Extending the net
Letter from Jeff Cochrane, USAID, 28 September 1997
On the outskirts of Kampala, atop one of its famous hills, is a tremendous structure of thatch, intricately woven and supported by tall beams. Outside one must remove shoes. Inside the visitor sits on woven floor mats and observes an altar. Elderly women lie on mats by the walls to each side. A floor-to-ceiling curtain made of tree bark protects from view the rear of the room behind the altar, where lie buried several of the Kabaka. The altar is separated from the visitor by a low fence supporting beautifully crafted spears, along with photographs and sketches of the past Kabakas, kings of the people of this part of Uganda. The guide explained to Charles Musisi and myself that some people come to this former home of the Kabakas, now a burial house for some of them, to pray, an ancient method of communications.
On a more recently developed communication front, there have been furious negotiations in Kampala these last few days to finalize arrangements for communications with remote (in a technical sense) agricultural research stations. There are quite a number of options for email via high frequency radio in Uganda. With Esther Lwanga of the Agricultural Research Information Service of Uganda, we were searching for the solution that offered the best prospect for reliable technical support at an affordable price.
Esther will be continuing negotiations with Bushnet, one of the local providers, next week. Bushnet expressed its willingness to meet the needs of agricultural researchers in Uganda, providing a suitable service at an affordable price. I was particularly impressed with the willingness of their staff to work closely with local researchers on software solutions to economize on bandwidth, and in general to develop a close working relationship with their customers for effective ongoing support. Again and again we find it is not so much technology as technical support that is the critical missing factor in our networks. The support situation looks good in Uganda.
Depending on the solution Esther works out, AfricaLink will likely provide assistance with the equipment purchase. USAID is already providing assistance for rural radio email links to one of the Cooperative Bank branches in Uganda. We see these all as pilot efforts to enable us to judge the suitability of this technology for our partners.
We continue to work with the WFP in Uganda. Discussions with them centered around the possibility of establishing links in places where no suitable arrangement can be found with organizations like Bushnet. WFP and MAF are really among the pioneers in this technology for their respective constituencies. WFP used USAID funding in part to develop a system of HF radio links to its remote crisis work sites in the region. Staff of WFP finished their contracts, and used their acquired expertise to start Bushnet. The WFP's Peter Casier and I are both quite excited about this spinoff effect, and are pleased to see that the private sector is now looking seriously at the market for rural Internet linkages. We expect competition in this sector soon to bring good news generally for consumers, at least in the countries where the regulatory environment is permissive.