Connecting the unconnected

It was in 2013 when Microsoft 4Afrika first brought TV white spaces technology to Africa. The technology was not new, but it was the first time it was going to be used on a large scale in Africa – connecting many unconnected communities to the internet for the first time.

The first pilot – known as Project Mawingu – was in Nanyuki, Kenya, a market town nearly 200km away from the nation’s capital. At the time, only 17% of adults and 9% of teenagers in the area were accessing the internet, primarily through their mobile phones or local cyber cafés. On average, these people were spending 19% of their weekly household income on internet access.

Fast forward a few years, and today Mawingu connects over 26 schools, the Laikipia County Government Office, Laikipia Public Library, Red Cross and the Burguret Dispensary Healthcare Clinic. With TV white spaces, people are now able to access the internet for less than 5% of average household income.

Changing lives

Access to this internet has made an enormous impact on many lives. Students at Gakawa Secondary School have improved their scores on every subject in the Kenya National Exam. Mawingu Networks, a local start-up using the technology to provide internet packs, have expanded their service from 15 to 650 Wi-Fi hotspots, with 11,000 active users. They also received a $4.1 million loan from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to expand to more rural communities.

Benson Maina opened his own Mawingu container, equipped with laptops powered by solar panels. Here, children seeking education, farmers looking for information, and entrepreneurs trying to earn a living can all access the internet. Chris Baraka, one such entrepreneur, rented a house near Benson’s container and offered freelance writing services online, earning up to $200 a month. He now teaches unemployed youth how to make money from the internet.

“Having access to Internet and technology is life-changing – and it’s the way to alleviate poverty,” says Benson. “People in the area have started having incomes as a result of information obtained from the Internet. In a few years, this area will be different from the rest of the country. We will be icons for what’s to come.”

Beyond Kenya

Outside of Mawingu, Microsoft 4Afrika has 14 other TV white spaces pilots running in six countries across Africa, including Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa, Ghana and Botswana.

Namibia is home to the largest TV white spaces pilot. Covering 62km x 152km, it connects 28 schools and 24,000 students. In Ghana, over 10,000 students at Koforidua University are accessing data bundles for less than two Ghana cedi per day. And in Botswana, three hospitals and five clinics are bringing specialised telemedicine services to over 3,000 patients. Many of these patients are women, receiving access to maternal care for the first time.

“With this technology, I had access to a specialist. She caught my cancer early and managed it properly,” says one patient at Athlone Hospital, who was diagnosed and treated remotely. “I will now live to see my children grow up. I feel excited to be a part of this project. Women like me would not receive care if it weren’t for this technology. I am thankful”.

Expanding access to the internet

Microsoft 4Afrika has plans to expand and commercialise each of its TV white spaces projects, ensuring more people can affordably access the internet.

“Through these pilots, we’ve demonstrated how new technologies, business models and regulatory approaches expand internet access and support public policy goals around education, healthcare, e-government and other priorities,” says Amrote Abdella, Regional Director of Microsoft 4Afrika. “This in turn motivates governments to adopt more regulations opening up access to TV white spaces frequencies.”

Through its global Affordable Access Initiative, Microsoft is also investing in other organisations who are using last-mile access technology, off-grid renewable energy solutions and alternative payment mechanisms to improve connectivity. To date, 11 African organisations have received grants.

“We are not here to be a connectivity provider, but rather a connectivity enabler,” adds Amrote.