Feature Story

How nonprofit ZOA uses Cisco Meraki to connect remote offices and help those in need

by Stephanie Chan

How nonprofit ZOA uses Meraki to connect remote offices and help those in need

Meraki technology helps ZOA help more people. Here’s why connectivity can change the lives of people around the world.

When we think about technology, we often think about it in our own context. The access point that works inside of my favorite coffee shop in the city should be able to work anywhere, right? This misconception is just one issue that nonprofit organization ZOA found themselves having. The Netherlands-based NGO has offices throughout the world in locations across Uganda, Sri Lanka, Syria, Colombia, and much more—and with this kind of international coverage, reliable connectivity is crucial.

“There's this thing in the West where we take IT and connectivity for granted,” says Jochum van der Heide, ZOA IT Manager.

ZOA has been on a journey since its inception over almost 50 years ago in Southeast Asia. The aim of this organization is to support people who suffer due to armed conflict or natural disasters by rebuilding homes and communities, and staying there until the job is complete.

“We stay until recovery,” says ZOA communications manager KlaasJan Baas, “After recovery, then we can hand it over to local organizations. Our aim is always to leave, but only once communities are stable.”

But the nonprofit’s journey has been a technical one as well–searching for the right networking equipment that would provide seamless access, an insight into data, and usability in any location with any climate.

Merakifying the world

It began when Cisco account manager Guido Mignon reached out to ZOA. Mignon works out of the Cisco Dutch office and thought that the nonprofit would be the perfect candidate for a partnership.

“Cisco wasn’t just looking at selling equipment or making money, but also looking at how they could help organizations like ours that maybe don't have the budget of a corporate enterprise,” says van der Heide.

ZOA soon made the decision to outfit their locations with the full stack Meraki solution and SD-WAN Plus Licensing, which provides pervasive and robust wireless LAN and connectivity to multiple branches and offices with minimal IT complexity operations. With centralized cloud management, users can use a single integrated platform that provides granular control, customize who has access, and delivers security at scale.

See also: Tech to power an inclusive recovery

“Most of their locations are quite small so they don't have IT employees on the ground. Therefore, the networks need to be managed remotely,” says Mignon, “The insights that the Cisco Meraki dashboard gives the IT team is also very valuable to them. It helps them take action, like identifying clients that use a lot of bandwidth or approaching their ISP about issues with packet drops and high latency.”

The first conversation between ZOA and Cisco Meraki took place in November 2020, and the relationship could not have blossomed at a better time. During any other year, the NGO would procure equipment and send staff from the Netherlands to install technology across the globe, but with the pandemic, it was impossible.

“We have 45 offices worldwide, so each country has multiple sites that vary in size and complexity,” says van der Heide, “As you can imagine, most of those offices are located in very remote areas and it’s not like there’s a fiber connection in every country like we're used to hearing about. We wanted to move away from consumer devices to enterprise level hardware that we knew would be quality assured, managed remotely, and easy to maintain and configure.”

Since that first meeting, ZOA has successfully connected 15 global sites with Cisco Meraki in just a matter of months—something that the team says would have usually taken them half a year.

This initiative is funded by Cisco’s Country Digital Acceleration (CDA) Program, which helps governments realize their digital agendas by innovating in the public sector, stimulating job creation, boosting GDP, and building an inclusive digital future. Active in 40 countries and with over 1,000 completed projects, CDA initiatives align with a nation’s priorities and bring digital solutions to unique societal challenges.

Speed, insights, and resiliency

ZOA Manager of Operations in Uganda Jaco op’t Hof understands the need for quality connectivity in remote areas. Often, the teams rely on beneficiary reporting from the field offices to receive necessary updates.

“In the past it was always difficult for me to receive information on time, in order to complete my reporting on time as well,” says op’t Hof, “And also to have control and make the right decisions based on that information. My colleagues work in a refugee setting and they send their information to a field office—that alone could take up to two weeks. Now, with a good Internet connection and good devices like Cisco, it has become much easier. I have real time information about the people we help. It saves us a lot of time and that is time that we can now spend on our beneficiaries.”

Meraki Insight is a solution that provides network visibility with easily-accessibleeasily accessible traffic analytics. With this kind of clarity into the network or into applications, administrators can locate exactly where an issue is happening and drastically reduce the time it takes to troubleshoot. This allows the end user experience to be optimized, and without having to worry about IT issues, teams can focus on their original priorities.

“We started installing the network at one of our remote offices in Uganda and they already had a big container on top beaming a signal to the provider,” says van der Heide.

See also: Simplifying sensors with Cisco Meraki

The ZOA team then realized this office wasn’t getting the best connection possible. Any networking problem could be an issue with the internal or external network, and span across access points, routers, ISPs, WAN, and app servers.

“As soon as we installed Meraki, we could easily identify and see that there was a problem with the antenna— there were package drops and a lot of latency,” he continues, “Because of that insight, we could go to the provider with the information. Before, we would have just accepted the situation as is, because we didn't know what the problem was. Now, because of Meraki, it helps us see what's happening.”

And it’s not only how the technology provides real-time information or visibility into the network (although that alone is pretty stellar)— it’s how the device holds up as well. 

In warm, tropical, and sometimes rainy regions like Uganda, it’s paramount that the hardware can be resilient amongst a multitude of climate and environmental changes. 

“Here in Uganda, there’s a lot of dust and it’s very hot. This is very different than what I experienced in the Netherlands,” says op’t Hof, “It’s really important for the device to be well developed with a stable design. This is because the circumstances where I use my hardware items is substantiallyvery different than the air-conditioned rooms in the Western world.”

Connectivity bridges the divide

NGOs like ZOA and the communities that they help are often last in line when it comes to digital transformation. This digital divide is something that businesses and organizations must keep in mind when moving towards a technical transformation—to not leave certain areas and groups behind. And perhaps facing the reality of that divide is the first step to improvement.

“As an organization, we often need to balance donor requirements and reporting, but at the same time we also work in a local context,” says van der Heide, “So how can more businesses and organizations help? I think it would be good for some just to realize that there are two worlds: countries that are digitalized and countries that aren't.”

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