Ensemble Pour La Difference (EPD) is a UK and Congolese charity operating in Eastern Congo that supports a range of social projects and entrepreneurial endeavours in the local community as a means of effecting change. Technology has played a large role in the group's approach, and they've helped provide essential internet connectivity to citizens in a number of locations.
The charity's efforts began in 2013, when they set up a specialist business incubator in Bukavu, a concept that was unheard of in the local area at that point. Cofounder and president of EPD, Mike Beeston, says this approach was taken in response to the fierce entrepreneurial spirit they encountered in the Congolese communities they worked with.
The group have since worked on a variety of projects, such as supporting rice and coffee cooperatives and fish farmers. Technology wasn't always a leading concern.
"About three years ago technology began to become much more integrated into our thinking," says Beeston. He says that before this point, the prohibitive cost of internet acted as a deterrent. "If we went back four years ago, bandwidth was $800 per month per megabit," he adds, mentioning that by European standards it's still very expensive today.
"Recently 3G - and a bit of 4G - have opened up the door to mobile internet, but that in itself was a problem until recently when handsets were imported from China, which reduced the price a lot," explains Beeston.
He says that a December 2017 report put phone ownership in the country at six percent, but he wouldn't be surprised if this figure hadn't doubled by then. On an anecdotal basis, he guesses that over half of the people in the communities they work with now have phones.
And operators are increasingly offering low cost data packages. "With some operators you can now spend 500 francs which is 25p and get online and use WhatsApp," says Beeston.
The team is made up of seven people - mostly Congolese - who are based in Bukavu, some of whom are technologists. "They understand the realities of life, and the reality is that the Congolese want to use this technology to help them improve daily life," says Beeston.
He explains that if you asked them what this means in practice they would likely mention things that preoccupy them such as "earning money, staying safe, the house, the education of their kids, the health of their kids".
"Our interest has been how can we help to address some of those really quite core things - quite core needs," he says.
One of the biggest internet projects they've worked on is helping to establish a network on the remote island of Idjwi, located in Lake Kivu, which borders Rwanda on one side. The project is named 'Pamoja' which in Swahili means 'Together'. It was facilitated by EPD, but also involved designers and technologists from Europe, as well as design agency Fjord and Open Cellular.
Beeston says that although most of the island's inhabitants can't read or write, they "wanted to find out how they can use the internet, how they can use a smartphone, what it can do for them."
Getting the island online was a vast undertaking.
"You have to pick up batteries - because there's no power of course - and solar power and regulators and converters," says Beeston. "You have to design your own mast because people want to self manage the network and they can't climb a high mast."
Instead the mast is only three or four metres off the ground, and reachable by a wooden ladder. Apart from the mast, which was made in Bukavu, everything else was done locally, from digging the foundations to aligning the mast with the incoming signal.
Even getting the correct antenna to the island was challenging. "We had to transport it 55 kilometres across the lake from Bukavu," says Beeston. "Even from Bukavu it has to come in from Rwanda, and from Rwanda it has to come in from Burundi."
The island has a King, who the charity liaised with on the development of the project. As locals were increasingly involved, interest and respect for the project grew.
"The king of the island is the facilitator in their eyes, and he's a very well-respected person so that obviously gives it a degree of protection," says Beeston. "Now people want to feel as though they are not just benefiting from it, but that they want to sustain it."
He said the project initially began with the youth of the island in mind - as a vehicle for increasing their connectivity on the island and with the outside world. However, they soon realised that there were many more use cases for the internet there.
"For example," says Beeston, "if you are a coffee exporter, you want to present a professional interface with the coffee world. Now you can do that because you can communicate with them via email or Skype."
The potential applications in health and education are also proliferating. They're currently looking at how to offer 'text into voice' options to allow people who are illiterate to participate in the service.
When the charity measured uptake of the service six months ago there were 4,000 registered IP addresses and the organisation's data suggests most are participating regularly - around two to three times per week.
He says that it is still in its infancy, and part of its evolution will be residents of the island discovering what the internet can do for them. It's already being used by the two hotels on the island to manage bookings, and it could have an important application for coffee farmers, who could more easily find out about diseases that might be afflicting their plants.
"That kind of support for coffee farmer helps them to improve their own crop which would help them generate more money for themselves," Beeston adds.
In addition, upon the community's request, they worked on developing an emergency response service enabled through smartphones that inhabitants can use in cases of robbery, which are fairly frequent, according to Beeston.
"You reach for your phone, you press a number or a three digit number," he explains. "It immediately gets you through to self help which you then communicate the stress, and that message is immediately sent to your friends and neighbours."
According to Beeston, traditionally residents in distress situations would bang on a table or a pan. "That's the normal cultural sign of distress; this is like a digital extension of that," he says.
Other internet projects they've worked on include one at a university, named POWA ('spot on' in Swahili). "It provides a platform for beginning to develop services for them: registration, back-up resources for their classes, even things like notifications," says Beeston, saying that at present, things like student meetings in the evening will be written in chalk on the corridor. "We can replicate that on the network," he says.
They've also launched a WiFi network in a hospital in Kavumu and trained the staff in the use of tablets and a patient management system called Open MRS. They're now looking to undertake similar projects in other health institutions.
In the western world, tech is often seen in terms of heady, utopian ideals. Beeston says that this isn't the case in the communities they work with: "What is really interesting is that people see the technology as an asset that they can use to improve the very basic day to day life.
"It's not a luxury. It's something that they want to use in the same way that they would use a cook stove. That's interesting because it keeps you really grounded."