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History of Uganda Connect

by Daniel Stern

Uganda Connectivity Project Uses Recycled PCs for Connectivity



It started out as a computer literacy project - until along came the Internet. Mission Mobile Education's team in Europe had bought a truck from the Swiss military auction for a work in Uganda. They filled the truck with secondhand computing equipment. So began the Uganda Connectivity Project.



Mission Mobile Education: Early Days

Some years previous, I'd discussed with Uganda's Minister of Education the idea of leapfrogging, using of computer technology to address the education needs of his country. But it was still only a vague notion. Then, while listening to a forum speaker at the ITU's Internet Days in Geneva, Spring 1995, the conviction arose in me that the Internet was the missing piece to the puzzle; here was something important that we had to know more about. It hit me pretty strong, like a revelation, 'This is the way, walk you in it'.


I suddenly found myself preoccupied with fulfilling a vision: That with the aid of this truly wonderful new tool, innovative way of working, communicating, collaborating, I was to help make the world a better place.



Internet Society - Geneva's Special Interest Group for Development


At a meeting of the Internet Society (ISOC) the vision was renewed. The overall impression and feeling one got was of faith and hope and charity. This was the dawn of a new day, of a new age of information.


At the end of that meeting I responded to the call by CERN's Ben Segal, for those interested in helping to form a Special Interest Group for the use of the Internet for Development. I'd reflected that now having been enlightened it seemed most natural to use my own very limited knowledge of this new technology for some altruistic purpose. I broached the idea that I'd like to do something in Uganda.

Ben suggested we discuss the Uganda project during our first DevSIG meeting to be held at CERN's cafeteria. After my presentation, the Uganda Connectivity Project became a focus for the group's activities, giving the DevSIG a practical application for the development of our ideas.



E-mail Collaboration Creates Internet Society Stands at Telecom 95


The Geneva Chapter of the ISOC had been given the task of setting up a stand at Telecom 95. I'd been meeting with our working group for setting up the Internet Society stand, and it had been arranged that each of us should continue to collaborate between meetings by e-mail. That sounded good; now I was going to see how e-mail really worked. But I had no sooner put together my first message to the working group than I found I was at a loss to know how to send it. I didn't know the difference between queuing and sending. I felt chagrined. Here I'd already become quite involved in promoting the wonders of the Internet and yet couldn't even send my own e-mail! But that was the way it was; you tried to run before you'd learned to walk. But you didn't think of it as an obstacle so much as you might have done before; the sense of mission drove you through it.


And that's the way it is with the Internet phenomenon. You somehow believe you can do web pages. You sit down and find you don't know where to begin. Someone pops into your office, or you into theirs, and spends hours showing you how to start. Then you find you can do it.


Once I'd gotten over that hump I was off and running, sending copies to each of my colleagues at the click of the mouse. 'Reply to Author' meant answering messages the moment I'd read them, simultaneously building a database with each new e-mail address that came into my 'In Box'. I liked the informality and immediacy: Greetings of, 'Ben', not 'Dear Dr. So and so ...'


The thing about e-mail that most impressed me was how it enhanced my own productivity, creativity. Telecom 95 had been in preparation since the last major telecommunications exhibition and conference held in Geneva in 1991 and most of the companies that would be represented by stands at Telecom 95 had had four years to prepare. But the Internet phenomenon had been so recent and so sudden, and ISOC's invitation by the ITU to be represented at the event had come barely in time to make adequate preparations - even were our funding at the level of some of the big telcos. However we had to do it on the cheap; borrowing equipment, working with the exhibition organisers to coordinate the building of the stand, putting up decorations, fixtures, installation of electrical outlets, telephone, ethernet, etc, put together a stand roster of volunteers from full time professionals who would man the stand. We had only weeks instead of years, a few hundreds of dollars instead of hundreds of thousands. Each in the working group had the responsibilities of a full-time job, most were professionals, many working with Geneva's international agencies, people with little enough time to spare. What a challenge! Yet we surmounted every difficulty, made each of the deadlines.


