Kigali Portal: Connecting Rwanda to the world

“What’s happening over there?” patrons asked one after the other while gesturing towards a small dimly lit dark room adjacent to the main event floor. People furiously dashed in and out of the room.
Guests at the launch of the Kigali portal. (Moses Opobo)
Guests at the launch of the Kigali portal. (Moses Opobo)

“What’s happening over there?” patrons asked one after the other while gesturing towards a small dimly lit dark room adjacent to the main event floor. People furiously dashed in and out of the room. 

The event was the official launch of the Kigali Portal recently at Impact Hub Kigali, in Kimihurura. 

At the first opportunity, I also dashed into the room, out of curiosity. 

There, I found a crowd of about eight people crammed close to each other on one side, looking at a life-size animated projector screen on the other side of the room. 

The room’s ambience, size and shape closely resembled that of a lift, or better still, a recording studio booth, since the walls had an acoustic cover. 

At intervals, the people inside are speaking excitedly to a woman whose live image appears on the screen, as she talks back to them in real time. 

The woman is speaking from New Jersey, just outside of New York City, and the connection has been made possible through her Newark Portal at Gateway Project Spaces.

Soon more curious onlookers crammed themselves in the room, posing endless questions.

The Portals project

The Portals Project is an international network of purpose-built spaces that form a dynamic platform fusing technology and art, innovation and community to connect people across the planet. Participants simply enter their respective portal and are instantly connected with someone in a distant portal elsewhere on earth. 

Ideally, the portals operate under the standard design of a regular gold-plated shipping container, which is fitted with consumer-grade technology – a broadband Internet connection, a camera and microphone, and a screen to project each of the participants to the other at life size.

In paid sessions of 20 minutes each, guests are then able to talk, uninterrupted, with people thousands of miles away, as if they were standing together in the same room.

It is this ability to connect people thousands of miles apart that the shipping container was settled for as the ideal vessel for the portals. 

The container symbolizes many things at the same time; it is an international symbol of globalization and a blank slate that represents several possibilities before it is opened and its contents made known. 

Shipping containers are to be found nearly anywhere in the world, and most of their meaning derives from whatever fills them. 

Further still, they boast other more practical advantages; they are cheap, strong, and secure.

How it actually works

Two shipping containers are placed in locations thousands of miles apart, and equipped with videoconferencing equipment that allows their inhabitants to communicate. 

A Rwandan young man talks to another man via video-conference at the Kigali Portal launch. (Moses Opobo)

The standard equipment in use are a camera, a microphone, and a projector screen. 

Participants sign up for 20-minute slots, step inside the Portal, and are connected to a stranger on the other side of the world. Then they’re given a simple prompt like “What would make today a good day for you?” that they can use as a starting point. 

The resulting conversations are private, and the two individuals or groups of individuals on either side of the Portal may discuss career, business, politics, art, relationships, education, family, and in some cases people may choose to not talk about anything in particular.

For the case of the Kigali Portal launch, much of the talk was “hi-hi” and simple banter like how is Kigali? What do you do in Newark?, and “When is the gorilla naming ceremony.

Because it was the first of its kind in Kigali, it was really a case of figuring out firsthand how the whole thing works. 

The batch of about eight people that was selected for the first live conversation had a few people that were already familiar with the workings of Portals. These were mainly young expatriates working in Kigali, and it is they that offered the rest of us a live demonstration of the utility. 

The idea is to get people in a space where they can meet and freely interact with others across great distances, but feel like they’re in the same room, hence the insistence on the life-size projector screen.

“Being full body tells you a lot about a person. People sway, they fidget, they play with their pockets, they turn their bodies around. It is very revealing to stand and to see someone’s full body. People have described it as feeling quite naked. You can’t hide under a table,” remarked a Portal user. 

It is essentially this aspect that distinguishes portals from the now familiar other platforms of social interaction like Facebook or Skype or FaceTime or Google Hangouts, except that this one raises more adrenaline. 

In a way, the forum seeks to re-establish the kind of random inter-personal encounters that have become increasingly rare in modern day-to-day living. The kind of encounter that does not need the two parties to have had a pre-set purpose, but rather to engage out of a basic human curiosity.

Despite the relatively basic technology, there are ample costs associated with setting up a Portal. 

For the Kigali Portal launch, the space used was improvised, in that it wasn’t the standard Portal design of a gold-painted shipping container. Rather, it was a room that was fitted with acoustic materials and videoconferencing facilities. 

For now, this is going to be the temporary home of the Kigali Portal, although with time the Portal’s partners, Impact Hub Kigali; Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga; and Shared Studios hope to move it out to the standard shipping container design. 

The other thing is to take the portal out to a place that is more accessible to the general public. 

Portals rely on having staff on both ends of the Portal – people to book appointments, troubleshoot internet problems, translate, and coordinate other logistics.