Connecting people: An engineer’s adventures

Before a Base Transceiver Station is set up, teams of specialists spend hours poring over data, maps and technical material as they figure out how and where to place it. Joseph Kihurani, as part of that team of specialists has been doing that for quite some time, and he has seen a lot in his quest to bring network connection closer to Kenyans.

23 Oct 2020 . 2,367 Views

Accompanied by armed guards, Joseph Kihurani was talking to members of the local community in Warankara village in Mandera County as part of ground survey. He was about three kilometres away from the helicopter that had just flown him and his team to the remote location near the Kenya-Somalia border.

Suddenly, there was sporadic gunfire.

A concerned team member asked Kihurani, an engineer with Safaricom, whether he had heard the gunshots, to which he calmly responded that they ought to first finish the task at hand, which was in the concluding stages.

The pilot, who had been idling around his bird, sprang into action, praying and wondering where the Safaricom team were. Shortly after, he saw the team returning to the helicopter with the escort vehicles in tow. Relieved they had returned, the pilot gestured wildly and sternly commanded Kihurani and the team to hurry back to the chopper.

As they hurried him, the pilot vaulted onto his seat and started the engine, sending the rotor blades whirling into life and the sand and loose vegetation into the air.

Once Kihurani and his team had scrambled into the helicopter, the pilot immediately took to the air, heading away from the trouble that was brewing down below them.

This was just another day at work for the team that often works in sites with unforgiving terrain and a violence that can rear its head at short notice.

On that day, Kihurani and his team had flown to the area to scout for a place to build a base station to connect the area residents to the Safaricom network.

“As always in such cases, we had contacted the local administration to introduce us to elders who would in turn engage us and we would agree on where to build the base station on the spot we deemed most suitable. We also had armed security escort made up of local police reservists,” he recalled.

Unknown to them, a drunken police reservist was fomenting trouble by inciting other community members that they should all be involved in any development taking place in the locality.

Apparently, the reservist was unhappy that his group had not been hired to provide security to the Safaricom team. As he sought to stir up trouble, the policeman had fired several rounds in the air, triggering off the pandemonium.

And with that, Kihurani and team would not bid a proper goodbye to his new partners in Warankara village.

The pilot explained if someone would have punctured the helicopter’s fuel tank, they would not only be stranded but would have been caught in a likely bloodbath or even a fire.

These are some of first-hand experiences that Kihurani and team go through in far-flung areas in the line of duty.

In his work, Kihurani has discovered that in those remote locations, the availability of a mobile phone signal goes hand in hand with personal safety, and much more so, in the badlands of the north where bandits sometimes roam freely.

Sometimes the weather conspires to compromise the security of the team. Travelling through Turkana County one time, the chopper they were in was forced to land and park for two hours after a storm reduced visibility to zero.

Another time, on a vehicle-bound mountain crater survey on the border between Baringo and Turkana counties, the engineer and his team were caught up in a wet drizzly evening darkness. The road was inaccessible and thus the team was forced to walk a 16-kilometre round trip to the site, which was situated at the crater edge.

“On our way back to where we had parked the vehicles at the bottom of the crater forest, due to poor visibility, part of the security escort with a contractor took a wrong turn in the mountain trail. By the time we discovered we were no longer together, we could not even contact them on phone because we were out of network signal range,” he recalled.

Since they were in an area prone to insecurity, the most sensible cause of action would have been to travel back to the safety of the town they were booked in for the night. While there, they would get the security helpdesk to send another security detail that would mount a search for the missing men.

“Although we were in a dangerous place, we felt we couldn’t just leave them there,” says Kihurani.

The thought of leaving the two security personnel and contractor to endure a wet night in the crater forest inhabited with wild animals until the following day did not look like a viable option. More so that the search-and-rescue party would have no clue where to start searching for them.

In a bid to help guide their lost colleagues, Kihurani and team formed an outward facing circle of the vehicles and switched on the headlights, blared the horns in the hope that either the cacophony or lights would be visible to their colleagues.

But this, they would shortly find out, was futile.

“A scout in our team came back telling us not to bother because after five minutes of walking into the woods one could neither see the light nor hear the sound of our circle-of-vehicles in the middle of the forest,” Kihurani recalls.

They instead drove to a spot in the mountain forest where they felt it would be easiest to send a rescue team in search of the lost personnel.

