Engineer Joseph Kihurani’s Job Is Connecting Communities To The Safaricom Network

Photo - courtesy of Safaricom

Joseph Kihurani has seen a lot in his travels to connect Kenya to the Safaricom network. Listening to his stories you will be amazed at how calmly he tells the stories of how Safaricom staff traverse the country to connect communities to the network even though sometimes they face hardships while trying to put up base stations.

Joseph who is a Radio Access Engineer says that he is focused and passionate about fulfilling his purpose especially if he can see it has a transformative impact in the lives of people. He says he loves working behind the scenes and believes he is well equipped and empowered to do what it takes to deliver. His role is air-interface network planning with a major focus on remote and hard-to-reach areas. These are regions that many refer to as hardship prone. He believes in playing a role in assisting these so-called marginalized areas to come to the table and enjoy partaking of the national cake in the area of communication.

 Tell us a little bit about yourself

I am a radio access planner at Safaricom. What it means is that communication between your mobile phone and our base stations or booster in simpler terms. It is called network air-interface planning. I am part of the team that plans how the mobile phone will be able to get network.

I have worked at Safaricom for 13 years. I joined back in 2007, I used to do my own stuff like designing and building antennas. But at some point, I felt like I wanted to work with a company in these emerging technologies, which at that time was 2G. After going through some specialized 3-month training in Germany, I came back to Kenya. I was hired as a BSS technician. BSS basically means the base station subsystem, basically the whole system to do with the communication between your mobile phone and the base station. Normally, my base is at the headquarters, but in 2009-2012 we were based in Kisumu (Kiboswa).

The company then decided to change the structure of our team, where we have teams that are based in regional areas like Mombasa, Nairobi, Nakuru and Kisumu. We now have a centralized team that does a kind of a liaison between the regional teams and the rest of the business as far as telecommunication engineering is concerned, I am part of that central team.

As a team, we deal with the whole country, but individually, I focus on areas that are a little challenging, which are basically in Northern Kenya. Counties like Lamu, Garissa, Wajir, Mandera, Marsabit, Turkana, Isiolo, Baringo North, West Pokot, Narok and Kajiado which are areas that are usually hard to reach. I always had this dream of reaching very remote areas and transforming lives, because those are the areas where they have felt marginalized and left out. I had this passion or desire in me to always go to these places and open them up. That has always been my interest, that is basically who I am as far as Safaricom is concerned.

What challenges do you face when you go to build stations in these remote areas?

The first and biggest challenge is getting to know where people are exactly. We may get feedback that a community needs network, sometimes they even send delegations to see us which also includes their MCAs. The problem is some of these places don’t even appear on the map. To counter this issue, we were assisted with the vectors to sub-locations countrywide, so that at least they give us a guide in terms of the general area.

The next challenge is now getting to know the specific villages because some of these sub-locations can be quite big. There are sub-locations that are several times bigger than Nairobi County. Sometimes the location you are looking for is one that you have never heard of before like Darathe or Buluk. Of course, the fact that those places are hard to identify is telling of the fact that even accessing might be another issue.

For areas which are challenging and especially security-wise, we prefer to use airborne means like choppers. With choppers, we can first go to survey and identify where these locations are. The problem with using the chopper is if you do not have coordinates. Coordinates are the actual placemarks. Without them, you can fly all over the place, and you will never find those people. In some cases, the places are hidden from view by lots of trees making it hard to see where the people live. In that regard, the chopper will assist you to some point but there is a time where now you have to go on the ground. You have to not only consider security but also the weather.  Sometimes it rains too hard and it becomes impossible to use the roads. When the weather permits, and it is safe to drive, we drive to identify those communities.

We usually have to get their contacts from the chief then we communicate and agree on a day to meet and then the customers guide us to the exact location. Sometimes we discovered them purely by accident. This happens, especially when you’re flying, you might be coming from some remote area and when you see a large population and many huts, you land and ask the local people questions about the network in that area.

There have been times when we have found people that we had been looking for one or two years. We had gotten the information but couldn’t identify the specific location. The problem is, even when you visit their neighbouring sub-locations and ask for directions to a certain place, they just point you to some hills because that is how far apart these locations are. We are talking about a distance of over 30-40 kilometres and they might not necessarily be pointing you to the right direction. Basically, access is a major challenge.

