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One Microsoft Vancouver engineer is working to bring internet to the Congo

Catriona Hughes Sep 15, 2017 1:00 am 259

How often to you check your emails? Daily, hourly, or more frequently?

Now imagine if you didn’t have access to email.

That’s the reality for seventy-five million people living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and one Vancouver engineer at Microsoft is looking to solve the problem.

Full-stack software developer Clemens Wolff spent much of his life in Togo, Mali, and Zambia. And now he’s seeking to create a low-cost loT (Internet of Things) device that brings batch email access and internet content to developing countries in Africa.

“One of the issues facing countries like the Congo DRC is the relative lack of bottom-up development. Development today often happens in the form of top-down aid or projects brought-in and run by rich countries. However, the most sustainable development comes from the bottom: communities innovating, helping themselves, solving local problems and sharing their progress with others to generalize the solutions,” Clemens Wolff told Daily Hive.

Hack for Africa/Microsoft Vancouver

It’s an incredibly exciting innovation as the ‘Lokole’ hardware he’s building could solve the same problem in other remote areas around the globe, as well as here in Canada.

The device allows everyone to access sustainable emails by pooling resources and sharing the cost of bandwidth. And it only costs $65 USD to build the Lokole device which would bring email to a village of 100 people for just $1 per day.

“Currently, efficient communication technology (e.g. internet-based) is priced out of the range of the common people. For example, in the Congo DRC, 10 MB of bandwidth costs $1 – which coincidentally also is the average daily income. So you have the choice between loading twice, or food, shelter, etc. for you and your family. This is why only 3% of the DRC is connected, leaving 75 million people unconnected. This is where Lokole can help: to enable bottom-up development by making communication infrastructure affordable for truly everyone,” said Wolff.

Global Hackathon/Microsoft Vancouver

Every year in June, Microsoft runs a one-week Global Hackathon that its employees can participate in to create technically innovative or product-related projects. They can also choose to do good by stretching their skills to solve a social problem.

More than 200 Microsoft Vancouver employees participated in this year’s Global Hackathon event, and Wolff’s project won the Hack for Africa global category within all of Microsoft. His project also placed third in Hack for Good, an Executive Challenge set by Microsoft President, Brad Smith.

This project demonstrates how Microsoft gives back to the world as access to the internet/digital realm is considered a key factor in sustainable development, promoted in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. “The Hack for Good demonstrates new ways for Microsoft talent and technology to help solve the world’s greatest societal problems,” said Brad Smith.

Microsoft Vancouver LeanIn/Microsoft Vancouver

Lokole is proven to work as Congolese communities were connected to the internet using the device as a proof-of-concept between 2013 and 2015.

Wolff and fellow team members working on Lokole include founder Nzola, and head of operations, Laura. The group are currently fundraising for the capital to build at least 20 devices and to cover travel costs for the deployment in the Congo.

Once completed, the team plans to visit the Congo themselves and teach locals how to use and maintain the technology. When they return, they may even begin work for Lokole here in BC.

“We’ve already had some interest for Lokole from First Nations groups, such as RAVEN in Victoria. Many First Nations communities live in very remote areas of British Columbia where there is little access to communication technology. This leads to tremendous isolation – technology like Lokole can help bridge this gap,” Wolff added.

Find out more about Microsoft Vancouver online. To get the latest updates check out Microsoft Vancouver on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. If you’re interested in joining the team at Microsoft, browse their online career portal to see if there’s an opening that matches your skills and qualifications.

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