I was fortunate to be invited by Media Monitoring Africa, one of our partners, to the Summit on Community Networks hosted in Nairobi Kenya last month. There were three parts that I participated in: 3 days of wireless network training; 2 days of presentations; and a day out in a community in Nairobi applying what we learnt in the training and setting up wireless access points.

// training

Professor Ermanno Pietrosemoli and Marco Zennaro headed up the training with zeal and passion. Together with other great contributions from other facilitators, they made the topic super interesting and told many stories explaining scenarios and use cases of the things we were being taught. For the first time I was learning the intricate details of how transmitting information over wireless mediums worked. The morning sessions were largely theory, with some practical applications in the afternoon to keep our attention keen. What was great was that we also had the opportunity to get to know the other delegates that were there for training, from all over Africa – Namibia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria were all represented.

Did you know that generally the higher the frequency of the wave, the more the range will be affected. Also, the more information can be transmitted at a time. Another really great tool we used (after we learnt how to do this manually), was BotRf – which is a bot extension to the Telegram messenger. Pretty much you punch in some commands and values, and it outputs a bunch of related information. You can use this to convert milliWatts to Decibels or to check two GPS points to see if the terrain possibly has line of site. What’s great about this little app is that it interfaces with a system that uses a full vector representation of the globe, which is Terabytes of information.

// presentations

After those 3 intense training days, I was joined by Thandi Smith from Media Monitoring Africa. The next two days were filled with presentations and feedback sessions involving community network operators from across Africa and beyond. Carlos Rey-Moreno gave the keynote and spoke about what other community networks in Africa are doing, and some of the challenges faced. We also found out what was happening in Catalonia, Spain, with their community network called Guifi. They explained their model of having the community actually own the network and how it was feasible as a sustainable business model. We heard from John Dada about the work happening in Nigeria with Fantsuam where women are being equipped and given skills to impact the community. Thato Mfikwe spoke about the Soweto wireless user group SOWUG. Glen McKnight spoke about the intricacies and difficulties involved with setting up a wireless station called Victory Garden in Canada. Nico Pace presented Libre Router, a project that is in the process of designing and developing open-source routers specifically for community networks. A group of great Danes presented Rhinotivity, which focuses on collecting, preparing, packaging and sending unused routers and equipment around Copenhagen to parts of Africa that need connectivity. This forms part of their University work. And we also had our turn, to share what Media Monitoring Africa had developed (with the help of Aiden Roberts) called Shika Moto (meaning catching fire – which, being a Swahili word, the Kenyans understood). We were daring (or stupid) enough to attempt a live demo of the Shika Share system, which worked well. Ofcourse, learning what I had the previous few days (and being surrounded by network specialists) did help quite a bit. I guess the big take back for me on these sessions was that so many people were at various stages of implementing community networks, and all had their challenges and their success stories. To share in that brought such a sense of community and encouragement among the group.

// community work

After a crazy Friday night party with some newly made friends at a place called Chomma Zone, Saturday morning started with a bus ride to a part of Nairobi called Kibera. We split into groups and went from the base station (the site with a 20m tower) to 3 different sites. We were now putting what we learnt from training into practice. We had to get good line of site, secure our mast somewhere on the rooftop, connect it to the laptop to test the signal and tweak the aiming of the receiver for optimal usage. I pretty much felt like a DSTV installer, however we were setting up Internet connectivity to a primary school, and not connecting MTV to a resident of suburbia. Walking through Kibera was fascinating. Many aspects of it reminded me of home (like walking around in places like Zandspruit), but other nuances were richly unfamiliar. I wanted to sample all the foods and stop to chat to everyone, but we had a mission and I would return to do that next time, although I did get to taste some pancake like snack and some raw sugar cane. What a great experience! Add to that the friends we made that will be in contact going forward, the communities represented and the encouragement and support felt during and after the conference.

It’s exciting to see that most people on this conference have stayed in contact and are working and collaborating, supporting and just saying hi.

Big thanks from all of us to Internet Society for organising this incredible event – to Media Monitoring Africa for this opportunity, for the Shika Moto work, for all the other crazy ideas that we actually pull off together, and to all our clients that makes building great things a daily reality! Also a shout out to all the teachers, presenters, delegates, organisers and trainees we met while in Kenya. It was an unforgettable experience. Onwards and upwards!

Find out more information about the Internet Society – Africa Internet Summit here. About Media Monitoring Africa (we’re working on their new site – to be up this month), and the Shika Moto Project.