The Learning Post: insights from UK Aid Direct and UK Aid Match

The power of tech to connect remote communities: an interview with Hello World

Episode Summary

In this episode, we speak with Angharad Jones and Katrin McMillan of Hello World about their work creating Hello Hubs, outdoor solar powered internet Hubs in rural mountainous Nepal. We discuss the set-up of the Hubs, how important it is to develop projects where the whole community is at the heart of it and learn how they are bridging the digital divide.

Episode Transcription

Gem Clark: (0:00 - )                                       

Hello and welcome to The Learning Post, a podcast dedicated to sharing insights from the UK Aid Match and UK Direct Funds. My name is Gem Clark, and I'm a Senior Performance Manager for UK Aid Direct and your host for this episode. This episode focuses on Small Charities Challenged Fund grant holder, Hello World, and their work creating Hello Hubs, outdoor solar powered internet Hubs in rural mountainous Nepal. Speaking to the Hello World, COO, Angharad Jones and the Founder and CEO Katrin McMillan, we discussed the setup of the Hubs, understanding how important it is to develop projects where the whole community is at the heart of it and learn how through educational technology, they are bridging the digital divide. 

Thanks for joining us today, Angharad and Katrin. It's lovely to be with you both again. To start with, can you tell us a little bit about Hello World and your Small Charities Challenge Fund?

Katrin McMillan: (00:53 - )                                    

Thank you so much for having us. Hello World was founded 10 years ago with the aim of closing the digital divide and the education deficit. So what we do, is we partner with remote and marginalized communities, and we teach them everything that they need to know to build their own outdoor solar-powered internet connected computer kiosk with free unlimited Wi-Fi and also a power station, so you can charge your own devices if you have them. 

The purpose of the Hubs is to allow children and adults across the community to become auto-didactic, to educate themselves, to explore the world's body of knowledge, to problem solve, to consume and create news and to stay in touch with their friends and families from whom they may have been separated.

Gem Clark (1:38 - ) 

And could you tell us a little bit more about the specifics of the project that FCDO is funding? 

Angharad Jones: (1:45 - )                                       

We're going to be to delivering five solar powered Hubs in Helambu, a rural Himalayan area in Nepal. The hubs will provide alternative education provision in this remote region of Nepal for both school-aged children and adults who missed out on formal education. 

Each Hub will serve as a training centre and will deliver access to an open-source educational library of learning programmes, books and skills training, as well as the free power and internet. What's different about this project is it's also establishing a two-year schedule of training. What that would involve is community engagement training, hardware and software skills training, and then advanced employability skills training for people who show aptitude. These sessions will enable people to make the most out of their time online, safely and effectively, and ultimately boost the employment potential of people from the rural communities where these hubs are being built.

Gem Clark: (2:31 - )                                          

Could you tell me a little bit more about how that training works?

Angharad Jones: (2:34 - )                                 

With any of the Hubs that we build in Uganda, wherever we work, it's always about creating projects that are specific to the community that they're being built in. What is going to help that community to the best effect. And what was recognized about Nepal specifically, was that there was a real lack of professional skillset in tech and in hardware and software capability. And so, we are working with our implementing partner, an incredible and very dynamic man named Chehen, who is an expert in training people in this area. And so we're working with him and his team of expert engineers to deliver these training sessions that will ultimately boost their potential to be able to seek employment in this area. But that's not to say that through our community engagement and our project coordinators, that the communities won't be able to find employment through other routes as well, that is right for them, just by being able to access the internet and apply for things that maybe they weren't able to apply to before.

(3:29 - ) So, there will be different levels of training. Initially, the community engagement training will very much be about involving the community and engaging them with the tablets in the Hub itself. So, the basic level training of how to use the tablets, how to navigate the internet safely, effectively and to find the knowledge that they wish to find. The next level of training is more basic hardware and software skills. So, lots of research on how to use things like PowerPoint, Excel, Word. As those trainings progress, the team will identify members of the community that are particularly interested or gifted in this area and then there will be much smaller groups of training that will be much more advanced, with the idea that hopefully we are creating a pipeline of employees for Chehen and for the wider industries, so that those roles are not having to go outside of the country.

