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Jangala: Meet the Team Closing the Digital Divide by Providing Internet Access to Offline Refugees

Published 08-03-21

Submitted by Cisco Systems, Inc.

Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winners have been officially announced, we are excited for you to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is an annual competition that awards cash prizes to early-stage tech entrepreneurs solving the world’s toughest problems. Now in its fifth year, the competition awarded its largest prize pool ever, $1 million USD, to 20 winning teams from around the world.

This year, we offered a special Digital Inclusivity Prize. The $50,000 USD Digital Inclusivity Prize was awarded to a startup using technology that closes the digital divide. This award is being offered by Cisco’s Emerging Technologies and Incubation (ET&I) Group in the spirit of our new purpose to Power an Inclusive Future for All. The partnership between the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge and ET&I is symbolic of our commitment and investment in the corporate social responsibility space and our passion to be at the forefront of innovation.

Jangala, this year’s Digital Inclusivity winning solution, is focused on the same goals as our ET&I team, targeting corporate responsibility and innovation while closing the digital divide to build a more inclusive digital world. Jangala enables access to the internet for those who encounter barriers to access. Access to the internet is life-changing and is the key to countless obstacles for those without. Their first product, the Big Box takes, two and a half minutes to deploy and can serve up to 100 people; up to 3,000 people can be powered through routers that can also hook up to the Big Box. Jangala started formulating this solution in 2016, with Rich Thanki, co-founder and Head of Technology, Nils O’Hara, co-founder and Head of Operations, and Samson Rinaldi, co-founder and Head of Product Design and Manufacturing. Anna Hickman, Head of Partnerships, and Lamis Serroukh, Head of Fundraising, filled critical needs to get the company off the ground.

Our ET&I team sat down with Jangala’s Rich, Nils, Samson, Anna, and Lamis to discuss their innovative product, their inspiration, and their comradery.

What problem is your technology solution trying to solve?

Rich: At Jangala, we want to use technology to make sure that every school and educational facility, healthcare project, and community resilience project can connect to the internet. In essence, that’s our mission. We want to collaborate widely to get there. We want to use our technology and other people’s technology.

How does the solution work?

Rich: Jangala’s solution works by bringing together a number of different technologies that are normally separated. So, Big Box uses any single form of internet backhaul, it has multiple 4G modems, and can use 5G as well. It can also use fixed-line broadband and point-to-point radios that can connect to simultaneous connections. And it has four Wi-Fi radios integrated as well that serve over 300 people. Big Box can also be the center of a bigger network, powerful enough to provide the central point of connectivity in a refugee camp of many tens of thousands of people.

What inspired you to develop this solution?

Nils: I was working in a camp in the Calais Jungle in northern France back in 2015. My parents fostered a refugee who came from that camp. So, I went to learn more about the people there, and the journeys that they made, and I started volunteering to help with initial needs, like food, clothing, shoes, shelter, and those kinds of things. And my sister and I had started a charity called the “Worldwide Tribe,” which had raised quite a lot of funds through a viral post, which was shared over 50,000 times. So, this kind of blew up, and I was going back and forth to this camp, giving out this aid that we’d been donated.

And while I was spending all this time there, I could really see that, although we’re fulfilling these primary needs, there were all these secondary needs that weren’t being fulfilled, including the need for people to be able to communicate. People constantly asked me if I knew where the nearest free Wi-Fi was that they could use without being turned away. Because, in the restaurants and cafes in the area, any refugees would be shouted at and made to leave. So, I was constantly lending my phone to people. And after a few calls to Eritrea, and Sudan, and countries like that, I’m looking at my phone bill and quickly realizing that wasn’t a viable solution anymore.

Luckily, a mutual friend, Ben, made the connection between our need and Rich’s work. He asked, “Nils, do you need Wi-Fi? Rich, you’re working with Wi-Fi solutions in Sub Saharan Africa, you should chat to each other.”

Rich: Yeah, when Nils and I met, I was working with Microsoft in Sub Saharan Africa on TV whitespace technology projects, getting internet access to lots of hard to connect places in Kenya, Namibia, Ghana, and South Africa. I was lucky enough to see the economic and social benefits that internet access could create. And I got to spend a lot of time on the ground with incredible people using technologies, putting them together, and building all kinds of networks.

But at the same time, I was hearing about what Nils was doing. I thought, “That sounds very cool” but didn’t think of helping more than donating money. And then Ben had the spark that I should offer my skills. So, I immediately put together a plan to connect the Calais Jungle using satellite photos and topographical maps. Within a few weeks, Nils and I were in the Jungle, in the mud and the rain, putting together a network based on what I had experienced in Africa.

