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Tag: village

Phone and Internet Mesh for African Villages

In the words of Steve Song, Village Telco is “an easy-to-use, scalable, standards-based, wireless, local, do-it-yourself, telephone company toolkit”. He’s just put out a new video making it very clear just how useful this system is.

The team over at Blinktower has done an exceptional job of creating a short, concise and eminently understandable video of what Village Telco is.

The Village

Often, we get caught up in our high tech wizardry and get overly excited about the newest Android app or the best new web app built in African Megalopolis #5. And by “we”, I mean “I”, since I too am a tech guy who is endlessly intrigued by the latest, newest and shiniest.

What we forget is the village. “Up country”. What happens when we get comments like this last week from the new CEO of Safaricom, Bob Collymore, threatening to do away with their rural network:

We’re OK with losing market share (faced with unrealistically low rates) and focusing on Nairobi and high-income communities. The people in remote districts are receiving calls (more than making them). If rates decline, why should I continue to do that?”

Some rural communities have never had connectivity of any kind, voice or data. Others have it now, but could lose it if their revenues don’t prove to be high enough for big operators. Who is going to fill that niche?

I think the answer lies in technology like Village Telco. It’s a business, not an aid program. Where an entrepreneur can get a link to the network started (or not), and then mesh out from there to the whole community. People pay for access, and profits can be made.

For the last few years, a dedicated team of enthusiasts have been building the initial hardware and software. Both of which are open source. It’s a low-cost way to get into the telco business. Here’s to hoping that more entrepreneurs take a serious look at rural connectivity.

Village Billboards and a National Classifieds System

Last year I had a good long conversation with Zach Lutische, a Kenyan with a big idea. It all started with this comment:

“There was a time that I went all the way to Nairobi, only to find out that what I needed was only 1 kilometer away from my farm in Eldoret.”

Zach is soft spoken, but ambitious and energetic. He splits his time between reading the Kenyan tech email lists and time upcountry in his village. He was really excited about putting up a network of rural billboards around Kenya, using them as a way to gather and create a nexus point for community information.

Zach Matere Lutische

In our day, and being technologists, we sometimes forget that simple and non-digital is still the norm in most of the world. This is especially true in rural Africa. Which is what makes Zach’s concept so intriguing. What he wants to do is marry the worlds of non-technical rural Africa with that of modernized urban Africa.

The Concept

Anyone in the village can put up a notice, news or advertisement on a village billboard by going through a site manager, who would probably be the same person that runs the local mobile phone booth (Simu ya Jamii). Depending upon the size and length of time the notice would be on the billboard, the person would pay between 10/= to 100/= Kenyan Shillings ($.12 to $1.20).

There are a lot of ways these village boards could be used, many outside of what we can think of right now, but here are some ideas for example users:

  • Mr. Njuguna has a potato plot and it will harvest approximately 50 bags in August. He runs an advertisement in June on the community billboard and find a buyer in advance.
  • A local photographer can advertise and be contacted via the message board.
  • City-based companies can go directly farmers and/or sellers in local communities, and be aware of the inventory months in advance.
  • Land for sale (with pictures).
  • Every village has a market day, the billboard makes it easier for village-based buyers to work with sellers in outlying areas.

A Network of Rural Village Billboards

As village billboards start working for the local community, they can branch out to connect to other villages in the area. News and advertisements can then start showing up on billboards beyond a single village, providing more reach to those who are willing to pay.

Zach and I spent some time drawing out and discussing what a pilot program might look like, using his rural community as the testing grounds. We took into account the villages, mapped out their relative locations to each other, their market days and the approximate number of people in each village.

Village Billboard Diagram

It turns out that each billboard would cost about between $40 and $150 to build, depending upon materials available locally, and on what additions were made – like a small roof to keep rain off of the board.

Augmenting the Rural Billboard with Technology

The above section can stand alone as a business concept. However, where it gets interesting to people like me is in how you take these village billboards and create a powerful melding of the offline and online/mobile worlds that is our present day Africa. This is where the insights and experiences of a rurally raised Kenyan, living in the city and taking part in technology discussions is irreplaceable.

Since the site manager would generally be the person running the local village phone booth, there is the opportunity to sell message space on billboards in other towns, using the mobile information pathways open by these operators. Once you have that network of site managers, you have the beginnings of some very interesting things.

For one, you can now connect these billboard operators locally, regionally and nationally. The ability for end users to both put up advertising and find goods and services is available via digital format or analog. It’s not a big jump to see a nationwide classifieds system growing organically, stitched together by mobile and web services.

Already we see newspapers, like Star, in Kenya taking free classifieds via SMS. What happens when we create a nationwide billboard and mobile phone classifieds network?

Star Newspaper in Kenya - SMS classifieds

Final Thoughts

Africans tend to not be singular. They like to act as a community, so singular actions on mobile phones are less likely than the community coming together around a notice board. So, where mobile phones act as communications between individuals, the notice board serves as communication medium between groups. So, notice boards are the nexus, augmented by the mobile phone.

I think this concept could not only work, but could become something really big. I say that with one caveat. This needs to be done by Kenyans, not some outside entity. The local communities need to be the ones who decide to create and build their own billboards. They need to value it and own it themselves.

The network needs to grow organically from the grassroots up. Not all communities will take to it or support it in the long run, however those that do and find that it makes their lives easier and adds to their lives will pass the word on to other nearby communities, and it will grow. Once a network of community-supported village billboards are up and going, you have the groundwork made for lasting change and a means to build other digitally-connecting services on top of it.

Visualizing the World as 100 People

If the world had only 100 people, how many of them would be African? What if you were to put them into economy, life, food, danger and a world map zones? That’s what this infographic tries to do, and it’s interactive so go ahead and click around on it.

If you look at the world map, you can see where the war zones are and the number of child soldiers on each continent.

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