From the Scottish Highlands to Africa’s ‘forgotten island’

The owner of a Highland estate and a Scottish firm providing wireless mesh networking has helped a London-based design agency bring the Internet to an island in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On paper, the country is extremely rich in natural resources, having an estimated $24 trillion in untapped mineral deposits. However, it is still ranked 176th in the world, in the lowest tier of countries in terms of human development by the United Nations

Over the past few years, Mike Beeston, one of the founders of the Fjord agency, has been working in the most troubled region of Kivu, in the east of the country.

Together with local people he set-up ‘Ensemble Pour La Difference’, a not-for-profit organisation that provides design and innovation mentorship, along with loans to small businesses that provide value to the community.

It supports several small coffee businesses and a women’s textile co-operative on the island of Idjwi, in the middle of Lake Kivu.

At a meeting in 2015, the island’s king asked for help in providing connectivity in order to increase commercial opportunities as well as improve access to information, education and life-saving alerts.

“Looking at connectivity solutions in other challenging parts of the world such as rural Afghanistan and the favelas in Brazil, we came across ‘Internet Mesh Networking’,” said Beeston.

It is a process where an Internet access point on the main grid is first transmitted long distance via high powered WiFi antennas, and then spread out over an area via a web of homemade antennas. It allows communities to create their own mini network.

The nearest internet connection to Idjwi is in Bukavu, 50km away on the mainland. “So first we had to figure out how we could direct WiFi such a long distance through a system of antennas. Having built a prototype, the immediate challenge was how to test it without going the whole way to the Congo.

“We needed a rural area with hills, and little or no interference from other signals. The Highlands of Scotland seemed the ideal option. In April this year, we packed up our prototype and headed north.

“And with the great help of Alex Matheison, who offered his Brahan Estate near Inverness as a testing ground, and Mike Hicks of Cromarty Firth Wireless Networks, we were able to perform a successful test at 30km, reaching speeds of 100mb/s.”

The people of Idjwi now have access to weather forecasts and news displayed on a screen at the island’s main market and can go online at a kiosk equipped with Raspberry Pi computers.

Fjord is currently helping develop an operational model for the community’s Internet access designed to bring more employment as well as health services and educational content to hospitals and schools.