Africa's Real Silicon Savannah?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because rural Africans shouldn’t be left off the grid.
By Jacob Kushner
Off a dirt road, atop a grassy hill, the plains of central Kenya seem endless. The nearest town is a decent hike away. But here, in the middle of nowhere, I pull out my iPhone, and within seconds I’m checking my email on a hot spot provided by Mawingu Networks. The connection is superb.
Is this Africa’s real Silicon Savannah? Even as Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria vie for that mantle, and the jobs that come with it, they’ve focused mostly on cities, neglecting the farmland and actual savannahs that lie beyond. Conventional wisdom says the countryside’s lack of infrastructure makes broadband too daunting; titans like Google and Facebook are looking to balloons and drones to solve the rural Internet conundrum. Which is why Mawingu Networks’ solution is so remarkable. Not only does it bring the Internet age to the boonies, and cheaply, but it does so with a technology so old you might not know about it: TV white space.
You’ll be forgiven if you don’t know what white space is. But if you remember analog TV and rabbit ears, you might know that between channels 4, 5 and 6 sit a whole range of interstitial spectrum that no one is using: 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, etc. Data can float along these frequencies, traveling easily enough through buildings and trees. For about $4,000, Mawingu can raise an antenna at the end of a fiber-optic cable and throw on solar panels for power. Then it can transmit data over a 15-kilometer radius to solar-powered “nomadic substations” that turn the signal into Wi-Fi. Compare that with cell towers, which cost upwards of $150,000 apiece and require thousands of dollars’ worth of electricity. Microsoft did: Last month, the tech giant, along with the U.S. government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), announced it intends to loan $4 million to Mawingu.
The idea is that getting Internet to the countryside will boost education and the economy, and besides, will remedy a growing digital divide between cities and everywhere else. An estimated 4.4 billion people worldwide lack regular access to Internet, and most are in rural areas. In the U.S., Google is reportedly spending more than $1 billion on delivering Internet from balloons, while Facebook is trying the same with drones. These are financially and scientifically ambitious projects. By comparison, “TV white space is so cheap,” says Malcom Brew, Mawingu’s chief technology officer. “It’s here and it works.” (Neither Google nor Facebook responded to OZY’s questions.)
The Internet’s promise is easy to see in a sunlit classroom at the Gakawa Secondary School in central Kenya, where students in dark green uniforms use Microsoft-donated computers and Mawingu-donated Internet to Google (well, Bing) words like “volcanicity.” The idea of a tsunami can be hard to understand. “But to watch a tsunami carry people — you begin to understand the magnitude,” says Joseph Wambugu, the school’s computer teacher. Three years ago, the school had six textbooks for 300 students. Now, it has entire libraries online. Fourth-year students are checking out the websites of universities they didn’t even know existed, he adds.
For some, exposure to the wider world can be transformative. There are stories about ill-paid teachers finding better jobs online, entrepreneurial types getting paid to do kids’ homework online and even a Kenyan villager who became an Olympian after immersing himself in YouTube videos of javelin throwing. “We find that when people have access to the Internet, they know exactly what to do with it,” said OPIC director Elizabeth Littlefield, speaking to OZY after President Obama addressed the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi in July.
To be sure, many Kenyans live so far from the end of a fiber-optic line that they’re beyond “the edge of affordability,” says Mawingu co-founder Joakim Vincze. And the Internet itself is no cure-all. Most dispute the notion that it alone will lift low-income, rural Africans into the middle class. What good is it to bring Internet to students who can’t read? “No amount of technology will turn that around,” says Kentaro Toyama, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information. Internet access does lift African economies, but not drastically: The World Bank estimates that for every 10 percentage-point increase, a country’s economy grows by just 1.3 percent. “The idea that people will consume their way out of poverty — that generally doesn’t make any sense,” Toyama says.
Besides, people living on a dollar a day — the average income in the region where Mawingu operates — tend to have more pressing concerns. A 10-minute drive from the school, along a dirt road lined with maize fields and flower farms, Mawingu operates a cyber cafe out of a modified shipping container. It gets just a handful of patrons a day, according to Betty Mawngi, who runs it. When more people do show up, they usually aren’t there to learn or earn money, but to check Facebook and watch YouTube.
Still, rural Africans remain hopeful. Although only 12 percent of Mawingu’s target population uses the Internet at least once every three months, 90 percent believes it could improve their own lives and their communities, according to a forthcoming study commissioned by Mawingu. The study reckons an “affordable” rate for Internet access for the world’s bottom billion would be about $2.25 a month — slightly less than Mawingu currently charges, but far less than what traditional Internet service providers cost. Indeed, Mawingu’s customers, who pay $3 a month for download speeds that sometimes reach nearly 20 megabits per second, may have it better than their tech-savvy relatives in Nairobi: Back in the city, I pay 14 times as much to browse at half the speed.