To reach the village of Nyarukamba in western Uganda, visitors have to clamber up a thin, almost vertical dirt track. It's not the kind of place you would expect to find subsistence farmers surfing the Web with wi-fi computers or making VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) phone calls. But that's exactly what the village's 800 or so inhabitants have been doing--thanks to a wireless, solar-powered communications system installed in the Ruwenzori mountains by Inveneo, a San Francisco nonprofit.
Inveneo was launched in 2004 by three Silicon Valley veterans--Mark Summer, 36; Kristin Peterson, 45; and Bob Marsh, 59--who share a passion for high tech and an interest in the developing world. They had done enough volunteer work overseas to see how wireless communications might improve and save lives--through phone calls to health clinics, fast reporting of natural disasters, support for trading co-ops and better educational opportunities.
So they designed a solar-powered Internet network that is inexpensive, easy to install and nearly maintenance free. At its heart is a regional hub from which wireless relay stations--some bolted to trees--fan out for up to four miles and connect a network of PCs. Total cost, including solar panels and relay stations: $1,995.
One year later, Nyarukamba is already reaping the benefits. Village income is rising, thanks to improved access to market prices for crops and co-ops formed with other villages. Buying power has increased, health outcomes are improving, and more people are learning to read.
Next month Inveneo will deploy systems to schools and colleges in Uganda, and Ghana and hopes to expand over the next year to Swaziland, Senegal and the Philippines. And just in case the sun doesn't shine, Inveneo has worked out how to power up the system with a retrofitted bicycle.