Once we overcome those initial challenges in planning, the next challenge comes in form of acquisition of the space to put up the site. All sites have paperwork. That means getting approvals and identifying owners of the desired space. Sometimes this may cause several month-long delays and redesigns to meet the statutory requirements by KCAA, NEMA, etc. or disputes within the community over ownership of the space.

There are cases where we must liaise with the county government to assist in building some basic access roads for the trucks to reach such a place. The logistics challenge is that you’re getting materials that have to be transported several hundred kilometres. In addition, you have to also hire security personnel to guard the people who will be constructing because of cases of insecurity that are prevalent in these areas.

As a result of the logistical challenges that come with remote network rollout, the costs can be pretty high, because we have to travel very far, we have to secure our equipment and the personnel. Another thing we also must put into consideration is maintenance. Who will be taking care of the sites? The person doing the maintenance also has to transport the fuel for the backup generator which again, brings us back to the issue of access.

In 2016 after some of our sites were attacked this became a big issue because we had to restore them every time. This being a security matter, we had to involve the authorities and the government is now providing support in terms of putting up security camps to take care of areas which sites are prone to attack. This support gives us an opportunity to provide coverage to needy people in these areas.

What are the sources of power for Safaricom’s base stations?

The main provider for power would ideally be Kenya Power, but of course, we know in many of these places, they don’t have electricity connection. Therefore, we have to have our own power source within the base station. For every station, we try to install a solar power system, earlier stations also had wind-driven generators, but the majority of our stations are powered by the sun, a battery banks and a backup generator.

Tell us about Olgulului and how you discovered it.

Back in 2013 – 2014, there was a call for remote areas to receive more coverage. These were places that our commercial teams wouldn’t typically vouch for because they are not good for business. A base station is supposed to support itself and return the investment. Rather than view it as a business decision, Safaricom offered to donate around 50 sites that would be set up in remote areas. As a result of this, it was noted that there was significant growth in the lives of the local communities and customer numbers were steadily growing.

In 2014 as Safaricom went to renew their ten-year license with the communications authority of Kenya, they were expected to cover a particular number of locations. 550 to be precise. Olgulului was one of the sub-locations that were on the list of locations to receive coverage. We gave out a plan of how and when we would set up the sites and Olgulului was scheduled for 2019 which is when we started working on the project. I drove there to go and observe how the demographic was. A few kilometres from Namanga you lose network and you realize that you are going into a remote area.

While driving, I came across a dusty road that led to a small village where I found some old men seated. I asked them for directions to Olgulului and they told me that I had arrived. They went on to tell me that they experience a lot of problems with the network and mostly rely on the network coming from the neighbouring country of Tanzania.  Using my equipment, I could see that there was almost no network in the area where they normally made calls.

They were happy to hear that Safaricom was going to set up a base station there because amongst their biggest challenges was that when someone when somebody went out to graze in an area without network and they didn’t come back. With no way to communicate with them or know their exact location, it would be a stressful situation because Olgulului is located next to Amboseli National Park and there is the possibility of them having been attacked by wild animals. In the event that an attack had happened, there would be no means to call for emergency assistance because there is no network. With this information, we took a greater interest in providing the locals with network.

The process of putting up a base station starts with the collection of data, going back to the office to release the plans for budgeting and procurement purposes, starting the acquisition process,  and once the equipment is available bringing it in.  The last step is connecting the network. The entire process took around an entire year to get the site up and running.

For the local communities, what benefits do they experience from having a base station set up in their area?

 The benefits include the ease in which the members of the community can communicate with each other. They no longer go out of reach when they are grazing, and they no longer have to use the awfully expensive Tanzanian signal. Now they have a local and more affordable network that they can rely on. Once we set up sites in any of these remote areas, the locals feel like they are a part of Kenya and that they can finally reap the benefits that come with being a citizen of this country. Good network also promotes business in these areas as Mpesa services facilitate money transactions while also reducing the occurrence of insecurity issues because people no longer carry cash money.

What is the Social-Economic impact on an area after setting up a site?

