An Ivorian entrepreneur is using LED technology to bring not just light but also internet and television to about 5,000 people living in a remote region in the Ivory Coast. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to residents about how Li-Fi technology has radically changed their lives.

In April 2017, Drongouiné – an Ivorian village located near the border with Liberia – was equipped with solar panels that provide its residents with light when darkness falls. But that’s not all: this light also gives them access to the internet and television without any wire or wifi connection, thanks to a new technology called Li-Fi.


This school in Drongouiné now has free internet thanks to solar-powered LED light bulbs installed around town.

 

So, what's Li-Fi?

Li-Fi (Short for "Light Fidelity") uses LED lighting to transmit data (including text, photos and videos) to computers, smartphones or tablets.

It differs from Wi-Fi in that, instead of using radio waves to transmit data, Li-Fi uses the light spectrum. An LED light can share data by blinking on and off several thousands of times per second – think Morse Code.

Researchers believe that Li-Fi could have the capacity to transmit data 100 times more quickly than Wi-Fi. Li-Fi is already used in some offices, especially in France, but researchers are hoping to roll it out for large-scale use by 2020.

Drongouiné residents who have a smartphone or a tablet can now connect to the internet or watch television. There are some limits, though – for example, the light spectrum can’t pass through walls, unlike Wi-Fi signals.


This device uses the light spectrum produced by LED bulbs to broadcast television channels. Once darkness falls, project chief Ange Frédérick Balma demonstrates how it works.

"By providing free internet, we want to encourage young people who have left their village to come back and participate in its economic development”

The man who brought this technology to Drongouiné is 39-year-old Ange Frédérick Balma. He created a startup called Li-Fi Led Côte d’Ivoire in 2014. The company now has 12 employees.

 

We chose Drongouiné because it has suffered a lot over the past 20 years from the conflict that has spilled over from Liberia [Editor’s note: This border region was affected by the Liberian civil war between 1999 and 2003]. Mobile phone signals don’t reach this region. People have to walk about two hours to their nearest town to recharge their phones or connect to 3G.

We financed this Li-Fi project ourselves, paying for the solar panels, the LED lights, the electric cables and a Li-Fi receptor. All together, it cost us 5 million CFA francs [around €7,600]. We tried to be creative to keep costs low: for example, we called on local people to give us their plastic waste and we used it to make light poles. We set up these light poles in different places – like outside of the school, the dispensary and the local youth club – and mounted LED lights on them. The lights are powered by solar panels.


This light pole supports electric cables made out of 100 percent recycled plastic. (Photo: Ange Frédérick Balma.)
 

We are now seeing the first fruits of our investments. Thanks to the internet connection, we have been able to set up distance-learning programmes to train local farmers. We have Ivorian agronomists host video conferences on Skype or they send videos by WhatsApp to local farmers to show them how to increase their yield.

Many young people have left the village as part of the rural exodus. Now, they live in Abidjan or other big cities but don’t have real jobs or careers and are just waiting around. I want to inspire these young people to come back to Drongouiné to participate in the economic development of their village, with the help of the free internet that this technology provides.

"This device has changed the lives of doctors and teachers”

What do local residents have to say after five months of this new technology? We asked André Ba, who coordinated the Li-Fi installation. He lives in Danané, a town about 10 kilometres from Drongouiné.

The device works within a radius of 300 metres. Now, doctors have permanent lighting thanks to solar panels – they can deliver babies at night. In case of an emergency, they are also able to use the internet to connect in real time with doctors and specialists in Abidjan. Teachers can also use internet in the classroom.

Many people in the region are curious about Drongouiné. Some people have even come from Liberia or Guinea to see the light that provides internet! People in the neighbouring villages are jealous, but no one has ever tried to steal it because everybody understands that it can benefit the whole region.



What are the next steps for the project?

The project – which is supported by the National Federation of Professional Organisations for Youth in Rural Ivory Coast (FENOPJERCI) – isn’t stopping after bringing power to Drongouiné.

By the end of 2017, about 2,000 other similar Li-Fi systems are supposed to be set up in other rural Ivorian villages (with funding from the African Development Bank, the US Agency for International Development, and the Ivorian Ministry of Digital Economy).

The project has even piqued the interest of Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, who met with the Lifi-Led Côte d’Ivoire team on August 4. The Ivorian presidency also awarded the company the 2017 prize in digital innovation.


The Ivorian presidency awarded the company the 2017 prize in digital innovation.


However, Balma is thinking even bigger.

With 5,000 lighting kits, we should be able to cover the needs of all 8,000 Ivorian villages across the country. That means we just have to get funding for an additional 3,000 to reach our goal! We’ve also received a lot of requests from countries like Madagascar, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. I want to show the world that all we have to do is install lights to bring technology to remote regions.

 
Would you like to reach out to the Lifi-Led Côte d’Ivoire team to learn more about their project? You can connect with them via their Facebook page. Or you can write to us at obsengages@france24.com and we’ll put you in touch!
Article written with
Alexandre Capron

Alexandre Capron , Journaliste francophone