroit, we came across Internet mesh networking. A social response to locally bespoke connectivity infrastructure.
This is a process by which an Internet access point (or backhaul) is transmitted long distance via high-powered WiFi antennas and then shared out via home-made WiFi antennas in a web (mesh) across communities. Those deemed not worth investing in by traditional TelCos have been building and maintaining their own collective networks thanks to the power of WiFi. It seemed prudent to adopt this approach using tried and tested technologies, and adapt it for the unique requirements on Idjwi.
Our island research in early 2015 told us that very few people on the island have a device with which they can access the internet even if we were able to bring WiFi to the island. During a Fjord Makeshop we sketched user journeys for the management of a public display system. We also researched screens with the right luminescence to be able to display news and weather services at Bugarula, Idjwi’s busiest market that has approximately 100,000 visitors each day.
But before any of our ideas could be brought to life, we needed to get the trunk line – or backhaul – onto the island from Bukavu 50km away.