Learnings from M4H Innovation Fund grantees’ responses to the Nyiragongo Volcanic Eruption

On Saturday, 22 May 2021, the Nyiragongo volcano began to erupt 16 kilometres from the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The volcano released ash and lava, which spread into the city, eventually stopping just 300 metres from Goma airport. At least 31 people lost their lives, with as many as 41 people missing in the days that followed the incident. Upwards of 4,500 households were displaced. Small-scale earthquakes occurred following the volcanic eruption, continuing for several days. The presence of magma beneath the city of Goma led governing authorities to order an evacuation of Goma city, during which many thousands were moved across borders within a few days.

Two of the GSMA’s Mobile for Humanitarian (M4H) Innovation Fund grantees; BBOXX and Altech, both based in DRC, responded to this emergency. Both grantees are providers of mobile-enabled energy products, with a specialisation in providing services to those who lack access to stable energy sources. An overview of both organisations’ response strategies to the eruption is provided below.

BBOXX:

Following the incident, BBOXX reported that all of its staff, agents and technicians were safe, although some customers and some families of staff unfortunately suffered losses. BBOXX worked to implement the following activities, aimed at supporting staff and customers, as well as the wider city while also ensuring business continuity:

  • To help BBOXX customers, the solar home systems (SHS) of all customers in the Goma area were switched on for a period of 10 days and in the wider area (with refugees) for five days. This meant that customers in these areas did not need to pay to access power during this difficult time and that at least 40,000 people had free access to energy in Goma and surroundings. Additionally, free phone charging stations were installed at four shops in the areas welcoming displaced people from Goma.
  • BBOXX put in place a plan to help all staff (agents, technicians and staff) through emergency cash transfers sent through Airtel Money, as well as accelerating salary payments. An evacuation plan was also put into place for staff and all staff were evacuated away from the city. The BBOXX office remained open for any staff that needed a place to sleep if it was unsafe to return to their homes.
  • Although operations were temporarily halted for a few days, operations resumed as soon as reasonably possible in order to help customers that needed service for their systems. The BBOXX call centre and headquarters were temporarily relocated to Bukavu to ensure continued service to the rest of the country.

Altech:

  • Following the evacuation orders, Altech paid all salaries to Goma staff and ambassadors in advance to allow them to leave the city regardless of whether their home fell within the evacuation zone.
  • They arranged transportation to help staff members leave in an orderly manner and rented additional office space in Bukavu, where their displaced Goma staff could continue to work safely.
  • Daily management team meetings were held, and pragmatic measures were taken to ensure the safety of Altech’s staff and solar ambassadors.
  • Most staff were also given the option to work from home or wherever they felt safest. This gave some team members the opportunity to move their families out of the city to Minova, Sake, Bukavu or into Rwanda. Tents were set up in the Altech concession to allow remaining staff to work without worrying about the collapse of any buildings, and the  company pickup truck was used to help transport staff to and from home.
  • Altech kept a small team, including call centre, human resources, and finance teams in the Goma office, and the company’s Head of Logistics remained in charge of coordinating efforts in Goma. Following the latest advice from the government, the team continued to adapt to the changing situation as required to ensure the safety of their team members.
  • In terms of Altech customers, there were 88 active solar lamp customers and 199 active SHS customers in the city of Goma. On first impression, collections were negatively impacted as both customers and solar ambassadors rightly prioritized their safety.
  • When the team called lamp customers, many had already left the city. SHS customers who decided to leave risked damaging their Altech solar home systems in transport.
  • Following a gradual return to the city of Goma, Altech called all its lamp and SHS customers based in Goma to get an update on each individual’s situation, in order to provide necessary service support.
  • In addition, Altech used its distribution network to offer bags of corn flour with home delivery at a largely discounted price via their application, Sombabien. Fufu made with corn flour is a staple of the Congolese diet and the goal is to help people get back on their feet and provide some support by discounting the produce.
  • Altech will continue to look for ways to support their customers during and after this trying period, and learn from the challenges faced.

Both teams have worked to move stock to safe locations, using their national and regional networks to ensure these assets are appropriately protected and ensuring longer term business continuity for their key activities.

Key components of an emergency response strategy:

In the aftermath of a sudden-onset disaster, disruption to services, lack of information and challenges in accessing connectivity can all further impact the ability of individuals and communities to effectively respond. There are a number of ways in which organisations, mobile network operators (MNOs) or otherwise, can work to ensure business continuity and provide an effective response to those they serve The GSMA M4H interactive guide on responding to disasters contains advice on issues such as staff safety and coordination, engagement with humanitarian responders, and customer facing activities. It is aimed primarily at MNOs, but many organisations will find the recommendations relevant. You can find some of the key recommendations below.

Business continuity:

  • Ideally an organisation will always have a pre-developed business continuity plan in place, which can be actioned when required.
  • Business continuity should focus on how key assets can be protected and core activities remain functional, including staff and infrastructure.
  • Initiate a core response group, including representation from key internal teams, who meet regularly to assess the changing situation and make key response decisions.
  • The ability to access back-up resources, be it access to alternative sources of power, stock, finances or other will be critical to consider and plan for.

Staff:

  • Ensuring staff and their families are safe and accounted for is a key priority.
  • Organisations should consider providing access to shelter or transportation to enable staff safety and, once this is established, allow for effective continuation of work.
  • Financially supporting staff through advance payment, or one-off support payments may be appropriate.
  • Providing access to information which can help staff and to coordinate their own response, and support the organisation’s aims effectively.

Customers:

  • Provide accessible information on service updates wherever possible, to reduce confusion and provide clarity on what services remain functional, in addition to new services or those services which are paused/offline.
  • Free phone charging stations are often a much-needed solution. So too are free Wi-Fi hotspots, and free calling kiosks. Although these typically fall under the remit of MNOs, there may be opportunity for energy solution providers to power these activities.
  • Ensuring accessibility of service to customers. This can include temporary zero-rating/pausing or reducing tariffs, or re-instating previously disconnected or blocked customers.
  • Re-purposing customer facing support, such as existing hotline infrastructure, to manage response-related queries.

External

  • Engaging with first responder agencies working to manage the response, providing services or resources to support efforts.
  • Keeping abreast of local, social media or news outlets that provide useful and pertinent information and data to guide implementation of response strategies or support with adaptation as the situation evolves.
  • Engaging with regulatory authorities and local services to better understand and adopt required regulations (e.g., government orders for evacuation) as well as guidelines on broader response strategies.

For further detailed guidance and templates related to preparing for and responding to sudden onset emergencies, download the GSMA M4H interactive guide on responding to disasters.

We will continue to work to support both BBOXX and Altech as they respond to the changing situation in DRC, and we commend their quick actions which continue to benefit the communities they serve as well as their staff and networks. We also continue to engage with MNOs in DRC, including Airtel and Orange, who are managing their own response to these events.

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