Candles, Convoys And Communications Centres

Communications Analyst, Mariko Hall, was in Nairobi recently as part of the flood of humanitarian workers arriving in the Horn of Africa to help with the hunger crisis. She was with WFP's crack emergency telecoms team FITTEST, which is always brought in to get vital communications systems in place fast. Sitting in a guest house where there's no power, she explains some of the challenges of setting up a COMCEN (Communications Centre) in emergency environments.

NAIROBI -- We’re having another one of those moments. This time it’s electricity – or the complete lack thereof. The Nairobi city mains went down this morning, apparently, but we didn’t notice in the office because the generator automatically switched on. Now that it’s evening, and we’re back at the guesthouse, it’s a little more noticeable. Ironically, the generator at the guesthouse has also blown so we are sitting here watching as the last little rays of sunlight disappear over the tops of the trees. I’m suddenly very glad I packed candles. Other UN and NGO staff are coming back from the office and plugging in their phones, laptops and radios to charge, but nothing’s happening…

I’m here on temporary duty with FITTEST (Fast IT & Telecommunications Emergency & Support Team) which includes electrical specialist, Ryan Twittey. Last I saw of him he was trotting off to see how he could help to get some power going. 

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community satellite dish

The FITTEST team
ICT in Emergencies


If the guesthouse was a WFP Communications Centre (COMCEN), not only would there be a back-up generator, but probably a solar power system too. COMCENs - equipped with radios, satellite phones and computers - are used to monitor the security and safety of our colleagues in the field.

When a convoy carrying urgent food supplies is travelling from the Port in Mombasa to Dadaab refugee camp, for example, the drivers can always be contacted and the vehicles tracked throughout the journey by staff in the COMCEN. If something was to happen - anything from a blown tyre or road block, to a car crash or hijacking - the staff in the COMCEN would know immediately and would be able to alert the necessary units to get help. It is essential, therefore, that the COMCEN is always operating; failed city grid power or faulty generators cannot, and must not, affect operations. When in the field, the lives of our colleagues can depend on these COMCENs. wfp officer wearing a helmet and looking out into a dried field

Communications in the Horn

Because of the ongoing crisis in the Horn of Africa WFP, as Global lead of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, is working closely with other humanitarian organizations to establish COMCENs in new operational areas. Existing COMCENs are also being assessed and upgraded where necessary. My colleague Michael Dirksen, FITTEST Senior Telecommunications Specialist and Team Leader, travelled to Somalia with UNDSS to assess COMCENs in Galkayo, Bossaso, Hargeisa, Mogadishu and Garowe.

COMCENs are used not only for WFP, but all aid agencies including UN and NGOs. Because it is more efficient if there is one COMCEN in the area that supports all organizations rather than each having its own, the humanitarian community is working together to provide essential inter-agency security communications services.

1 network, 60 users


Our IT operations in Ethiopia, led by Tue Nielsen, are providing another type of inter-agency service – wireless internet connectivity. In field operations, such as the Dolo Ado refugee camp on the border with Somalia, it can be difficult to access a reliable and safe internet connection. WFP is therefore sharing its VSAT bandwidth within the WFP/ COOPI compound in Dolo Ado with humanitarian partners. To date, there are around 60 users from 12 different organizations using the network. WFP Ethiopia has also dedicated an IT Assistant to provide user support on site.

Right now, I’m wishing we had some dedicated electrical support here at the guesthouse; the little battery icon in the corner of my screen is flashing. Luckily we can rest assured knowing that the electrical, IT and telecommunications support we are providing to our life-saving field operations, are a lot more reliable.

Ah, the lights are back on! Ryan must have been successful.