Ending Internet Isolation in Northern Uganda with BOSCO

In 2020, we worked with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to identify 5 organizations working on projects that strengthen connectivity in their communities – in particular those responding to the COVID-19 crisis. We provided financial contributions to these 5 organizations for them to specifically address the fact that the pandemic has made digitalization and connectivity more necessary than ever before. This series of blogs introduces the organizations that we worked with and what they achieved with their project.

Connecting people, conserving culture

An acronym for Battery Operated System for Community Outreach, BOSCO is a highly engaged and motivated NPO under the trusteeship of the Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu, northern Uganda.

The organization was formed in 2007 as an intervention to end the isolation of people in the Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camps of northern Uganda in the aftermath of the Lord’s Resistance Army war (1986 – 2007). For the past 14 years BOSCO has made it their mission to build information and communication technology (ICT) centers connecting the camps to one another.

The organization’s vision is ‘open and peaceful rural communities ready to face the challenges and opportunities of the globalized world in the 21st Century’. This they realize by providing innovative ICT solutions that foster socio-economic development and peace-building in the rural communities of northern Uganda.

With BOSCO’s mantra of ‘connecting people, preserving culture’, they are a natural fit with 48percent.org, the organization dedicated to providing equal access to connectivity in parts of the planet where such equality is compromised.

The two NPOs joined forces to implement the ‘Network Back Born Extension’ project to overcome the challenges of bringing internet connectivity to the isolated communities of northern Uganda.

Creating crucial conduits for commerce

The project extends the success of an early BOSCO initiative which utilizes solar-powered PCs to bring Voice over Protocol (VoIP) telephony to inaccessible areas of the country.

This paved the way for the establishment of 55 community ICT & Development Centers in the rural areas of Acholi, Lango, and West Nile. These centers help bridge the digital divide between rural and urban communities by expanding access to ICT skills and services.

Of course the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic significantly increased the nature of the challenges experienced by these rural communities. Many businesses failed, closed or were paralysed as only essential service providers were allowed to operate. Since many women are the linchpin of these businesses, they and their families were hit hard by the pandemic.

In the face of these significant challenges, BOSCO obtained funding from 48percent.org in order to intervene and enhance access to the internet. This was imperative for hard-to-reach communities in which ICT plays a critical role in allowing market vendors and business operators to communicate and trade whilst maintaining the social distancing required to end the spread of COVID-19.

The project aimed to meet the immediate need of overcoming the sudden social and commercial disconnection wrought by the pandemic. It simultaneously helped to attain the broader goal of extending BOSCO’s Ugandan network, especially in the more remote communities of Pader and Gulu districts that urgently required accurate information on health, education and access to economic activity.

Providing a critical connection

Through the funding and support from 48percent.org, BOSCO was able to establish an intranet server which afforded many of these isolated communities essential access to both online and offline internet content. This was an excellent means of bringing connectivity close to communities whilst enabling them to maintain social distance.

The intranet was created by the placement of two new hotspots, one in the Gulu main market in the Gulu district and another at the Rackoko Town Community Centre in the Pader district.

Through the implementation of these simple ICT services, BOSCO provided many in northern Uganda with access to the Ministry of Health website where they were able to obtain crucial information about the spread and control of COVID-19 as well as the first steps to be taken in case one is tested positive.

Whilst ensuring these basics were covered, the project also contained an educational element in which Internet and Kolibri usage training was conducted at two target locations. In total, 35 business-men and -women were trained in information access via the internet (for example market, health and electioneering information)  and the Kolibri learning platforms. The latter is an open-source learning platform which proved to be a game-changer for the many teachers and learners who use the internet for accessing knowledge bases and uploading or downloading study content.

The necessity of inclusivity

The highly strategic manner in which BOSCO brought their project to fruition underscores the value of including all stakeholders in a civil society enterprise that crosses social, political and economic spheres.

BOSCO undertook Technical Assessments of the two hotspot sites of Gulu and Pader in order to seek permissions from the local government leadership, mobilise the communities to embrace the project and plan for its sustainability. This process was expedited by a letter of endorsement by his Grace John Baptist Odama, the metropolitan Archbishop of Gulu Archdiocese under whose authority BOSCO Uganda operates.

To guarantee ownership and sustainability of the project, the leaders of the business communities were consulted and involved in all of its steps. Furthermore, BOSCO and local government leaders at various levels signed an MoU that clearly spelt out each party’s obligations in ensuring the success of the project and the meeting of its objectives.

Although it may have been a short-term project, it has the potential to make a lasting impact and set a fruitful precedent. By conducting a holistic assessment and engaging in dialogue with key strategic partners across the spectrum, BOSCO has proven that, with sufficient resilience and initiative, the citizens of northern Uganda will not be excluded from the bigger picture.

Further collaboration

Fixing its view on the next horizon, BOSCO is currently in discussion with the National Information Authority of Uganda (NITA-U) to create more hotspots within its main ICT Centre, the Bardege ICT centre.

Plans are presently underway to sign a MoU between BOSCO and NITA-U.

Access all areas

Despite what must at times have been seen as insurmountable odds, given the ongoing social and political instability in the region, BOSCO have accomplished a remarkable feat. By getting the basics right, such as ensuring the grassroots buy-in of all affected parties, they were able to meet the goal of their project by providing the people of rural northern Uganda with a connection to the internet.

Instead of being an isolated provincial hub, Gulu – and the others like it – are now thriving regional hotspots of commerce and culture. There is no greater proof that access to the internet has become a fundamental human right.