SOS Children’s Villages (SOS) operates in 134 countries around the world. It provides a wide range of services for children who have lost their parents and various ways of alternative care for those children to be able to grow and integrate in the society. It also works on a community development approach for communities around the world, so it can prevent children being abandoned. SOS Children’s Villages aims to do this by providing families with trainings and support until they are able to sustain their income. SOS also offers education services through schools and kindergartens in communities. It runs various medical centers in Africa and Asia which provide services in the area of children’s and maternal health.
The High Throughput Satellite (HTS) era has made a huge difference to an organization like SOS as it operates in many remote regions around the world. “A few years ago when we launched our first VSAT connection in Africa, I remember at that time, bandwidth was crazily expensive," Ahmed Mihaimed, head of information and communication technology for Africa and the Middle East for SOS, told Via Satellite. "Nowadays this has changed and we are seeing cheaper prices now, which is great for non-profit sector which has more financial constraints than the corporate world.”
When operating in different regions, one of the key questions facing an organization like SOS is the reliability of this new wave of satellite services. Mihaimed admits he has major concerns about the stability and reliability of these services. “Are we able to get what we are paying for in a reliable way? From our side, technology can come with cheaper pricing, but especially in our field of operations where we are in a number of emergency situations, we need to make sure the technology is really reliable. In our experiences in West Africa for example, we have found C-band to be much more reliable, particularly in rainy areas compared to Ku-band. So, I would say you cannot look at new technology in such a black and white way rather there are various factors which needs to be looked at and not only the pricing.”
While there maybe concerns around using satellite, SOS formed a partnership with Thuraya three years ago, which has been a real boost to a number of SOS operations across the world. The partnership started in three countries, the first being Zambia. Thuraya provided SOS with laptops and internet in one of the schools there. This has helped provide excellent support to the children and made a real difference in terms of improving their results, according to Mihaimed.
Mihaimed highlights a situation two years ago in the Central African Republic (CAR) where the partnership really made a difference. “When the armed conflict started there, Thuraya provided us with satellite IP and satellite phones, as well as … six months of airtime during this time of emergency. Usually this can be very expensive,” he says. Mihaimed said the impact had been “tremendous” as previously it had had field offices that had been disconnected from the country and regional office. The airtime from Thuraya then made it easier to re-establish connections and find out what was happening on the ground. SOS was able to set up its emergency response projects so it could get real time updates from the field. “At the same time, it helped our field offices to work very closely with one another to make sure security protocols are implemented in case evacuations are needed. This really showcased the benefits of satellite technology for us,” adds Mihaimed.
Raouf Khalife, director of branding for Thuraya, talks about the partnership from a Thuraya perspective. He recalls back in 2014, SOS represented by its Gulf Area office approached Thuraya to bring satellite connectivity to their villages. The satellite operator then donated a number of Public Calling Office (PCO) units, SatSleeve satellite adaptors and IP satellite broadband terminals. The PCOs deliver voice, fax, data and SMS services in remote locations that are beyond the coverage of terrestrial GSM networks. The SatSleeves are combined with iPhones or Android smartphones to make calls in satellite mode when local telecom networks fail. The IP mobile satellite terminals can be deployed anywhere within Thuraya’s coverage area for internet connectivity. With Thuraya’s donation, SOS restored vital communication links within the Central African Republic and extended outreach to foreign aid donors.
Khalife highlighted another example of the collaboration. “In 2015, Thuraya donated equipment to the Chipata Dam View Community School in Zambia. The donation allowed the children to enjoy access to internet connectivity for the first time,” he says. “This CSR initiative is part of the e-learning education program Thuraya is working on, which is designed with a number of objectives in mind. We want to help children gain access to international school curriculum and help teachers have access to the latest teaching methods to improve teaching practices. This accessibility should help children with their research projects and access the worldwide web, and also connect children with their friends and families through social media.”
Thuraya and SOS will continue working together on a number of programs. “In telemedicine and e-health, we want to improve access to better sanitation, water, vaccination and specialized doctors; for social wellbeing we want to connect families affected by dysfunctional family structures and rebuilding family ties; and for education and e-learning, we want to improve education and access to information, helping to prepare children for a better future,” says Khalife.
However, while satellite technology and partnerships with the likes of Thuraya is vital for SOS to do its work, the organization is still faced with numerous challenges. Mihaimed highlights power as a key obstacle when looking to deploy ICT services. “You can have the best internet connection and technology, you can have the best mobile phones, but in rural areas in Africa, there is no power on the grid. You have to rely on a generator or solar energy. This is one of the key issues that we face. If you use a generator, it can be quite limiting in terms of when you use your internet connection beside the impact on the environment. So, in Africa, one of the big issues is how can we capitalize on green energy, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa?” he says. “Applications are demanding higher bandwidth so one of the big issues is how much bandwidth we are able to secure. And of course, satellites can still have latency issues. I hope in the future, there will be better availability of bandwidth at affordable pricing.”
Thanks to satellite technology, SOS now has a number of its offices in Africa connected and is now able to maintain regular contact with regional and international offices. Its employees are able to receive virtual training rather than expensive physical training. It is also able to better monitor its programs. “Regional and international offices are better able to work together in terms of looking at things like finance and program monitoring. When you launch a number of ICT projects in the areas of education, this has a direct benefit to children as they are able to get internet access. They are able to increase their knowledge. Our ultimate goal is whether adults or children, they are able to sustain their education so this helps them with their jobs,” says Mihaimed.
SOS has an ambitious ICT strategy, which Mihaimed admits they wanted to see the impact of the ICT go beyond daily operations. SOS wants to provide technology access to children and others in various areas, whether it is in education, or in health, as well as overall development. “I would say that connectivity is one of the key essential areas for us which we are looking to capitalize on and have the right infrastructure available,” he adds. VS