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This interview with Daniel Stern of Uganda Connect took place during Telecom Interactive in Geneva during September 1997.

Connecting Uganda

What was the purpose of the Uganda Connect project?

Connectivity! We wanted to supply the means to give connectivity to a country that in other respects was a leader in the region if not in the continent.

My wife had already gone there on an exploratory mission to see what the possibilities were to work with the government. We didn't know what we'd find there. We just packed three four-wheel drive trucks full of equipment, shipped them to Mombassa and drove them across Kenya with the idea of bringing computers and modems to Uganda. We knew they had Internet service providers already. We wanted to see what the bottlenecks were... and hit at those.

So there was no prior plan... you just arrived thinking "we'll see where we can use the equipment"?

Yeah! We had met the Minister of education some years earlier and spoken to him about the idea of using computer technology in general. That was before the Internet. When the Internet came along we really had a focus and a "raison-d'être" for the project.

What happened when you first arrived? You said you had problems getting through customs...

Bureaucratic hassles are a pretty wide-spread problem in developing countries. If you are not already set-up, you are staying at a hotel, you don't know how things work and you're taking Malaria prophylactic, it can be almost impossible to get a project off the ground unless you have got some big funding. We didn't have much funding at all. A Belgian Baron gave us the funds. I don't think he even knows how crucial his contribution was.

Trying to get through customs was discouraging and disappointing. We had met many government officials who were so welcoming and positive and encouraging but there were also many of the other type who were outright rebellious ... for example, we travelled 25 kms. in a shared taxi only to find out that they hadn't done their homework and asked us to come back the next day. And all this time the fees for storage of the trucks were mounting at a phenomenal rate. Our health was actually suffering. We were getting run down physically. This is something that larger NGOs and agencies are not quite aware of. For them delays just meant another night of cocktails as they sat in their air-conditioned rooms in the Sheraton.

Once you got through, where did you go from there?

Once the doors started opening it was phenomenal. The Ministry of Education gave us some offices in the Crested Towers, the headquarters of the Ministry. We begged and borrowed what we could to make those offices look nice. We redecorated them and we set up our 386 PCs.

We started teaching ministry people who were generally older but they were not so ready to receive the new technologies. So we honed in on teaching the younger ones. We found some unemployed young people and we started training a team of volunteers. We sat them down with a Windows 95 operating system and other software and they just took off. It is amazing how inspired those kids were. The spirit in those offices contrasted dramatcially with the atmosphere in the rest of the building. I attribute a lot of that to the Internet. When we demonstrated web browsing and the use of e-mail, our offices were completely full.

How do you announce such meetings?

By word of mouth. We haven't dared advertise it because we don't have the facilities. Our vision is that of training trainers. We already have our first group teaching others. A couple of them have found jobs.

So the essential thrust of what you describe concerns creating awareness. Does the project go beyond that?

We came to Uganda with the idea of distributing our second hand PCs on free-loan basis to qualifying institutions like agricultural projects, schools, health centres, etc. We gave away the first one to a Member of Parliament. He was no sooner connected to the Internet than he was sending us a flow of e-mail praising this new communication medium and asking us to meet a minister or another MP. He set up demonstrations in parliament. So that turned out to be a good decision.

Leaders often find themselves suffering from a syndrome of the Emperors New Clothes. I sympathise with them. People look up to them. They are supposed to know. Ministers may take hell from the President if they don't know the answers. Yet the experts are the first to admit that they don't know; telecommunications are changing too fast. I hope ministers here at Telecom Interactive will pick up on the freedom of being able to say "I don't know".

Did you give other computers away?

We gave another away last week to a rural school in Fort Portal where they do have electricity and telephone. We also got them a full Internet access account free of charge. We are trying to twin that school with a school in Holland. Twinning aims at cross-fertilisation. In addition, there is a need to sensitise developed countries about the requirements of the developing countries. The Dutch school may wish to fund raise to help pay the other school's phone bill because Fort Portal is a long way from Kampala and even checking e-mail everyday puts up their phone bill.

How did you get in contact with the school in Fort Portal?

My wife had met a theological student who suggested the Fort Portal school. One of our volunteers went up there last week to get them up and running so they would know how to send and receive e-mail and open attachments. After which he could return to Kampala and if they had any further questions, he could help them by e-mail.

How do you see the future of your work in Uganda?

It is really hard to predict. Right now we are really concerned about basic access up-country. We have started to set a network with the World Food Programme (WFP). We have a list of hardware we need and we have a team of volunteers from the World Food Programme working with us. The idea is to provide e-mail up country by HF radio. Telephones are pretty thin on the ground there, and even if you do have a telephone, the practicability of connecting to the server long enough to get your e-mail is a real headache. You can run up a big phone bill trying to get an e-mail sent or received. The connection won't hold.

This whole project was built on good-will and a great deal of determination. What makes it different from most other projects is the absence of any predetermined strategy.

That is definitely the way ahead. I'd go so far as to say that is the way to run a business. When you think of the shifting paradigms we have today, who are the ones who are able to position themselves strategically? Even that concept seems an anachronism because you can't predict. Flexibility and adaptability is the thing that will make it a success. The minute you make a plan for something six months from now, you have already added some overheads that may seriously jeopardise the success of the project.

Tradional sources of funding generally need prior plans which can often turn out to be quite inappropriate. What was the reaction when you went to see people to ask for funding?

We do have a little bit of a track record now. What is important is that your vision holds together and people can see that the idea is sound. If they have any belief in you at all ... we found we had a lot of response from companies in the way of donating equipment.

Is there not a religious conviction behind what you are doing?

I wouldn't call it religious. I would call it belief, a belief and a hope that all of us have to have. A quest that each of us follows. A quest for excellence, for high-mindedness. Even in the Internet Society there is a new spirit of hopefulness, of innovation. I see, almost in the spiritual sense of a seer, through this wonderful medium called the Internet; I glimpse the Glory. You know it is there. You can believe again. It gives new strength to your step. There is a cause. Why not go down to Uganda and set up some 386 PCs...

Interview by Alan McCluskey, Telecom Interactive, Geneva.

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Created: September 12th, 1997 - Last up-dated: September 12th, 1997