This is part one of the Microsoft 4Afrika series on bridging the digital divide in Africa. The $70 million initiative is designed to help improve Africa’s global competitiveness by bringing smart devices, connectivity, and technology training to African entrepreneurs, youth, developers, and graduates by 2016. The Initiative focuses on three critical areas: access, innovation, and world-class skills.
In a bright yellow shipping container nearly 140 miles from Nairobi, Kenya, a rural community is finally connected to the information highway. The container is actually a solar-powered internet café called ‘Mawingu’—which is Kiswahili for ‘cloud.’ The café leverages Microsoft’s state-of-the-art technology to provide broadband internet access to local teachers, farmers, and merchants in a community formerly without internet or even electricity. The shop, managed by the tech-savvy Benson Maina, is part of the Mawingu White Spaces Broadband Project, a pilot project of the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative that is testing the commercial viability of low-cost hubs to provide internet access and technological services to rural communities in Africa. As of its launch in November 2013, Maina’s shop has seen enormous success.
Much of this success can be attributed to the container’s use of solar power and TV white spaces to deliver affordable broadband access to an area currently off the grid. Recognizing that access to low-cost, high-speed broadband is critical to closing Africa’s opportunity gap, Microsoft has made internet access through TV white-space broadband one of the three pillars of the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative.
“Living here for the last 10 years, I have seen people suffering. If I wanted to know about something in high school, I had to buy a newspaper, but I didn’t have money,” Maina said. “Mawingu has had a huge impact on the community already. Having access to internet and technology is life-changing—and it’s the way to alleviate poverty. People in the area will begin having incomes as a result of information obtained from the internet. In a few years, this area will be different than the rest of the country; we will be icons for what’s to come.”
For tech giant Microsoft, investing in individuals like Benson Maina is not just a corporate responsibility priority, it’s good business. By providing access to technology, particularly cloud services and smart devices, Microsoft hopes to foster employment and African competitiveness while securing its market position for years to come. Maina’s shop is the first in what will hopefully become a network of other containers across Kenya, and eventually Africa, that are creating new opportunities for commerce, employment, and education.
“By providing access to technology, particularly cloud services and smart devices, Microsoft hopes to foster employment and African competitiveness while securing its market position for years to come.”
At a high level, ‘TV white spaces’ refers to the unused broadcasting frequencies, typically used for television transmission, that exist in the wireless spectrum. These frequencies are also suitable for delivering affordable broadband access to rural communities because they are able to travel over longer distances and penetrate more obstacles than other types of radio signals. Typical home wi-fi can only travel through two walls, but white space broadband can travel over six miles, through fields of crops, concrete buildings, and other barriers. Tablets, phones, and computers can all connect to this wireless network through fixed or portable power stations like Maina’s shop.
The feasibility of the white space technology has already been seen in over a dozen trials that have taken place from remote villages in Africa to the dense urban centers of Singapore, and college campuses in the United States. Microsoft hopes that the success of the Mawingu project in Kenya and similar pilots in South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, and Ghana will encourage other African governments to implement the regulatory changes needed to allow this type of technology to be expanded across the continent.
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“It is going to significantly increase the ability for innovation and the great ideas that Africans have to actually reach markets and become available for use by consumers… . I think that there is a fantastic opportunity for Africa to showcase its own capabilities in the world because of the increased access,” said Fernando de Sousa, General Manager of Microsoft Africa Initiatives.
The economic impact of the Mawingu White Spaces Broadband Project has already been seen with many of Maina’s first customers, including farmers, small business owners, students, and individuals seeking job opportunities. Diana, an unemployed teacher, used the broadband access at the Mawingu shop to research and apply for teaching opportunities online, ultimately leading to the teaching position she now holds at Doldol Secondary School. Another customer, Steven, went to the Mawingu shop seeking information on computer software and now operates a successful business installing and repairing commercial and residential software in neighboring towns.
It is anticipated that shops like Maina’s will eventually act not only as centers for individuals to gain access to critical information and knowledge, but will also serve as hubs for commerce, transforming the inefficient and expensive traditional marketplace. The Mawingu shop hopes to offer merchants the opportunity to attract a client base, grow awareness, connect business partners, and develop cooperatives online. The internet access provided at the centers will create efficiencies in the production of goods and will help connect products to new markets.
“This technology has the potential to deliver on the promise of universal and affordable high-speed wireless broadband for Africa, and we are proud and humbled to be part of this important effort.”
Supporting the development of rural Africa’s broadband infrastructure couples the company’s commitment to social impact with its commercial interests. Having operated in Africa for over 20 years, Microsoft is keenly aware of the enormous market potential; the continent is home to more than one billion people and 16 of the world’s 30 fastest-growing economies. Yet Africa also has the lowest penetration of network connectivity. Only 20 percent of the African population is expected to have internet access by the end of 2014.
“Microsoft was built on the idea that technology should be accessible and affordable to the masses, and to date, this promise has remained unfulfilled in Africa,” said Louis Otieno, Legal and Corporate Affairs Director for Africa Initiatives at Microsoft. “This technology has the potential to deliver on the promise of universal and affordable high-speed wireless broadband for Africa, and we are proud and humbled to be part of this important effort.”
As a result of white space broadband, an individual’s birthplace will no longer determine her ability to access a world of information, a disruptive innovation that has the power to reshape the continent.
Melissa Mattoon is the Design and Publication Manager at the New Global Citizen where she seeks to showcase the impact of innovative leadership and global engagement around the world. She is also the Communications Coordinator at PYXERA Global.