How we took fibre to the Cradle of Mankind: Part I

The pandemic, with its attendant restrictions, was not allowed to get in the way of a project to take fibre to Kenya’s northern frontier. The trio that led the teams take us on that journey to Turkana, the Cradle of Mankind

25 Aug 2020 . 2,009 Views

At around 6pm on June 20, a team of technicians and engineers at a Base Transmission Station at Kainuk – a town in Turkana South – breathed a collective sigh and declared their mission accomplished.

There was a small celebration at that station but the magnitude of what just happened—a historic first—would be confirmed shortly.

James Lang’at, Safaricom’s Regional Manager for Rift Valley, confirmed with a call to the Network Operations Centre at Safaricom Care Centre that the site, known in tech parlance as a BTS, was carrying traffic. Kainuk had just become the first in that region to get connected to the network by fibre optic cable.

“The feedback was instant. Customers started reporting their network had improved greatly and they were now able to use the 4G network as desired,” he says.

The difference in their experience was that the station was connected through fiber optic cable rather than microwave technology. With microwave technology, high-frequency beams of radio waves are used to provide high-speed wireless connections that can send and receive voice, video, and data.

“The experience was like night and day,” says James.

Starting in March, a team of Safaricom staff and contractors had been working on laying the fiber optic cable between Kitale and Kakuma. James and his team were on the ground and they knew how important this work was for the region.

“We were using microwave, and they had run out of capacity. Every time I went to the ground, I would get the same feedback,” says James.

Customers had taken to telling him ‘4G ni jina’ (4G is only what you call it) as the strength of the network did not correspond with what Safaricom was calling it.

Kakuma is home to many Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), such as United Nations agencies that cater to the large population of refugees from the Great Lakes region hosted there.

Data connectivity for these NGOs is a must-have to stay connected to their mother organisations outside the country. Kakuma refugee camp—home to over 200,000 people and a vibrant economy and community was particularly keen on the fibre optic network connection. Also expectant for change were over 350, 000 Safaricom customers in Turkana County.

“We were in a situation where the customers had the money to upgrade but we could not sustain the demand,” adds James.

The region’s busiest hour on the network is between 8 and 9 pm as that’s when people get a chance to catch up with their friends online and abroad and the NGOs to link up with their headquarters. Given the traffic on the microwave technology, 4G users could at best get 2G.

Turkana was among the 47 counties connected to the National Optic Fibre Backbone laid down by the Government between 2013 and 2016. But the link between Kitale and Lodwar had been undermined by laggas, the dry riverbeds that turn into raging rivers, sweeping everything in their midst when flooded by rain.

James got his proposal in order, a meeting was organised with Sylvia Mulinge, Safaricom’s Chief Customer Officer, and he made his pitch for a better network—fibre optic cable—for the North.

The idea was accepted, and James stepped back—at least for the moment—for his namesake James Njuguna, the Fibre Rollout Manager at Safaricom, to pick up the process to connect the Cradle of Mankind.

Once the budget for the job was approved, Njuguna’s team commissioned a survey, obtained a map of the wayleave available for utilities, from the Kenya National Highways Authority, and the design was done.

James Lang’at and his team stepped in once the design was complete to review it and make recommendations on it based on their knowledge and experience of the situation on the ground.

“We were happy with the design but told them, ‘Go ahead but take care of laggas.’ We also advised them to avoid using metal pipes at bridges as these would attract vandals,” James Lang’at recalls.

Once the design and the wayleaves were approved, Njuguna’s team commissioned contractors to dig the trenches for the fiber ducts. That started in March, the team hard at work as the rest of the country quickly moved from confirming the first case of Covid-19 to the imposition of a curfew and then the cessation of movement and other measures that continue.

Digging the trenches over the 420 kilometres between Kitale and Kakuma was the hardest part because of three main reasons: the terrain, the weather, and the need to have the communities on their side.

For the terrain, the solution was to have trenchers, specialised equipment for digging trenches. A trencher looks like an excavator, but the tool that does the job is designed to cut a trench in the ground.

Laggas were taken care of by reinforcing the trench with concrete and going deep into the dry riverbed.

Using trenchers also helped with the challenge posed by the weather, which is characterised by temperatures of 40 degrees and above.

“At that point it becomes difficult to work. The weather informed the decision to use machines. We usually prefer manual labour but dehydration is a big risk in these conditions and progress of work would have been slow,” says Njuguna.

Engaging with the communities was the next challenge. First, they demanded jobs. But there were not many jobs on offer because the trenches were being dug using machines, and the work available required specialists. Second, the fibre had to cross the often-disputed border between the Pokot and Turkana. This meant having to engage with two separate groups of elders from either side.

Warriors from both communities are usually armed and “there were AK47s all over the place,” Njuguna recalls.

The labour issue was dealt with by giving the local youth the manual jobs of physically laying ducts, backfilling and compacting the trenches, supplying cement and ballast, and security. Once the cable is buried, everyone moves on to the next task on the location

The laying of the fibre ended with the installation of manholes, blowing of the actual cables through the ducts, splicing the cores to form continuous fibre optic lines of up to 70 kilometres, and then connecting the equipment along the way.

This step-by-step process brought closer the reality of 4G connection to people in Turkana.

After this process by Njuguna, they passed on the baton to the team led by Kepha Atika, Safaricom’s Senior Manager on the Digital Network Operations Centre, who took over mid-June. The team led by Kepha was charged with activation of the fibre, known in tech parlance as lighting up, which meant that they were in charge of the  homestretch to the connection to the North.

Read PART II here about how the team navigated the curfews, the steep hills they had to climb and the feeling of finally completing the journey to connect Lodwar, the Cradle of Mankind.

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