How it was done? It was through a well coordinated effort, managed through collaboration by e-mail. Caroline Wieland, stand coordinator, would learn, for instance, that the stand required a laser printer. Caroline would send a message to the group announcing the need. Someone would suggest a contact or a lead we could chase down, and next thing we'd learn that such and such a company had agreed to donate the loan of the equipment. Or we'd send an e-mail to the list asking for a volunteer to pick up the equipment, and someone's wife might be on her way down from Bern and would offer to pick it up on her way. The group hardly met again during the last weeks before the exhibition; virtually everything was done by e-mail.


Proof of the pudding was that the stand was ready when the VIPs and press paraded through Palexpo at the pre-opening. And by the end of the show over four hundred new members had joined the Geneva Chapter.


Virtual Uganda at Telecom 95


The Uganda Connect received another boost when the organizers of the ITU's Telecom 95 invited the DevSIG to park one of the project's communications trucks in the outdoor exhibition. In stark contrast to the expensive high tech mobile satellite stations parked beside it, the thirty-year-old ex-military truck with its 386 PCs and ordinary modems, was something of a welcome change for visitors to the show.


Delegates from developing countries visiting our 'Virtual Uganda' stand included Minister for Works, Transport and Communication. Many African delegates were interested to see how our proposed recycling programme might be applied in their countries. Visits by father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, and ITU's Secretary-General, Pekka Tarjanne were followed by a camera crew resulting in a spot on Swiss national television news, in which our project was juxtaposed, appropriately enough, with Motorola's Iridium Project.



Rough and Ready


What the team lacked in funding and equipment they more than made up for in enthusiasm and determination. They put together a begging letter outlining their vision for bringing computers for connectivity in Uganda. A private Swiss bank, former employer to one of the team, really got things rolling with a generous donation, including four 386 personal computers.


The bank's gesture gave the team them the needed impetus to approach other companies. The Swiss branch of a big computer company soon joined a growing list of sponsors by offering a moderate number of their older PCs for a knock down price. Word had gotten round Geneva's chapter of the Internet Society, and we'd regularly receive e-mail messages from individuals asking if we could use their old PCs or dot-matrix printers. It wasn't long before we had enough equipment to embark on the first phase of the project. It was time to load up the trucks and head for the ship.





We'd flown part of the team to Uganda to help set things up on that end, and were short of drivers, so Caroline persuaded a couple of bus drivers from Geneva's bus company, TPG, to volunteer to drive two of the trucks with her in convoy to the Port of Antwerp. Another team made a rendezvous with them in Belgium and they loaded up the shipping container and witnessed the loading of the trucks and trailers onto the ship. Alliance Air flew the rest of the team to Uganda from London, giving the project a generous baggage allowance for equipment we'd scrounged at the last moment.


After setting up a house in Mukono some of the team flew on to Mombasa to meet the ship. Others battled it out in Kampala trying to get the paperwork sorted out. It was a struggle at both ends, and several exasperating experiences later we drove three trucks and a London taxi out of Mombasa Port and on towards Uganda. We took a longer route, going on safari through Kenya's famous National Parks and camping along the way. The parks department supplied us with a military police ascari armed with an AK 47 to travel with us between parks in Maasi territory with whom we camped at a military base near Mount Kilimanjaro, guests of the commander, giving him a demonstration of Internet communications, Maasi tribesman and women looking on.



Uganda Impressions


As almost anyone who has visited, one is immediately struck by how amazingly friendly the Ugandan people are. And the country really is a paradise, a Garden of Eden - much of it as primordial as when the first man Adam got round to naming the animals. And there lies the challenge; there is so much to be done in the building of an infrastructure.


