Mawingu: $3 a month Kenyan internet via TV white space & the sun

Rural areas in Kenya and the rest of Africa have zero, or extremely poor, access to broadband and mobile data. Satellite connections are expensive and a reserve of the rich. This means the rural folks are largely disconnected from the rest of the world. On top of this, the majority of these individuals do not have access to affordable electricity. Fortunately, Mawingu Networks, a local startup with international funding, now offers a solution.

Mawingu Networks Ltd leverages unused TV band spectrum (“TV white spaces”), while solar powered base stations are used to deliver broadband access. Accordingly, rural Kenyans are slowly getting included in the opportunity to reach their collective socioeconomic and learning potential through access to these tech objectives all with a flat rate of $3 per month.  

“Rural areas have been left out of internet access and they definitely need it,” Tim Nderi, the startup’s CEO tells IDG Connect. “Our goal is to deliver affordable, fast internet to off grid communities to enable them to improve their social and economic activities.”

Mawingu Networks has attracted funding from across the globe. With partners such as Jim Forster, Vulcan Inc., Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), USAID, University of Southampton, Adaptrum, JTL, NetHope and Strathclyde University.

“The startup philosophy is about letting people in rural Africa maximize their collective learning potential in a sustainable, socially responsible manner through exchange of information and ideas,” explains Nderi.

“We are bridging the power and digital divide for people living off-grid, particularly in rural communities. We believe that doing so will allow more people to actively participate in the regional, national and global markets for products, services, information and ideas. The aim is to ensure even very poor people have access to basic levels of electricity and broadband services at an affordable price.”

“Mawingu” is a Swahili word for cloud. As part of 4Afrika initiative by Microsoft the startup represents the first time unused TV White Space (TVWS) frequencies technology (TV channels in the uhf and vhf spectrum) have been used together with solar-powered base stations in the process of delivering low-cost broadband to digitally excluded rural areas lacking even the basic electricity. These are unused sections of the spectrum of TV frequencies initially set aside for analog broadcast television. Broadband delivered through TVWS technology has a stronger signal capable of traveling longer distances – across valleys and over hills, through and around buildings – than all wireless internet delivery methods.

“Mawingu networks startup has been in existence for the past three years and is based in Nanyuki, Laikipia County.” Nderi tells us. “We are serving rural schools, dispensaries and libraries, places that have largely been overlooked.”

Additionally, these solar-powered base stations are designed so that the rural folks can use them to recharge their mobile phones, tablets and other internet delivery devices. The startup’s TVWS internet signals are converted into the usual Wi-Fi hotspots making it a very inexpensive internet delivery method. So far, Mawingu is boasting 17 such hotspots and already has his eye on 50 more.

Using a unique strategy, Mawingu utilizes community joints fitted with solar-powered kiosks. The $3 fee per month is used in the management of these joints by local entrepreneurs for profit and sustenance.

“By leveraging technology and ingenuity, Mawingu’s massive reach to connect rural African communities to the internet is just beginning and I look forward to the growth and scalability of this model that OPIC financing can unlock,” said Elizabeth Littlefield, the OPIC President and CEO at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Nairobi recently.

“The recognition is based on the transformative impact we are giving to the communities where we are serving,” Nderi explains.

To date, three secondary schools have been connected to the internet, providing the students with online educational resources, online books, distant learning and other materials that they previously only heard about in the news. The community library also provides access to online books and informative resources.

Farmers are now recharging their phones and benefiting from online weather forecasts and marketing insights for their products.

The county government is also providing online services to the folks while the Assembly is posting transcripts of their meetings for online access by the citizens. The Red Cross office in the county has started a web-based bulk messaging program to share disaster information, like fires, with volunteers and citizenry.  And businesses are using the internet to reach heights that would otherwise been impossible.

“Why is over half the population on the planet not currently connected [to the internet]?” Nderi concludes. “Either the currently available networks are too expensive or the networks and power grids don’t reach them,” he responds.

“The poorest billions can only afford about three dollars a month on communications. These are our customers. Our business model is built to reach them.”


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Daniel Muraga

Daniel Muraga is an experienced online writer and communications professional based in Kenya.

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