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Expanding Internet Access for Ugandan Refugees: An Exclusive Q&A with Hello World’s CEO

The digital divide is expanding due to expensive tariffs, the absence of devices, and lack of infrastructure, among others. These structural factors construct a paywall around the internet that is impossible to cross for many of the world's marginalized and underserved populations, denying them the opportunity to access education and information.

Hello World, a 2021 Digital Inclusion Solver, seeks to use the power of community and connectivity to tackle this global challenge. Katrin McMillan, founder and CEO, partners with underserved communities by training them to build Wi-Fi-enabled, solar-powered computer kiosks; Hello Hubs. These are loaded with state-of-the-art learning software and provide access to reliable and free 24/7 internet connection provided pro bono by Ugandan Internet Service Provider Roke Telkom to every Hello Hub in Uganda.

The Andan Foundation has funded three additional Hello Hubs for refugee communities in Uganda, one of the largest refugee-hosting nations in the world.

(Hello Hub at Karangura, in the Karabole district of Western Uganda)

As we are approaching World Refugee Day, can you tell me about how Hello World’s Hubs, and more generally, how the internet makes a difference for the refugee communities?

The build of a Hello Hub is a community effort, and sometimes segregated communities come together to build this complicated piece of engineering. The relationships established during that process are powerful and lasting. We leave behind engineering and community organizing skills critical for a successful lifespan of the Hello Hub and its usefulness. We also hire a Community Support Officer from every Hub community who is responsible for maintenance and for coordinating equal and fair access to the Hub.

(McMillan (center) looks at Hello Hub hardware, which is fitted inside the solar rack. Solar panels are fitted to the top of the structure and inside houses the technology that powers each Hub. The community learns how this works during the building process so that they can maintain and repair it when needed)

Many refugees have been forced to flee their homeland, so we have learners who have lost access to education at different stages and ages of learning. For them, unlimited free access to the internet means that they can pick up their education and their learning again. The Hubs are also important as a translation tool for tackling language barriers for refugees living in a new country. Hello Hubs also serve as a means to stay in touch with their family and they allow other social enterprises and organizations to hire refugees.

Millions of refugees spend years in refugee settlement camps and very often they are behind fences and they need permits to leave and  reenter. Having the internet as a window to the world to help people travel beyond the confines of these environments, access the world’s body of knowledge, and virtually dissolve the walls of refugee settlements is a kind of freedom that is perhaps the most moving aspect of Hello World’s work. 

How has the last year been for Hello World? 

Hello World changed a lot in the last year. We've expanded our team in Uganda exponentially thanks to a funding partner, abrdn, who has funded 64 hubs, and we have launched a fellowship program to train and pay female engineers to join our team because too-few women were applying to work in our engineering teams.  

When I launched Hello World, people didn’t see the internet as a priority for marginalized communities and now it’s recognized as a fundamental human right. We were six or seven years ahead of the digital inclusion conversation.  We work to decolonize international development with our community-led, respectful approach. We launched Hello World Labs to continue to lead innovations in our sector.

Taking into account the partnership developed with the Andan Foundation, what comes next for Hello World and what are you most looking forward to?

We met the Andan Foundation through MIT Solve and they gave us an initial unrestricted fund to support our work with refugees with a particular focus on refugee dignity. It’s lovely working with them because we have a shared philosophy around the purpose of the internet. Too often, people I meet think that the internet is a luxury or that it's not particularly relevant or valuable in communities where there is extreme poverty. I think they're wrong. It's critical for self-determination and to allow a community to, among other things, consume the news, share their stories, and raise their voices to advocate for their rights.

Something I've learned along the way that I hadn't anticipated when I first started Hello World was the need for people to stay in touch with their families. We all experienced that need through global lockdowns, but that's been the reality for many refugees and displaced peoples for generations. If you can't afford a smartphone or data, then you can't stay in touch with the family that you've been forced to leave behind, and I think that was of particular interest to the Andan Foundation.

The Andan Foundation is a funder that works in a collaborative partnership and not with the wonky mis-weighted power dynamics that are all too common between funders and NGOs. It's such a pleasure to work with them and MIT Solve is the reason that we met them. 

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