High-Speed Network Helps Residents of World’s Largest Refugee Camp

June 20, 2012 - 3 Comments

In eastern Kenya, on a harsh landscape of sand, wind, sun, and little else, 500,000 people who have fled famine, drought, and military conflict in Somalia over the last 20 years struggle to survive in the world’s largest refugee camp.

Last summer, the worst famine in 60 years forced more than 1000 people each day to seek refuge in Dadaab, a camp originally designed to accommodate only 90,000. The residents of Dadaab face chronic overcrowding, disease, hunger, and seasonal floods. An estimated 10,000 refugees are “third-generation”– they were born in Dadaab to parents who were also born there.

This sounds like a world in which technology is a luxury, not a need. But the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in Dadaab are stretched to their limits trying to provide food, housing, sanitation, and medical relief. They need technology, and Internet connectivity in particular, to coordinate their response efforts and provide lifesaving goods and services to the men, women, and children who need them.

Recently, Cisco and two of its long-time nonprofit partners, NetHope and Inveneo, designed and installed a local high-speed network at Dadaab that enables humanitarian relief organizations to communicate, coordinate, and function more effectively and efficiently.

Kevin MacRitchie, Cisco’s principle liaison with NetHope, compared the situation to “putting 500,000 people in the middle of Death Valley, California, and needing multi-bit servers where there isn’t even a cell phone connection.”

“DadaabNET” is a local area network (LAN) that responding NGOs share, potentially saving tens of thousands of dollars that can instead be used to provide relief services directly to residents. Previously, each responding NGO was relying on its own VSAT system–a two-way satellite commonly used to deliver Internet access to remote locations. These systems are typically slow, expensive, and require a high level of tech support. The VSAT systems are in the process of becoming positioned as emergency back-ups to the less-expensive terrestrial links and high-speed and more efficient DadaabNET.

NetHope Connectivity Director Joe Simmons, who traveled to Dadaab for the installation, said that in just a few weeks the new network is already enabling relief agencies to better function and communicate with one another.

Network connects relief agencies at Dadaab

“The goal was to share resources and reduce costs,” Simmons said. “Now they have a high-speed, 100-megabyte local area network on which they can do all their collaboration to optimize and improve each of the parts they are playing.”

Orange, a Kenyan-based telecommunications service provider, is delivering data services to Dadaab via an Inveneo long-distance wireless solution. NetHope also arranged for lower, standardized pricing with Orange. Where the NGOs previously paid anywhere from US$400 to US$1000 per megabyte of data, they now pay a standard rate of US$260 per megabyte thanks to aggregate pricing. Orange also committed to tripling the available capacity within two months to keep pace with demand as the relief agencies begin to embrace DadaabNET. Safaricom has also made a commitment for capacity planning and standardized pricing with NetHope.

The creation of DadaabNET required a vast human network. Cisco developed the network architecture and donated equipment. USAID, Microsoft, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Craig Newmark, and the Orr Foundation contributed funding. The World Food Programme provided logistical assistance. Inveneo trained highly skilled IT personnel from six of the on-site relief agencies to install the LAN, preparing them to assume immediate and ongoing responsibility for its operation.

According to Simmons, the next phase for DadaabNET is deploying Cisco collaboration tools—like Cisco WebEx, video conferencing, file sharing, and voice over IP (VoIP) solutions. These tools will help NGOs collaborate more effectively, and could be extended to community outreach centers for the residents of Dadaab, connecting them with education, economic empowerment, and resettlement resources. For example, Cisco and the NGO Computers for Development plan to establish a Community Knowledge Center in Dadaab, based on similar facilities Cisco has created throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

“Right now the main goal is to get food, medical support, water there, to sustain life,” Simmons said. “We hope DadaabNET will create a platform for NGOs to look at what they can do to build capacity…to turn Dadaab into a viable community.”

Later this summer, members of the Cisco Tactical Operations team will travel to Dadaab to implement Cisco applications and web services. Working side-by-side with responding NGOs, Cisco employees will make the network even more functional and powerful for the humanitarian agencies working to sustain—and improve–life for 500,000 people in the Kenyan desert.

Read more about how Cisco supports critical human needs efforts around the world.

Photos courtesy NetHope.

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  1. There is a need to emphasize that it is a UNHCR’s idea. Nethope and Inveneo are UNHCR partners and UNHCR is the heart of this project. I am not agreeing with the way this article is presented. The instrumental role of UNHCR must be clearly mentioned because the high speed LAN existed in Dadaab what was done in DadaabNet was the integration of Operational partners and the negotiation of bandwidth but the connectivity of the entire NGO’s community is done by UNHCR ?

  2. Now this is what technology should be used for. Bravo Cisco!

  3. I am an adent crusader of Cisco because it is changing lives in big ways.