There are the usual bureaucratic hassles that those who are familiar with working in an underdeveloped country have come to expect, the seemingly endless visits to government ministries to get documents, get them stamped, etc. I don't enjoy thinking about it now that we've overcome most of the main hurdles, and I try to put it out of my mind, but when I look back now and remember, it is instructive. Indeed some of my first disappointing experiences here, bitter though they were, only strengthened my resolve, my conviction: The people of this fertile country desperately needed the communications capabilities provided by the Internet to help them emerge from the dismal despond into which so many fine and gifted people seemed to have fallen. They would then be able to work together to lift themselves into the light of the new age of information. Prisoner of hope that I am, these were my musings.


We met many friendly, hard working and helpful officials, civil servants, who did their best to smooth the way for our entry into their country. Yet there were enough of the other kind to drive you mad. God knows how close we may have come a few times to really blowing it, to losing patience when, having allowed ourselves, weakened and stressed, provoked by the lackadaisical attitude some civil servants have, who would seem to derive sadistic pleasure from asking you to 'come back tomorrow'. We were not yet settled, and our struggling NGO could not afford the luxury of basing its pioneer team out of a Kampala hotel, but instead had to travel long distance to Kampala. Delays often meant that another day's storage fees for vehicles and equipment. Mounting daily fees that would hurt even a larger company loomed nightmarish. With limited funds dwindling quickly, a civil servant's sloth might spell the project's demise.


Working with the Ministry of Education, we've come to better appreciate some of the factors that contribute to the malaise, endemic among civil servants and to be more sympathetic. It can happen to anyone, and you've got to fight it constantly, the feeling of quite desperation, that nothing matters, that nothing you do will ever make a difference anyway, executive secretaries to junior ministers sitting around reading newspapers....


We had to fight it out nearly every day at each ministry, often exhorting office staff to do all they could to 'try to do it today'. And I'm glad to say that it did work, and we somehow managed to get the vehicles cleared, inspected and matriculated, and equipment cleared through customs, and offices set up in the Ministry of Education - and we won some friends in the bargain. And I can say it was worth it all.





Member of Parliament Champions Internet Connectivity


Through such experiences we right away learned to appreciate the need to sensitize government officials, and we wasted no time in sharing the vision for enhancing development through better communications, starting with civil servants we worked with when we arrived in Uganda to get our vehicles and equipment cleared through customs, get our NGO recognized and offices set up. Most we talked with would admit that communications were somehow important, but it was frustrating how few could grasp how vitally important. We eventually learned, to our dismay, that even ministers were oblivious to how crucial communications were to their country's growth. What we needed was a champion, someone within government who could lead colleagues in an awareness campaign.


Lisa had met a Member of Parliament at social function who she said he was completely in agreement with us about the importance of the Internet for Uganda. When I met him a few weeks later at a UNDP Private Sector Development Foundation seminar there was that instant recognition between us: 'Internet for Uganda!'. We instantly formed a team, the MP taking us round to meet other Members and Ministers and anyone else who might be interested in hearing the good news of the Internet.


When we learned that the distinguished MP, former professor of veterinary medicine, though computer literate, did not have his own PC, we loaned him one of the project's clunky 386 IBM PS2s and a modem, and helped get him connected with a local Internet provider, a decision that bore immediate good fruit. Within a few days he was sending us a prolific stream of e-mail. How had he been able to get along without it?! It wasn't long before he had joined other Internaughts who praise the glories of the Internet, sending attached documents, copied to colleagues around the world. He'd testify at a minister's office about how much more productive he'd become accomplishing so much working from home over e-mail - before going to work.


Our honorable friend organized a demonstration in Parliament, where we set up some PCs, including a 386, connected to the Internet, projected onto a screen. We explained some of the advantages of e-mail, browsed the web, visited a few multimedia sites to show video streaming, and ran through some searches, finding sites about Uganda. State Minister for Education asked some good questions about the cost of rural connectivity, but for this first demo of the Internet most of those Members of Parliament who came seemed either to be quietly self-satisfied or uninterested. We heard later, though, that some MPs who'd missed the presentation were clamoring for another. A committee was just then drafting legislation on the liberalization of telecommunications in Uganda. We promised to loan an Internet-ready PC and modem for Parliament's library.