Gem Clark: (4:23 - )                                       

What struck me there when you said first tier of training is about finding ways to know what knowledge that you're seeking…

Angharad Jones: (4:31 - )                                 

Yes. And what is that piece of knowledge? Because I think we have an idea of what would be helpful, but it's really for the communities to tell us what information they want to look for and what would be helpful to them. So when we talk about working in partnership with the communities, this is very much a key part of that.

Katrin, I know that you've had much more personal experience within the communities where they've been looking for information and what they've wanted to see…

Katrin McMillan: (4:51 - )                                 

It's always fascinating to learn from them, what information is most relevant and useful to them and delightful to them as well. 

In the early years of Hello World, this was really an experiment to try and understand quite how far children could take their education, in the absence of schools and teachers, if they must. The results of children's learning independently online have been staggering, but what perhaps has been, well, as surprising is quite how productive the whole community can become when they have access to the world's body of knowledge. Often, what a community is particularly interested in is surprising to us. In some regions, we see a lot of work to research and develop better concrete and building solutions so that housing doesn't wash away in every monsoon. We see an uptake in interest in maternal and child and family health, protecting and advocating the rights of children, but also of the whole family.

(5: 52 - ) What I found very moving is my conversations with teachers who work at schools that are in walking distance of their Hello Hubs. And one teacher said to me... And I said, "Is the Hello Hub distracting? Does it distract from your teaching and the children who come to school because it's such an exciting resource for children?" And she looked at me like I was insane and said, "No, it's really useful. You try teaching the anatomy with notebooks and just trying to describe where the lungs sit in relation to the heart and the ribcage. If I can't show it, it's very hard to teach it. And so taking a class to a Hello Hub and being able to show them the anatomy with pictures and diagrams and videos is improving my ability to teach."

(6:37 - ) And perhaps the most moving experience I had was with a teacher in Nigeria, many years ago, who said to me that for 15 years, she had been teaching without chalk, without books, without resources that she needed to give her children, really, the best start in life. And she hadn't realized all of this time that everything that she needed to support their learning was in the air, all around her. And I thought it was such a lovely description of what the internet is, but also a very moving insight into a teacher's struggle to teach in under-resourced areas. 

(7:18 - ) So, the value of a Hub really depends on what a community does with it. And they use it for advocacy, for political organizing, for education, for problem solving, for community organizing and so much more. And we see massive uptake in the growth of small businesses around Hello Hubs because of the internet research that people are able to do, to support the beginning of their businesses.

Gem Clark: (7:43 - )                                     

Wow, thank you. That's fascinating. It really sounds like a challenge as well. The traditional views that we have around or education broadly, how people learn and what sort of skills people need going forward to solve local problems with local solutions. 

The Hubs involve the whole community. Small children, teenagers, old women all building and getting involved in using the hubs. So how does a whole community build approach actually work in practice?

Angharad Jones: (8:08 - )                     

Hello World is designed and it's built for the community. This is their Hub and it has to work for them, so that means that we have to involve them at every stage of the process. In advance of the build, our Nepalese team visited the communities. Ensuring that the hub is going to be accessible to the whole community is what's important here, particularly and directs much of the conversation. So we agree where it should be built? Where is it going to be most accessible to the most people? Where is it going to be most safe? How it should be built and its design.

This is a really important element of it too because what makes Hello World quite unique as well, is it can be adaptable to its surroundings. What is going to be right in one area might not be right in another area. And we can adapt our building design to that. And also, how they want it to look and how they want it to feel. You may have seen some of the lovely images of one of the Hubs that was painted by the children of the community. Whether it's accessible in that way, or it's just visually pleasing to the community, the Hub needs to look and feel how they want it to be.

(9:09 - ) And in advance of the build, we also talk about how is it going to be managed and what they can expect from Hello World. We really talk to them about it being their Hub and how they are in charge of it, of how it's going to be used and how it's going to be managed, that we are there to support them, but ultimately it's theirs to be managed. 

