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Microsoft’s rural Kenya Internet bid gets Sh400m

Students browse the Internet provided by Mawingu Networks Limited in a joint initiative with Microsoft to connect rural residents in Nanyuki to the service. PHOTO | FILE
Students browse the Internet provided by Mawingu Networks Limited in a joint initiative with Microsoft to connect rural residents in Nanyuki to the service. PHOTO | FILE  

Microsoft’s bid to offer cheap web connections in remote parts of Africa has got financial backing from the United States’ development finance institution, OPIC, with the signing of an agreement to fund Mawingu Networks, a provider of solar-powered wireless Internet in rural Kenya.

Overseas Private Investment Corporation president and chief executive Elizabeth Littlefield, who was in Nairobi for the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, signed the deal alongside Microsoft’s head of legal and corporate affairs for the Middle East and Africa Antony Cook.

Mawingu established its current operating model using an initial grant from Microsoft’s 4Afrika initiative, the US Agency for International Development (USAid), an investment from Angel Investor Jim Forster, and early funding from Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc.

The deal is part of those signed by Kenya, the US, their agencies, corporations and entrepreneurs at the summit attended by President Barack Obama.

OPIC provides US investors with financing, political risk insurance and support for private equity investment funds when commercial funding cannot be obtained elsewhere.

The institution says this is part of its contribution in advancing the US foreign policy and national security priorities.

Mr Allen is an American philanthropist, investor and innovator, best known as the co-founder of Microsoft alongside Bill Gates.

Mr Forster is a venture capitalist who also has roots in the tech business, having worked for decades at Cisco which designs, manufactures and sells networking equipment.

He is currently involved in both for-profit and non-profit efforts to extend communications in Africa and India.

Using a network of solar-powered “nomadic” wireless Internet stations, Mawingu provides last-mile connectivity access to areas that cannot economically access the Internet.

OPIC, spurred on by the promise of the pilot operations, is considering offering a Sh400 million ($4 million) loan that would allow a commercial expansion Mawingu’s proven model to utilise existing technology of TV white spaces (unused TV spectrum) connectivity for off-grid Internet access.

“The development potential from creative private sector organisations like Mawingu captures the spirit and promise at the heart of this week’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit,” said Ms Littlefield.

“Financial support at crucial stages of a company’s business evolution can transform a great idea into a deeply impactful reality for millions in the developing world.”

She noted that Mawingu was the first of the 6 TV white space pilots Microsoft has deployed in Africa in collaboration with partners, making Africa a leader in TV white spaces.

Ms Littlefield said she hoped regulators across the continent will develop legal frameworks that support broader commercial deployment of the technology.

“It is now time to work with both local and global partners such as OPIC to go commercial and scale to impact not just thousands, but millions of lives across Africa,” Mr Cook said.

In Kenya, the project has been piloted in Nanyuki (Laikipia County) where Microsoft and Indigo have connected county offices, Kenya Red Cross, Gakawa Secondary School and a community cyber cafe to the Internet.

Mawingu uses low-cost, low-power, wireless broadband employing redundant or unused spectrum bands previously reserved for television broadcasting (also referred to as TV white spaces or TVWS).

The project is expected to further boost access to internet in the country, with the number of Kenyans subscribing to data services standing at about 17 million or 40 per cent of the population.

Other than Kenya, the project has been unveiled in Nigeria, Egypt and Ivory Coast.

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