Bringing the Internet to Remote African Villages
Submitted by Willi on Sun, 01 Feb 2009 - 23:47
Bringing the Internet to Remote African Villages
Chris Nicholson/The International Herald Tribune
Published: February 1, 2009
ENTASOPIA, Kenya - The road from Nairobi winds 100 miles to this town deep in Masai country. The asphalt gives way to sand and dust, until finally it is just a dirt track climbing over broken hills and plunging back to desert flats. The going is slow.
Teddy Chenya helps villagers learn to use the Internet: "I played for them streaming video, and they said: 'Is it a radio?' "
The outpost, with about 4,000 inhabitants, is at the end of that road and beyond the reach of power lines. It has no bank, no post office, few cars and little infrastructure. Newspapers arrive in a bundle every three or four weeks. At night, most people light kerosene lamps and candles in their houses or fires in their huts and go to bed early, except for the farmers guarding crops against elephants and buffalo.
Entasopia is the last place on earth that a traveler would expect to find an Internet connection. Yet it was here, in November, that three young engineers from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, with financial backing from Google, installed a small satellite dish powered by a solar panel, to hook up a handful of computers in the community center to the rest of the world.
In recent years the mobile phone has emerged as the main modern communications link for rural areas of Africa. From 2002 to 2007, the number of Kenyans using cellphones grew almost tenfold to reach about a third of the population, many of whom did not have land lines, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
But many of the phones were simple models made more for talking than Web browsing, and wireless data networks are slow, with sporadic coverage.
Satellite connections are faster and more stable, which is why they are attracting interest from the likes of Google, as a way to provide Internet connections to the estimated 95 percent of Africans who, according to the telecommunications union, have no access.
Although providing Internet access is outside the normal business realm of Google, with this project it is looking at how obstacles might be overcome in Kenya and other parts of Africa.
The dish at Entasopia was intended to operate for months with little maintenance under harsh conditions. This station, along with two others in villages almost as remote, is part of a larger push by Google into small, marginal communities, providing them with new tools to access information, work with distant colleagues, and communicate with friends and family.
Google paid for the final design of the stations and is covering the monthly fees for satellite bandwidth. The company has also invested in O3b, a start-up that hopes to deploy a constellation of satellites over Africa by the end of next year.
"Building infrastructure is not necessarily Google's objective, but if you look at all the areas that Google has gone into, in many cases it has been to fill a gap," said Joseph Mucheru, who heads Google's East Africa office. "The market should see the opportunity."
Just how much opportunity there is remains unclear. Google is uncertain whether such satellite stations can pay for themselves in rural areas, given the cost of equipment and bandwidth. Communities may well benefit from the connection, but they do not all have the means to afford it.
Bandwidth fees for stations like the one in Entasopia could cost as much as $700 a month, though slower ones cost less, said Wayan Vota, a senior director at Inveneo, a nonprofit that works to disseminate Internet technology throughout Africa and the developing world. As these connections are introduced more widely, which is O3b's goal, the price could fall, Mr. Vota said.
When Internet connections arrive in small towns like Entasopia, they put new tools into the hands of people hungry to use them, and for some there, that has had wide repercussions.
James Mathu has worked for the Kenyan agriculture ministry in Entasopia for five years, advising farmers on the environment, crop husbandry and soil conservation. The stable Internet link allows him to send information to district headquarters in Kajiado, instead of spending days traveling there and back to deliver monthly reports, which are too lengthy for him to send via cellphone.
"It is a five-day affair," he said, estimating that the Internet saved him 12,000 shillings a year, or $152, in a country where the gross domestic product per person is $1,700.
Joseph Kasifu, 40, is using the Internet to try to help others. His family runs a farm, but because his legs were crippled by polio as a child, he was limited in the farm work he could do.
In Masai society, he said, disabilities like his were seen as bad omens. Traditionally, disabled newborns were abandoned and their mothers were put through a ritual cleansing to banish the evil spirits that were said to have caused the disability, while the place where the birth took place was burned. Even now, such children are often kept hidden away in the family manyatta, a wattle-and-daub hut.
Mr. Kasifu is leading a campaign to raise awareness and to build a shelter, called Tuko, for such children. With the Internet connection, he has been able to upload a short video about their plight.
"The mothers come to me and say: 'Have you got a place to take our children?' " he said. "It hurts, but what can I do? Out of that hurt came this project."
But there are significant limits to how many Kenyans the Internet can reach. Even if it is available free, not everyone can take full advantage of it, one obstacle being computer literacy.
Teddy Chenya, who for the past eight months has helped staff the community center for the Arid Lands Information Network, the Kenyan nongovernmental organization running the satellite ground stations, said that younger people were more likely to visit him than older ones, because they had time to spend and were willing to sit down, three to a computer, and learn by trial and error.
"Most people looking for information, they need help," he said. "They still don't know where to look or what a Web address is. I played for them streaming video, and they said: 'Is it a radio? Is it a TV?' "
Another obstacle is literacy itself: many of the adults in Entasopia, especially women, cannot read.
Nthenya Mule, East Africa manager for Acumen Funds, a nonprofit organization, directs investments in regional businesses that have a social-development aspect. Ms. Mule said there were many challenges facing poor, rural communities, and progress was often held back by larger problems like lack of infrastructure, health care or loan availability, rather than the scarcity of Internet access.
"Is VSAT what's most important?" she asked, referring to very small aperture terminal, the satellite technology being used in the project.
Still, Ms. Mule said, "there are so many issues, sometimes you just begin acting where you can."