Minister Launches Uganda Chapter of the Internet Society


Uganda Connect team members had broached the idea of forming a Uganda chapter of the Internet Society to some of Uganda's pioneers of the Internet and representatives from each ISP. They convened a first forming meeting at the UNDP building in Kampala in March 1997. A mission statement was drafted and preparations made to launch a first general meeting, which was to coincide with the annual computer show.


State Minister for Works, Transport and Communication had accepted the invitation to launch the chapter, and was eager to get up to speed, so browsed the web with the team at our Crested Towers offices. By the time of the event he was fairly conversant with the technology and could speak with some authority about it. The meeting, which was attended by more than 120, was well covered by news media, including radio and television. After presentations by some of Uganda's Internet pioneers, a lively debate, moderated by the director of Uganda's leading FM radio station, brought good responses from a director of the national telco, UPTC, and the editor of a newspaper, who called upon the government's Ministry of Finance to reduce taxes on imported computer equipment for the growth of IT in Uganda.



Uganda Connect Communications Truck at African Information Technology & Communications Show


The Internet was becoming a hot topic of interest in a growing number of sectors. Many of those who came to the launch or learned of it through the media later visited the AITEC computer show. Uganda Connect and the Internet Society were represented; we parked one of our 4x4 communications truck at the main entrance to the Sheraton Hotel. The Ugandan volunteers showed visitors what they could do with a variety of 386 PCs, including multimedia applications with Interactive CDs, or browsing the web, running searches and printing results with older BJ-10 inkjets.


The team had met with directors of Uganda's cellular telephone network, CelTel, to encourage the company to make a data service available. There were notoriously bad telephone lines in major towns near Kampala, such as Jinja and Entebbe, where one could not use the Internet even for e-mail. These areas, we argued, would immediately benefit from such a service. The company gave Uganda Connect an experimental service for demonstration purposes. I gave a demo on the lawn outside the Sheraton to the country's chief of security, who had just come from escorting a visiting head of state down the Sheraton's red carpet - right past our communications truck.



World Food Programme Collaborates with Uganda Connect for Upcountry E-mail by HF Radio


When the WFP was faced with the need for an unprecedented scaling up of logistical support coordination for food distribution to refugees during East Africa's Great Lakes crisis of 1994, their communications engineers came up with an innovative solution - one that holds promise for developing nations' need for 'instant' communications networks in remote rural areas.

They discovered that ordinary HF SSB radios, so widely used for upcountry voice communications, coupled with a newly designed radio modem, could be linked to the Internet to transmit and receive data around the world. The implications of World Food Programme's use of HF radio modems with the Internet to transmit documents and files by electronic mail have yet to be fully appreciated.


Uganda Connnect proposed that the ease and rapidity with which an upcountry electronic mail network using HF radio modems can be set up made it a logical first step towards the implementation of a comprehensive information and communications strategy in a country such as Uganda where upcountry communications are undeveloped or nonexistant. (Low Earth Orbit satellite data services, when they become available, may be linked to the free-to-air radio networks.) Uganda Connect argued that the early establishment of Electronic Post Offices upcountry through an HF radio modem network would act as a catalyst to stimulate the more rapid deployment of other, more permanent, communications networks - analogous to the early bridge building technique, in which a string or light rope was shot across a gorge, preparatory to pulling across a much stronger, heavier cable.


The WFP responded to our proposal by offering to collaborate on a project with UCP to connect noncommercial projects, schools, hospitals and agricultural research stations.

The WFP have shown that such a network is a viable solution to upcountry connectivity, and could be used as a model for establishing a preparatory communications networks upcountry. A pilot network is being established in a strategic, yet remote, area of Uganda and results will be made available shortly.