After many hours of nail-biting anxiety, hunger and cold as Kihurani’s team was nursing blisters from the long trek, a scout in their team stumbled upon a signal – that they had coincidentally earlier extended during their field work – that they used to reach out to their lost colleagues.

Kihurani laughs: “We had no foresight that our work earlier would become our lifesaver! Thank God.”

They managed to communicate with the contractor and his security team, gave them their coordinates, and they quickly trained the security personnel with them on how to use a GPS gadget so that they could track and locate each other in the dark wet mountain forest trails.

“The whole ordeal came to a sweet end at about 1:45 a.m. when we were able to get back to where we were in the “forest park” being carried on the shoulders of their fellow security personnel with blistered feet and dehydrated bodies. What a reunion that was…’’ he said with a sigh.

Building base stations in the middle of nowhere involves a lot of leg work when everything else, such as road transport, fails. He recalls one incident in North Eastern when he and his colleagues had to leave their vehicle and trek for several hours to a prospective site.

As they were to find out, locals are wont to understate long distances and one had suggested their destination was close. Their guide was an agile silver-haired 70-year-old Turkana man who was walking at a speed they would never have thought possible at his age.

“We struggled to keep up with him for what was turning out to be an endless trek. By the time we got to the top of the hill, we were at the point of despair. Beside aching muscles and joints, we were very hungry and thirsty. We weren’t sure how we would make the walk back to where we had left our Land Cruiser seven kilometres away,”

“To our sweet and amazingly pleasant surprise, a contractor we had walked with to that hill had carried an emergency packet of biscuits and energy drinks in his rucksack. He shared them out with us. Never had a snack tasted so sweet. We hugged him and stopped short of kissing him,” he remembers.

Getting building materials to such sites is always a challenge. Flying above, you can see that in some cases, there is need for an access road to be built before construction work can begin. This brings up additional costs for putting up base stations.

Besides the challenge of poor or non-existent roads in North Eastern, there is a destructive force in the shape of Al Shabab, the Somalia-based terror group.

In recent times, terrorists have been blowing up base stations built near the Kenya-Somali border.

“Once a base station is destroyed, local residents are deprived of the network they have been enjoying and when we rebuild it, we now engage the Government to secure and protect the stations from destructive elements,” he said.

Another challenge is getting to the people the government wants covered is never easy particularly in larger sub-locations.

Sometimes Kihurani and his team get to the ground only to find that people are not where the government thinks they are. When this happens, the engineer painstakingly tracks them through chiefs and their assistants or by use of guides from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) that shows them where to search if using airborne means.

Despite the difficulties he encounters in the cause of his duties, the engineer says the joy of residents once they are connected to network makes it worthwhile.

He recalls a rewarding moment when a young man in Turkana County went into an elaborate dance of happiness when the Safaricom network got to his village.

“He was operating a small shop. Availability of network meant that he would no longer travel for long distances to either place orders or fetch fresh supplies. He now places orders through his mobile phone for delivery to his remote village,” he said.

Kihurani has also learnt that the establishment of a base station leads to unexpected development.

“What we have discovered is that when we put base stations in some places, they attract new settlements and businesses where nothing previously existed,” says the engineer.

One time he flew over a recently built base station he had planned earlier in North Eastern. From the air, he could see a sprawling settlement around the base station.

“My tools showed me I was at what I originally knew was nothing but bush and donkey tracks, but lo and behold, there were people living there. All these people had been brought together by the now available network,” he recalled.

Availability of network is creating new centers of commerce and these in turn attract social amenities and support remote based schools and hospitals. In the normal sense of commercial rollout of network, these backwaters were initially left out because they did not make any commercial sense but because of the efforts of people like Kihurani, some of them have come up with and grown huge traffic and are now turning in a profit.

As part of Safaricom’s license, the government through the Regulator required that the mobile phone service provider provide network to 550 sub-locations scattered around the country by 2022 and to-date, slightly over 500 have so far been covered

One of the newest base station under the license obligation was in Olgulului sub-location in Kajiado County that recently brought network connectivity to more than 5,000 people living in the area.

The residents previously depended on the network by Vodacom from neighbouring Tanzania, which came with costly roaming charges. The alternative was to travel for long distances to find a Safaricom signal. For residents of Olgulului and many far to reach place, this is now a thing of the past.

This story is part of the Safaricom@20 celebrations. For 20 years, Safaricom has developed new technologies and innovations to support and enable Kenyans to communicate, connect and to go beyond.

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