All the base stations are interconnected in the sense that the signal has to bounce from one station and onto the other for it to go back to the ‘Mother’ station. To ensure that there is a smooth flow of signal, sometimes we set up sites in remote areas where there is very little settlement. What we later came to notice is that over a period of time, people tend to settle heavily around these sites. Communication has become an integral part of human life and thus, people prefer to build their lives around an area that they are assured has good network.

Initially, it was a challenge for us to directly connect sites to the mother base because of the distance involved and, in some cases, very rough terrain. What we would end up doing was use satellite to help bridge the gap. Using satellite is a very expensive endeavour and thus, we could not afford to provide voice and data services. At the time, our sites only provided voice services which is how people were able to make calls. Over time, we have been able to upgrade to terrestrial sites which are sites that offer more capacity to enable not just voice but data services as well.

I remember one time when my team and I landed in Turkana to provide services and we met a young man. Once he knew that we were from Safaricom and we had come to set up a site, he was jumping up and down with excitement. He explained that he had wanted to set up a business but in order to do that, he would have to send a bodaboda to the nearest town which had network, make a call from there and place an order for the goods that he needed for his shop. There would always be a lot of travel involved not only to order but also to market the goods because all this would have to be done through word of mouth. At the same time, lots of other people came forward and they expressed that they would want to open Mpesa shops once there was network in the area.

I visited a place where a man told me that in order to make a call, he hired a boda boda for 400 shillings so that it could take him to a hill about 20 kilometres away. He had to go there because it was the only place with network. So, it became very expensive to communicate because, on top of the charges of the call, extra costs of hiring the boda boda were also incurred. In another area, they had specific days when a lorry picked them up and drove them towards an area where there was network. The problem with this arrangement is that there was no privacy while making calls and this greatly undermines personal communication and the dignity of those calling.

Photo courtesy of Safaricom.

What would you say is the inspiration behind you going to the remote areas to provide network to the local people?

The most rewarding part about the work that we do is seeing the reaction of people when a site starts working and they finally have good network. They are so happy and honestly speaking, that is where I get all my inspiration. When we see women going on their knees to thank God for bringing Safaricom to them, we feel motivated and inspired to continue working towards providing services to everyone. The impact that network connection has on people is by far the thing that drives me most.

An interesting experience that happened to a colleague of mine was that he was once accosted by cattle rustlers on the road who intended to rob him of his possessions. As they questioned him about where he was coming from, he told them that he was enroute to solve the network issue in the area. Upon hearing this, the rustlers let him go and even offered to escort him. This shows you just how much people value communication.

A section of governors from the remote areas asked their people what development projects they wanted to see. The people expressed that the most pressing issue wasn’t tarmacked roads or tapped water, they were clear on the fact that they wanted good network first. Stories like these just remind me that we are doing really important work that is touching the lives of people in a big way.

Having worked at Safaricom for such a long time, what would you say will be your most memorable moment?

Having worked on so many sites in different locations, I can say that each site is very unique from the other in terms of the challenges faced during the planning process and the experience with the community. Each time, however, I have made good memories that will last forever. Sometimes we have to really stretch ourselves and walk very many kilometres to get to a site as we did in Turkana where we had to walk up a hill for around 7 kilometres after we reached the end of the road and we could not proceed by car.

The process of setting up these sites is both an adventure and a challenge. Each site has a story that I remember fondly and vividly. We also get the experience of interacting with the different people in these areas. We have been to Lamu, Marsabit, Turkana, Pokot, and Samburu among other places. Our interactions with these communities give us a new appreciation for the uniqueness of human beings, their hopes and aspirations in life.

Sometimes we come back with these stories to the office and present them to the Safaricom Foundation just to see if there is any extra help that they can provide.

From an engineer’s point of view, how has the vastness of Kenya affected coverage?

When you think about vastness, let’s talk about the size of sub-locations. One sub-location out there can be four times bigger than Nairobi county. The regulator expects us to provide coverage in that entire area. I have talked about the issues of location and access. For me, I always see this as an opportunity to explore the area and discover where the people have settled.