(9:29 - ) That then leads to during the build. If we wanted to actually just build the Hub with our engineers in our team, it would be very quick. I think it would probably take one to two days, but during the build, it takes longer as our engineering team takes the time to build with the community and training them in the process. We also leave behind a toolkit that they will know how to use.

And the community gets involved in lots of different ways. You will have members of the community that are getting involved in the wiring of the solar panels, the building of the Hub itself. There are other members of the community that are making the food for the people doing the build, providing the lunch or the entertainment even.

(10:07 - ) At the end of the build, we recruit a community support officer and this person is very much the community's linked to Hello World. And they will tell us how we can best support them, whether it's to do with maintenance, engaging more of the community to make sure it's really being accessed by the whole community. Or just day to day issues that come along or ideas that they get from the community members as to how they might get even more from their Hub. 

We're always looking to see how we can support further than the Hub itself. So by partnering with the community, they really get to direct how the Hub’s used and what we can do to support them.

Gem Clark: (10:42 - )                                 

It sounds great. Some of these Hubs are being built in really remote, mountainous locations, isolated locations. What are some of the challenges?

Angharad Jones: (10:50 - )

Well, we've had to adapt quite a bit like pretty much everyone on this planet, due to COVID, but because we've built a model that is very much working locally in-country, we are able to adapt and be quite nimble to the problems that come our way. So yes, whilst the builds were somewhat delayed, we were still able to move ahead because of our local team there. And actually, when you've created an even more localised support network and you've provided internet access, then once you are back in a more central location, like the team are in Kathmandu, you're still able to communicate and support the communities in that kind of way.

(11:25 - ) We have adapted our approach in terms of our build out and support. We recognize that with some of the engineering and community support, it would be helpful to actually have some more permanently based in that region. So we have looked to hire someone for the Hello World team, that is based in the Helambu area. This year, for example, should there be any further access problems, we have someone based locally, that can support the communities in that way.

Gem Clark: (11:51 - )                                       

So, it sounds like that local partnership is really key?

Angharad Jones: (11:53 - )                                     

Yes, and he speaks the local dialect as well. Yeah. Which is, I think just as important as his incredible engineering and training expertise.

Gem Clark: (12:01 - )                               

So, your work aims to close the global digital divide. I wondered if you could firstly, explain a little bit more about what you understand that to be and then explain a little bit more about why that's so important.

 

Katrin McMillan: (12:11 - )                           

40% of the world's population still doesn't have access to the internet. And on top of that, a great many people who do have access to the internet don't have unlimited funds to roam freely and really make the most of this repository of knowledge. 

In 2016, internet was recognized by the United Nations as a fundamental human, right. And yet, since then, I've still been told repeatedly that it's not particularly important in the hierarchy of need when working in the global south, in developing economies. I think that assessment has been fundamentally wrong. Global lockdowns woke us up to the relevance of the digital divide globally and how alienating it is and what a disadvantage it is for a child and an adult who doesn't have access to unlimited internet to solve problems, to read the news, to play, to learn. But on top of the digital divide, 256 million children go without access to education globally. That's one in five children that doesn't go to school, their basic human right. And there are 70 million too few teachers, to hit our woefully low education targets.

(13:31 - ) And if you combined all of the funding that's out there, from major funders like the FCDO and other huge funders, globally and applied it to building schools, resourcing schools and hiring teachers, we wouldn't come close to reaching every child with their fundamental human right of an education. There just isn't enough money allocated to education globally to actually reach all children. And this basic arithmetic really was at the core of the foundation of Hello World. 

If it's not possible to reach every children with schools and teachers, then we must find a solution that's affordable and scalable to stop the gap. And that's what we set out to do. The digital divide for us initially was about filling the education deficit. But I think we've all become really personally aware of what it would be like to live without internet. And I guess I would challenge anyone listening to think about getting by without the internet, even just for a day.

Gem Clark: (14:34 - )                                     

Thanks everyone. If people want to know more about Hello World or about the topics you have talked about today, where should they head to?

Katrin McMillan: (14:40 - )                                     

Our website is projecthelloworld.org and our Instagram is helloworld_org.

Gem Clark: (14:45 - )                                            

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