Two years, ago headteachers in Isiolo organised a meeting to discuss various issues regarding their work. The meeting was to take place in Isiolo Town the headquarters of the county.
Mohammad Somo, the head teacher of Duse Primary School did not attend. He only got to hear about the meeting one week after the event. Communication calling the meeting had been through the teachers’ WhatsApp group.
And it is not that Mr Somo suffers digital communications challenges. He just happened to live and work in an area without mobile phone coverage and internet connectivity.
Anytime he needed to communicate with the outside world, he had to travel to Kina Town some 18 kilometres away. This came with extra costs since he would have to spend around Sh400 for a round trip on a hired motorbike.
It wasn’t just meetings with fellow teachers he was missing. Whenever he wanted to consult with his bosses on matters regarding the running of the school, he would have to physically travel to the headquarters whereas a quick phone conversation would have done the trick.
It was the same case when he urgently needed to communicate with parents, relatives and friends scattered around the country. Duse was one dark hole.
This changed last year when Huawei partnered with Safaricom to put up a booster to address telecommunications challenges in the area under the Rural Star Project.
When the booster hummed into life, it instantly transformed the lives of Mr Somo and his fellow teachers.
“Today, the world is in this gadget in my hand. I’m can call and send messages without leaving my office. Similarly, the outside world is able to get through to me with ease.”
“This is a remote location with many disadvantages. For instance, we do not get newspapers and as such we are always behind the news. Today, I just need to go online using my phone to read the newspapers,” he says.
Duse, like many parts of the county, suffers from insecurity primarily driven by cattle rustling. When raiders strike, they spare nobody, men, women and children. School children too have been caught up in the cross-fire.
In Duse, the problem was aggravated by lack of mobile telephone communication through which the residents could call for help. This situation led to many parents pulling their children out of school preferring to have them at home .
“With the availability of mobile phone communication, we can now reach security services instantly. This has in turn given parents the confidence that their children would be within the scope of immediate help in case of an attack,” says the head teacher who has worked at the same school for the last 10 years.
And it gets even better. There are times bandits are spotted while kilometres away from the village. When this happens it is now possible for residents to call Mr Somo and evacuate the children to safety.
There are new possibilities that have come riding on the back of the Rural Star Project such as access to M-PESA mobile money services.
Before the booster went live, locals had to make the 18-kilometre journey to Kina Town to access M-PESA services, and that came with the possibility of encountering bandits on the lonely road that cuts through scrubland.
Improved communication brought with it new job opportunities. Abdi Jirma, a primary school teacher, now runs an M-PESA shop.
“I never dreamt of making an extra income. Like everybody else, I too would make the costly and often risky journey to Kina to access M-PESA.”
“I have two employees and we have a steady stream of customers throughout the day because we are the only outlet in the entire location,” he says.
M-PESA shop is particularly a blessing to businessmen who get their supplies from Maua Town in Meru County. In the past, they too had to travel for hundreds of kilometres to Maua at great personal risk.
“Highway robbers knew that these businessmen carried large sums of money. They were regularly ambushed and some of them went bankrupt while others lost their lives,” Mr Jirma recalls.
Today, no businessman needs risk his money and life on the road to Maua. All they need is to deposit their cash in their M-PESA accounts, send it to their suppliers in Maua and then text a list of their requirements. The suppliers will then send trucks with the goods right to their doorsteps.
Another beneficiary of the communication mast is Duse Dispensary, the first port of call for residents of Duse. In most cases, the health problems are simple enough for resolution at the dispensary.
However, there are times patients require referral to hospitals with better facilities. This has become easy because all staff at the dispensary have to do is to call for an ambulance from Isiolo Town.
“Until last year, getting a patient transferred was a nightmare,” says Fatima Happi, an assistant nurse at the dispersary.
She says they had to depend on boda boda riders to transport patients the other hospitals in the county. The rough ride would often put the patient into further jeopardy.
“Most of the residents in the village have our mobile phone numbers. Whenever they have problems even at night, they call us up and we meet them here,’’ she says.
Just as it lacks basic infrastructure, Duse suffers from lack of diversification of economic activity. Local chief, Duad Harake says the economic mainstay of the location is livestock keeping and small scale mining.
Mr Harake believes that for Duse to prosper, residents have to engage in different economic activities. He cites the transformation that the improved communication has brought about.
“We have witnessed increased business activity since the mast was put up. There are people selling mobile phones and others who have opened battery charging outlets. These are some of the new jobs which are keeping the youth engaged,” says Mr Harake.
But perhaps the biggest improvement is the impact the Rural Star Project has had on security. As the chief, Mr Harake is the first line of defense for the community.
“We live in an area that is prone to intermittent attacks by cattle rustlers. In the past, when the raiders attacked, we had no way of calling for help,” he says.
But today, he can mobilise the entire county security apparatus from the safety of his house.
The network has also made intelligence gathering easy. He says that through use of mobile phones, he is able to get reports of movement of suspicious people in real time from a string of informants scattered around the location.
This system of surveillance enables security agents to neutralise security threats.
“We owe the improved security to the project. Improved security means more time spent on gainful engagement the end result being better standards of living for everybody,” says Mr Harake.