Sometimes you can travel for a thousand kilometres, run out of fuel and still be miles away from any kind of civilization. Luckily, I enjoy exploring. Some of these trips can be so brutal and tiring that I have to get a massage when I come back to try and ease the fatigue. This is why sometimes it makes more sense to fly to the place first and assess whether the terrain is suitable.

In my travels, I have realized that even though we might live in different places and speak different languages, human beings are all the same. They want love, interaction, respect and happiness. I have met communities where they have interesting decoration on their skin, others will want to slaughter an entire goat for you and they are all memorable experiences.

Has there been an incident during your work that you felt like your life was in danger?

There was a time we needed to install a site in Mandera County. We flew there because the terrain was not favourable. Mandera county neighbours Somalia hence the population in Mandera is mixed with people from Somalia. Upon landing, the locals were very accommodating and hospitable. I needed to visit an area that was about three kilometres away, so our escorts drove us there. Because of the state of insecurity in Mandera, there were many armed policemen that had been sent to protect us and the chopper we had flown in. As we were assessing the area, we heard gunshots from afar. Once we started going back towards where the chopper was, we could see the pilot signalling us to hurry. As we got into the chopper, the engines were already revving, and we flew out immediately. The pilot would explain that a local who was drunk had fired his gun because he was unhappy that he had not been included in the team that was providing security.

Out of the 550 sub-locations that the regulator expected you to offer coverage, how many have you managed to cover so far?

 As of two months ago, we were at 490 sub-locations covered. Some are still in the process as we speak. Our target is to clear the balance by the year 2022. In some special cases, we install additional sites because the already existing ones are not enough for the people in that area. The traffic can be overwhelming and so when it gets to that, extra sites are inevitable. Coverage might not always be 100% but we prioritize providing network to places where there are large groups of people.

Tells us about the Universal Service Fund and its impact on setting up sites.

Some leaders from various places felt like the process of covering their areas was taking too long. The regulator consulted with various stakeholders and came up with a fund – The Universal Service Fund How this fund is disbursed is that the regulator comes up with a lot and in the lot there a number of sub-locations. The regulator asks us as the service provider to pick one sub-location in the plot and they will finance to build it, equip it and maintain it for the next five years. Safaricom applied to do 33 lots but got 24.

In these lots, there were 50 sub-locations. As Safaricom, we declared that we would cover them using 48 sites. In these 48 sites, 40 were part of the tender while 8 would be coming from Safaricom’s pocket. We felt like it was important to add those sites in order for the customers to have a better experience.

So far we have completed 41 sites, the rest are in the process. Relatively speaking, some were easier to set up than others because of their location and getting clearance from the organization that protects and regulates the air space. The USF was used around 2017-2018 but there are still sites that are yet to be completed because of the challenges faced.

Is Olgulului one of the sites in the lot?

Olgulului is actually a site under Safaricom. It is under the 550 that the regulator had told us to work on.

Who would you say is most instrumental to the process of setting up sites and connecting remote areas to the rest of the world?

I would say that the customer is the most important piece of this process because it is them that voice their concerns to the regulator and the Communications Authority of Kenya in turn, puts them on the list and tells us where exactly to set up sites. Without the customer coming forward, we would not have a way of knowing that they exist.

When the Safaricom technical engineering department gets ahead to commence the process, we link up with the commercial department in the company. We have benefited a lot from the vectors that we received from the IEBC. These vectors are what we use to identify where people are.

As the planning department, we rely on our tools which is where we input the various information and share it with the acquisition team. This is the team that finds out who are the owners of the pieces of land we intend to build sites on. They also get clearance from the civil aviation board, NEEMA, county governments. They basically do all the paperwork.

As this is happening, we have already placed orders for the equipment which we source abroad. Once the acquisition team has gotten all the paperwork, we pass the ball to the construction team. The construction team works alongside contractors such as Adrian Kenya.

Information about the location of where the site is supposed to be is shared with the contractor. He is given access to our warehouses where he gets the equipment and commences construction. The contractor must abide by certain rules about quality and standard. Once construction is done, the construction team inform us that the site is physically ready for activation.

With our team, we generate parameters and configuration in liaison with an engineer who is usually located in the field. In summary, that is how the site comes to life. It is in many ways a team effort. Once the site is up, we have the maintenance team that takes care of the site.

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