Agricultural Show Demonstrates Upcountry Connectivity


Response from government agencies and NGOs to newspaper and magazine articles about Uganda Connect's work in promoting upcountry connectivity, picturing staff sending e-mail by HF radio was swift. We were invited to set up a communications truck at the Uganda National Farmers Association's annual agricultural show in Jinja. Leading agronomists, farmers cooperatives and civil servants, attracted by the high aluminum mast broadband antenna, were astounded to learn that their same radios which they were using in rural areas for voice communications could also be used to send and receive large amounts of information inexpensively around the world, far cheaper than sending by fax, in the form of attached files - over the Internet.



Pilot HF Network Installed in Arua, Northwest Uganda


In August 1997 we set up Uganda Connect's first HF e-mail pilot network upcountry, in Arua. The following is a report by our colleague, Paul Wyse, who runs the Arua hub:


"Arua is located 500 kms north west of Kampala near the Sudan and

Congo borders. Communications outside of Arua is mostly by HF

radio. There is an automatic dial telephone within the town of 220

subscribers. There is one outside line which is a VHF link to

Kampala which is very busy during the day with often ten people queued

up at the post office to place a call. The post office closes at six,

and after that sometimes it is possible to place a call.


My phone was not working for 8 1/2 months due to a bad underground

cable. It was finally repaired several weeks ago and I tried to pick up

my e-mail from Nairobi at nine one night. The first connect was

interrupted. The second and third calls did not establish hand

shaking. The 4th call was successful and sent one message and

received seven. The cost for this was nearly 7,000 shillings. I have

tried many times since and have not been able to establish a link.


I have been using amateur radio to send personal e-mail via a

station in South Africa. This has worked fairly well but is based

on having an amateur assigned here and is also no good for any serious

type traffic. My use of e-mail has raised the hopes of a number of

entities and individuals here in the area.


Kuluva Hospital, a mission hospital, is located 12 kms from Arua. It

has the reputation of being the best hospital with in miles. Two

years ago a project from Germany put in a 150 KV hydro plant, so it is

the only hospital in the North with 24 hour electricity. They have

the best stocked pharmacy in the North. Kuluva is working jointly

with several labs in the UK and regularly send specimens back by the courier company,

DHL. The problem is that results take so long to get back. Kuluva

is known for it's preventive medicine approach, as well as

reconstruction for children who have had polio and leprosy work.

They are very anxious for an e-mail connection.


A small non profit organization working in Aringa County, Here is

Life, runs various agricultural projects such as a rice project complete with a rice huller, two posho mills, oil processing plant, medical services and a library - all community based

projects. Their offices are in Arua and they too are anxious for e-mail



In Aru, in the Congo, CMS has a medical agriculture development project.

Aru is 25 kms from Arua. I am in VHF contact with them. Their

project encompasses a number of health centers along the borders

from Bunia to the Sudan Border. They also have an agriculture

development project which includes fish farming, rabbits, ducks as

well as use of donkeys as draft animals for plowing and pulling of

carts. There is also introduction of new varieties of seeds and

improved agriculture practices. Aru has no communication with the

outside world with the exception of some private two way radios.


Besides the above there are two theological schools in the area. One

training Sudanese pastors and the other Ugandan pastors. One also

has a demonstration farm connected with it. The leaders of these

organizations are begging for some e-mail services. Simon Martin

teaches in one of the schools and is also deputy director for the

African Inland Mission. Frustrated with the limited communications in Arua,

his work would benefit from having access to email.


My organization, The Summer Institute of Linguistics, is working in a

number of language projects and needs communications to organize

language and literacy workshops for a number of vernacular language

groups in the area.