Lack of connectivity affected so many other things–people’s mental health, how well organizations could work, and then the Jungle as a whole. You know, it really made a difference. We had lots of users–from the refugees themselves, to the cafes, to the voluntary projects. We were very popular when the Wi-Fi was working. We got lots of free cups of tea.

That’s when we started getting requests from all over Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. And, it was like, “Okay, how do we fulfill these?” At that point, we started to realize that we needed to make what we’d done more repeatable. And that’s when, as if by fate, someone forwarded me an offer of help from someone called Samson Rinaldi.

Samson: So, yeah, I sent an email to these guys who had been working in the Calais Jungle. My background is in TV and film, and I saw the request for people to go and help build shelters in this refugee camp. So, I went out there with a team from my workshop, and we ended up developing a flat-packed shelter-building process. A few months later, I wondered what was happening around internet access. I searched for projects, found Jangala, and thought, “okay, obviously these guys know how to build networks.” But the hardware side of things, I can add some value there.

Rich: At that time, we were still traveling out to connect these different situations, and we were still limited. We were thinking, “how can we make this process more efficient?” And that’s where the idea of Big Box came about. And we spent the autumn and winter of 2016 building the first prototype of Big Box.

How will winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you advance your business?

Anna: A lot of the work, since we conceived of the Big Box format for the Wi-Fi, has involved building systems to that we can deploy them at scale. Hopefully soon, we will be able to deploy hundreds, and then one day, thousands of systems.

I came onboard to help manage, grow, and proliferate our partners. Once people heard about this technology, we started getting requests every week. So, if a healthcare clinic asks about whether they can partner with us, we can now help them connect their project with Big Box.

We’re at the stage now where the technology is, as Rich said, really developed. We’ve been iterating with partners, and learning from them in all these challenging situations. Some of the upcoming tasks [include] being able to scale and properly manage thousands of boxes at once. And a lot of that involves the systems that we’re putting in place on the box, like a user interface so that partners can connect to the Box and see there and then, live, what is happening, how many people are connecting, and the signal strength. It will equip them with what they need to create the network exactly for their own specific situation and respond to their challenges. And so that we can also track with a lot more granularity how the systems are performing, which in turn feeds back into how we’re developing them. So, the Cisco prize money will be put directly towards this development work and bringing down these final barriers to scale.

How has the global pandemic impacted your work?

Lamis: The initial Big Box product is great and works so well in so many different contexts. But when the pandemic hit, we realized that there was great demand for good quality internet in lots of different contexts right here in the UK.

So, the team pivoted and developed a second product, Get Box, which is a lot smaller and works more like your typical household Wi-Fi. Using a lot of the same technology as Big Box, the Get Box can be used to provide a full home Wi-Fi, as well as being used in larger buildings, such as shelters, community centers, or emergency accommodation.

[This is] a huge lifeline for people who were stuck indoors without the internet. It’s people’s way of connecting with each other, their loved ones, but also entertainment to distract from what was going on. Now, loads of Get Boxes are being trialed and used across the UK and in Greece, in various contexts. And so, it was a really challenging time for the organization and for everyone. But actually, something really great came out of it.

Why did you decide to start your own social enterprise versus going to work for a company?

Rich: That’s a good question. I guess that, back when we started Jangala, it wasn’t even an enterprise. In late 2017, I was juggling three different things: Jangala, work with Microsoft, and work on a PhD. And it came to a point where I was like, “what feels most urgent right now?” Jangala really stood out. Having worked in the camps, having done all this stuff—it felt tangible. It felt like we could make a difference for people crying out for it.

Nils: And it was quite organic, wasn’t it? We just fell into it in a way. Because at the time, if there had been something in the market that could solve the problem that we were having in the Jungle, then we would’ve used it. But we couldn’t find something within our budget. So, we decided to make it, and kind of cobbled together this thing. And, until Samson came onboard, it was mainly held together with gaffer tape! It was just so organic. And when we got our first requests from the outside, we were like, “this is getting pretty serious now.”

Samson: Yeah, it became untenable. We were doing so much of this work while trying to hold down our regular day jobs. And there was one point when I was just out on a full two-hour meeting with you guys, while I was on a film set. Rich was like, “You need to be in.” And I was like, “Okay. This is way more important.”

What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs?

Rich: Be imaginative. Be brave about the scope of what you can achieve. If you see one problem somewhere, don’t think that that’s the only instance of that solution that exists. the solution you make might be applicable across many different people.

Lamis: And put people first! Think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. And aim to make that approach filter through every aspect of the organization.

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