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Milestone event brings national stakeholders to a remote community to raise awareness of the potential of local access networks

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.In Order to create awareness on community networks, Bosco Uganda held a national multistakeholder event in Gulu.

On 23 October 2019, with the support of the Connecting the Unconnected project learning grant, BOSCO Uganda held a national multistakeholder event with the theme “Ending the spatial isolation through provision of inclusive connectivity for community transformation: NO MORE ISOLATION”, at the Hotel Kakanyero in Gulu district. Gulu is located 336 kilometres away from the national capital, in the northern part of Uganda.

That bright morning, over 60 participants from the government, regulatory bodies, civil society organisations, partners, internet service providers, funders, academia, the media and representatives of community information and communications technology (ICT) centre sites from different parts of the country converged to participate in the event.

But before going on, we must say, it’s not easy to organise such events, because people are so unpredictable. When we sent out invitations, so many people were eager to attend the event and confirmed their presence, but to our disappointment, around a quarter of those who had confirmed their attendance – including some of the planned speakers of the day – did not make it due to various unavoidable circumstances. Imagine opening your emails and answering phone calls and seeing and hearing so many apologies. It is so heartbreaking, especially when you had planned for all these people. Secondly, the previous day was a hectic one, trying to get things all set for the day. Checking on the venue that evening, we found out that the hotel manager had given out the venue to other colleagues, despite the fact that we had fully booked it. The manager showed us a different venue that could accommodate only 30 people, yet we had booked for 100 people. We rejected that offer and insisted on having what we needed, so he had to get a different venue for our counterpart, and with that sorted, we left the place late in the night after everything was set for the event. But the beauty is that the day passed by successfully.

It was already 9:00 a.m., time for the workshop to start, and looking left and right, the planned master of ceremonies (MC) of the day was nowhere to be seen. Immediately we reached out to him, and unfortunately his mother had an urgent illness and he had to rush with her to the hospital. That again gave us the greatest disappointment. We had to look around for someone who could take up that role, and before we knew it, Mr. George took the floor. The workshop began well with an opening prayer from Father Martin, a representative of the Archbishop of Gulu [BOSCO Uganda operates under the trusteeship of the Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu], an overview of BOSCO Uganda by Father Joseph Okumu, welcoming remarks from the chairman of the Board of Directors, a message from the Archdiocese of Gulu, and a presentation about BOSCO Uganda and community networks.

The next session, with testimonies from representatives of community ICT centre sites, was extremely interesting. Mr. Richard – the site manager of the Warocco Kwo (“Let’s rehabilitate life” in Acholi) ICT centre, shared with the participants how the network has benefited his community. Warocco Kwo is a youth group that deals in farming and agricultural produce in Atiang Tochi sub-county, Omoro district, northern Uganda. This group was formed after the ceasefire between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government of Uganda to serve the purpose of transforming the lives of the youth affected by the war. Mr. Richard mentioned the key activities at the ICT centre as training the youth in entrepreneurship skills, computer literacy, safe living and internet access. The group uses the internet to sell their products at reasonable prices directly to the buyers, eliminating middlemen who used to cheat them, and they also support other farmers in the area to use the internet to sell their produce. In addition, they use the internet to know the weather forecast in order to help them plan accordingly. With the computer knowledge and skills acquired during computer trainings at the ICT centre, so far two people have obtained formal employment in government offices.

Pagirinya Senior Secondary School came next with their story. The school is located in Adjumani district in one of the refugee settlements called Pagirinya in the West Nile. There were two presenters, a teacher and a female student. Mr. Molou, the teacher, expressed appreciation for the work of BOSCO and its funding partners. He appreciates the solar lights installed by BOSCO in the school, because there is no national grid service in that area yet, although the government is trying to extend the power poles now. For us, the most interesting moment of the workshop was when the student took the floor. She spoke with so much confidence and passion, she’s really an amazing student. She talked about her experience with Kolibri, a content management platform that contains educational content approved by the Ministry of Education. It has both secondary and vocational content in the form of videos and text. With Kolibri, she found learning easier and more interesting, especially with science subjects like physics, biology and computer science, where she watches videos on certain topics and learns better what some things are because she is able to see the real thing and not just pictures in a text book. And with no text books in the school, Kolibri acts as their library. However, she mentioned the challenges of few computers and a lack of computer training materials in the school. Her speech caught everyone’s attention, especially that of Mr. William from the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) – he used the lunch break to go back to his office and bring ICT training books. He donated five of them to the school and five to BOSCO Uganda.

The panel discussion on policies, with Solomon Okot Nono from BOSCO Uganda, UCC representative Mr. Arnold, and Mike Jensen from APC, was a great one. The policies and regulations affecting community networks were clearly stated by Solomon and Mike, and Mr. Arnold clarified what the UCC does and the possibilities of considering community networks in its policies and regulations. Mr. Arnold also pointed out opportunities that BOSCO could take up, like accessing the Rural Communication Development Fund (RCDF), and promised a strong partnership between the UCC and BOSCO especially when handling rural connectivity challenges. The MC suddenly appeared before this session began and he was able to take up his role going forward.

JosephineMiliza, the Africa regional coordinator of the Connecting the Unconnected project on behalf of the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), introduced the project and also shared her experience in building community wireless networks in Kenya. Most of the challenges faced in Kenya are the same that BOSCO faces as a community network, for example, the issue of unfavourable policies or regulations which restrict the operation of community networks, low gender inclusiveness in accessing or building the network, lack of and high cost of infrastructure, depending entirely on volunteers, and high taxes on imported equipment, among others.

Lastly, the group discussions about different topics related to how to address the challenges affecting community networks was a very worthwhile activity, because representatives of different sectors see things differently. There were four groups that handled four different topics:

  1. Does the community wireless network concept properly tackle the challenges?
  2. How can we overcome the challenges of community networks?
  3. What are the opportunities for community wireless networks?
  4. What can we realistically do to replicate community wireless networks?

In conclusion, the workshop brought about a great impact in terms of creating awareness around community networks, especially in Uganda. BOSCO Uganda being the only community network in Uganda and hosting this great workshop – and moreover, hosting it in the “upcountry” – created a strong avenue for BOSCO to make people aware about community networks and their potential for connecting the unconnected. Most of the participants didn’t have any idea about community networks and their potential to connect the unconnected and change lives, especially in remote areas, but the workshop opened up their minds to appreciate the work of community networks across the globe.

Secondly, the event created and strengthened partnerships between BOSCO and organisations or institutions such as the UCC, which is one of the regulators in Uganda, Net Labs Uganda, Soliton Telmec (which is currently BOSCO’s internet service provider), AccessPlus, the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), and the Gulu Women’s Resource Centre, among others. Many participants became interested in starting community networks and joining hands with BOSCO in connecting the unconnected communities in Uganda.

Thanks to the event, the UCC was able to understand fully how community networks operate, and this led them to promise to involve BOSCO in the regulatory and policy discussions on issues that may affect community networks before passing regulations or implementing such policies. The UCC also promised to work with BOSCO to provide ICT services to rural schools as well as providing solutions to the rural connectivity challenges by granting access to the RCDF. BOSCO is also in collaboration with the UCC and the National Information and Technology Authority (NITA) to support extension of the network to government sub-county offices.

Many communities which have not yet been connected and had their representatives at the event requested BOSCO Uganda to connect them so that they can benefit like the others, but lack of equipment and funding is making it challenging for BOSCO to fulfill its potential of connecting these communities.

We do strongly recommend that other community networks organise multi-stakeholder events like this one, so that different stakeholders get to learn about and appreciate the work of community networks, especially the regulators. Much appreciation to APC for supporting this event.