My vision for e-mail for the Arua area is to have a hub in the SIL

offices with VHF links to Kuluva, Aru and Africa Inland Mission. The

possibilities exist for some telephone modem connections within

the city as well. The interest is here! The help of Uganda

Connectivity Project, in collaboration with WFP, is a big step in e-mail

for the area to be come a reality." Paul Wyse uconnect.arua@wfp.or.ug



Kampala's Crested Towers Workshop Team Makes it Work


When our team of volunteers from Europe had the idea that we could bring a few truckloads of computing equipment to Uganda and somehow train the locals to be able to use the latest communications software, many of our colleague wondered whether we weren't being a little overly ambitious or optimistic; some scoffed. Did we really have the faith to do it?


Uganda's Ministry of Education had generously supplied the project with offices strategically located in the ministry's headquarters Crested Towers building where we give lessons and demonstrations both to ministry staff and other visitors during business hours each day. We start them off with self-teaching typing courses and later with word processing, e-mail and web browsing. We have about ten PCs set up in the offices, including those used for administration - but even the latter are used for teaching, our daily tasks serving as practical lessons. The offices are nearly always full, with a queue of students awaiting their turn when a PC becomes free. We have an open door policy, and let anyone who shows that he or she is seriously interested have a go.


We'd had a vision from the beginning to recruit a cadre, dedicated people we could train, ones who exhibited leadership skills as well as an ability to learn quickly and teach others what they had just learned. And it was not long before some of our trainees began to exhibit these traits. We charge a token fee, explaining that our facilities and training are meant for those who will eventually use their newly-acquired skills to help their fellows in the same selfless spirit. The resulting atmosphere in those offices is something to behold, a beehive of activity, with the more experienced students teaching newcomers; occasion 'experts' take time to give a lesson on the big screen to a crowded room of newbies.


At the time of writing, seven Ugandans volunteers have joined the team, most in their early twenties. They have acquired an amazingly wide variety of skills in only six months! For instance, when Uganda Connect was faced with the task of putting together a mailing list of more than 300 for inviting key people to attend an Internet Society meeting two or three of them learned how to use a database program in only a few days, a short time after which they felt confident enough to do a mail merge. An official from the ministry was duly impressed when he came in to witness one of our young volunteers, Bernadette, who had only just learned how to use the database program the day before, already teaching how to enter data. The point is that it can be done; it's more a matter of vision, and an attitude of faith. That team is now running those offices and overseeing the training with only a minimum of supervision, much of it by e-mail.



User-friendly Operating System Programs Help - Latest OS Works on 386


We experimented with installing Windows 95 on 386 PCs with 8 Mb memory, many only 16 MHz. Some experts swore it couldn't be done, but we did it and it proved to be a wise decision. Yes, they were slow; to those of us used to working on fast machines they were slow as molasses, especially on the bigger programs such as the new databases. But the Windows 95 environment was much, much friendlier than the Windows 3.1, and those who'd never had hands on experience before took to learning the programs much more quickly. The helps menus are also much more thorough and intuitive.


Programs written for the newer OS are also similarly more friendly, and tutorials abound. I had never done a spreadsheet before, when a secretary from the ministry who was under some pressure, obviously stressed, approached to ask me to help her to do a spreadsheet, I opened up the tutorial for Lotus 1-2-3 from SmartSuite. Within the hour I had grasped the basic concepts and techniques and was putting a spreadsheet together.


And so I am of the firm conviction that it is very much a matter of effectively recycling older equipment - redistributed to developing countries. Our project is a pilot, but has already pointed the way and proven that the tenet is sound: 'Get them the equipment and they will use it.'




They Will Use It


I would like for this paper to serve as a call for a mobilization. Would those who represent companies in the process of upgrading their systems or planning to do so, kindly advertise your company's willingness to donate redundant equipment. If it is difficult for some to imagine how such despised older equipment could be of any use to anyone, those who have worked in an underdeveloped country such as Uganda will assure you that there is an urgent need for such equipment. They need older 386 and 486 PCs now - not Pentiums in six months or a year. Your gesture will make a difference.



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