How Building a Truck Created a Movement & What I Learned Along the Way


    Apr 03, 2024

    This is a story about failure, learning lessons, being opportunistic, and creating a snowball of social impact.

    One thing I have learned over the years is that timing is everything. One must be prepared and ready so that when the right time and the right opportunity presents itself, you can take advantage of it. And sometimes, no matter how much preparation and planning and effort you make (or how many other ways you try to achieve something), when it comes to projects with partners intended to have social impact, it may not be the right time to be able to succeed, no matter how hard you try.

    Origin story

    I joined Huawei in 2014, in the Corporate Sustainable Development Department, and initiated a project that aimed to showcase Huawei’s technology solutions that had social impact: a telemedicine and e-health project in rural Kenya. Despite deep engagement with the local government, national government, telecoms operator, a local implementation partner, and the support of the UN, ultimately the project did not achieve its goals. 

    The project was designed to be a highly integrated, complete solution covering many health facilities.

    Initial implementation was good – computers were being used, staff were trained, and so on. But at the end of 2016, services were disrupted due to a series of external factors.  At the same time the hospital was constructing a new building, but had not considered installing a local area network, so it struggled to relocate the computers and telemedicine screen. Moreover, many of the senior staff in the health department were newly appointed, which interrupted project momentum. 

    I learned some valuable lessons from this project:
    • Understand local issues that may interrupt a project and consider how to better embed projects into institutions regardless of external issues.
    • Integrated and complete solutions are complex, so consider simpler, less impactful, but more realistic and easier to implement solutions.
    • Understand the wider ecosystem affecting the users—the staff—in the hospitals, regarding their availability for training, their propensity to disappear for long periods of training, the fact that other staff do night shifts, and their incentives to use (or not use) systems.

    A few months later in 2017, I got to put those lessons into practice when I moved from Huawei HQ to Huawei Kenya.

    At that time, headquarters was looking into leveraging technology to create greater social, economic, and environmental impacts, laying the foundation to what became TECH4ALL in early 2019. I heard about the initiative, got in touch with the TECH4ALL team and explained that I had plenty of ideas and options in Kenya.

    Having learned from the previous project, we agreed to start with something simple, something we could control, something that was also highly flexible, and something that could engage a lot of different partners in different ways.

    One project that Huawei had supported before that was quite interesting involved some buses in Bangladesh that Huawei donated some equipment to and that trained rural women.

    Six training buses had provided trained for 229,000 for rural Bangladeshi women by the end of 2023

    Meanwhile I had heard of a similar project in Africa. This was the DigiTruck.

    The concept had been developed by a Belgian NGO called Close the Gap, together with different local NGO partners in various countries. The idea was a low-cost classroom converted from a used shipping container, with solar panels to power laptops inside. It would be driven around to communities providing training on digital skills, so those trained could learn how to use laptops, the Internet, and other software to find jobs, work online, and even manage or expand their own micro-businesses.

    I realised that this would tick a lot of boxes – we could utilize our consumer products and WTTx solutions by using a CPE on the DigiTruck and we could work together with the government, our key carrier customer Safaricom and even UN partners, all of whom I had had various discussions with over the years, but had lacked anything concrete to be able to do with them.

    Internet usage gap

    As these conversations were going on, we commissioned some research in Kenya to understand the socioeconomic impact of broadband.

    Researchers went to 6 locations (2 rural unconnected, 2 rural connected, 2 peri-urban connected) and interviewed hundreds of residents to understand their habits and usage of the Internet, the impact of the Internet, as well as barriers they faced. Amongst a whole range of very interesting findings, one of the key ones was understanding why 50% of Kenyans were covered by a mobile broadband network but were not using it:

    • 32% said they were not interested in the Internet
    • 20% said they did not know how to use the Internet
    • 20% said they did not know how to use a smartphone
    • A fourth important reason was the lack of/unaffordability of a smart phone

    It was clear that the DigiTruck could provide training and awareness raising that would address some of these issues, increase broadband usage, which would in turn have social impact and also create demand for more mobile broadband network capacity. I had not planned the research to be useful in starting any social projects, but the timing was perfect as the statistics from the research helped justify the project and recruit external partners.

    In fact, we also brought on board GSMA who had been developing a curriculum for training on mobile internet skills (MISTT), and held a session at their Africa conference with stakeholders discussing the concept. With Huawei Connect, Mobile Broadband Forum and also a high-level ITU event all coming up, we kicked into high gear. The project was announced at the ITU event; Ken Hu spoke about the project in a keynote speech at Huawei Connect alongside the UNESCO East Africa Head (who also signed an MoU at the event to be a partner), and as the Huawei DigiTruck was built. We produced a VR video that would be viewed at our exhibition stand at MBBF (and also signed an MoU with GSMA there for collaboration) and also at the AfricaCom Conference.

    I was learning that timing was everything – finding every possible opportunity to engage with partners, every possible opportunity to promote the project internally and externally, and every possible opportunity to show how capable the Kenya Rep office was.

    Ultimately the Huawei DigiTruck project grew and grew with DigiTrucks launched in France, Ethiopia, Senegal and other countries in subsequent years. Our Kenya DigiTruck would win recognition at the ITU’s World Summit on Information Society and a GLOMO award (together with Safaricom) at Mobile World Congress. The initial partnership with UNESCO East Africa would become a global partnership across many areas.

    TECH4ALL has blossomed with many projects all over the world. I believe the initial success—the social impact, the attention of our executives, the marketing and PR—that we had with the Kenya DigiTruck played a small part in this.

    Almost 4 years after we started the DigiTruck in Kenya, it has now had serious impact on over 4,000 people (each person gets 40 hours of training, so it is fairly deep impact) and we have had multiple events on the ground with Ministers, Deputy Ministers and even the Deputy President that has earned Huawei a lot of recognition and media coverage. We have profiled many incredible stories of the beneficiaries increasing their incomes and improving the lives of them and their families.

    2022 DigiTruck Alumni Happy Nzala talks about the advantages of digital skills training

    Throughout timing has mattered, having project ideas and partners willing for when the right opportunity came up; taking advantage of international events and marketing opportunities; finding ways to engage partners for their events; applying for awards and much else. I believe in looking for opportunities, and taking advantage of them when the time is right.

    Most months one of our team members is flagging-off the DigiTruck to its next location, or awarding certificates at a graduation ceremony, and each time we get to meet, and be inspired by more youth who we have helped. The government has realized the importance of digital skills – the DigiTruck was featured in a report issued by the President’s Office in 2021, the government’s Digital Masterplan and many other places besides, as the government ramps up their own efforts to enhance digital skills across the country. On many occasions, timing has been everything, as we take advantage of each opportunity we can to enhance the impact of the DigiTruck and promote the digital skills agenda.

    We have since launched a small innovation award, challenging those being trained to come up with ideas on how they can use their digital skills and then providing them with tablets, Internet data bundles and mentoring to help them implement the best ideas.

    I am fortunate being able to travel all across the country meeting these amazing youth and celebrating their achievements.

    Learn more about DigiTruck

    Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.


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