Use tech to address Africa’s inequality

Tech can address Africa’s inequality

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Friday, Nov 17th

Kenyan wireless internet startup hits the ground running

Kenyan wireless internet startup hits the ground running

With its 20% month-on-month growth, wireless internet startup Mawingu Networks looks to bring its services to the rest of Africa.

Mawingu is based in Nanyuki, Kenya, and aims to provide users in rural areas with low-cost high-speed wireless internet connections.

Since the company's launch three years ago, it has deployed over 650 hotspots and reached over 11 000 active users in rural areas.

"We are adding about 100 hotspots a month," says the director of Mawingu Networks, Tim Hobbs, adding that over the next three years they are aiming to reach as many as 400 hotspots.

To date the wireless network consists of 60% consumer hotspots and 40% business installations.

"The real opportunity that we are pursuing are the public hotspots. As we extend our network coverage, it just seems crazy not to provide businesses with broadband solutions, as well as consumers," says Hobbs.

The startup uses the white space spectrum, which can penetrate areas other networks can't. This is particularly useful in urban areas where it can travel through buildings much better than the microwave spectrum.

The General Manager of Affordable Access and Smart Financing at Microsoft, Frank McCosker, says that, when it comes to deploying the technology, the cost of the base stations is very cheap.

Which means that even though consumer equipment (such as modems and routers) is still relatively expensive, the overall costs of the Mawingu setup are low by normal network standards.

At present, the technology allows for a 1Mbps connection per user, but this does depend on the distance and equipment. According to McCosker, newer equipment can enable a user to achieve up to 20Mbps.

"We seem to be staying ahead of consumer expectations at the moment with the speeds and that's great," he adds.

95% to 96% of users are connecting with smartphones. 50% of traffic on the network is YouTube and Facebook.

Hobbs says that those who host the wireless units draw people to their shops or buildings and that "it's something that's creating knock-on commercial activity around the hotspot."

One of the network's greatest problems so far has been the local wildlife – namely interference from baboons.

Mawingu is looking to create more rugged and durable devices to combat this, as it's often difficult to get out to remote sites to fix issues when they arise.

Another problem is hiring and training engineers quickly enough to begin speeding up deployment.

The startup was able to create its current operating model after an initial grant in 2013, provided through Microsoft's 4Afrika initiative and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Two years after the first phase of support, Mawingu received equity funding from Microsoft, angel investor Jim Forster, and Paul G. Allen's Vulcan Inc.

In September 2016, the company received a US$4.1 million loan from the US government's development finance institution, Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).

According to Hobbs, the OPIC loan will be used to accelerate the rollout.

Mawingu is also looking to expand to other counties, with the help of Microsoft.

"Our goal is to help connect the next billion. And if what we're doing is starting to work, then we just want to see which bits of it can be applied in other geographies."

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