Microsoft and Mawingu Networks Report Appreciable Growth in Alternative Use of TV White Spaces, Launch AppFactory in Nanyuki

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Microsoft 4afrika Academy Dean Lutz Ziob with students of Sweetwaters Secondary School
Microsoft 4afrika Academy Dean Lutz Ziob with students of Sweetwaters Secondary School
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Late last week, the executives at Microsoft’s East and Southern Africa head office picked more than two dozen of us to the headquarters of Mawingu Networks (more of that in a second) to see the gains made by the technology company’s Africa-focused initiative dubbed 4Afrika in terms of offering low-cost internet access to Nanyuki residents. The trip also marked the launch of AppFactory (more of that in another second too). We visited Sweet Waters High School that is a beneficiary of Mawingu, had a chat with the good people running the Mawingu office at Cedar Mall, paid another visit to a distributor within the town, took some pictures and ate lots of food.

Disclosure: Microsoft put us in a nice hotel deep inside Mt. Kenya Forest for a night, fed us well and bought us a limited number of drinks. Notably, all of us were pleasantly thrilled by palatable Teriyaki pork chops.

Introduction

To understand what Microsoft 4Afrika’s Mawingu mandate in Nanyuki and its environs is, it is imperative to understand what TV white spaces (TVWS) are. In essence, all of us have the general idea that conventional radio planning has segmented areas that fall under the same channels. These TV broadcasting stations are regionally separated to avoid radio jamming in overlapping parts. TVWS are those TV channels that are mostly idle, meaning they are not used for broadcasting services in certain regions at all times. This is the technology that Microsoft bought back in 2013 to connect the unconnected while operating harmoniously with TV channels (fees are paid to the Communications Authority of Kenya for the spectrum). While the technology has been around for some time, this was the first time TVWS have been applied to deploy internet services in the country.

During its pilot phase, Mawingu decided to test the service in Nanyuki. At that time, it was noted that only 17 percent of adults and 9 percent of teenagers for its 50K population had access to internet services via cyber cafes and mobile handhelds. The pilot was spearheaded by Mawingu Networks, a local internet service provider that used low-cost wireless tools and solar power to sell the product to local businesses, learning institutions, homes and NGOs, to mention a few. Later developments attracted funding from Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) that pumped $4.1 million into the project.

At that moment, we learned that Mawingu had expanded its product’s coverage that now has more than 1,100 Wi-Fi hotspots and links 600 small businesses to the internet. At the same time, Mawingu reports that the town and its neighbourhoods have 11,000 daily active users, including 26 schools and other critical offices such as the Laikipia County Government.

“Through our WiFi hotspots, we have connected over 600 SMEs in and around Nanyuki to the internet. This has helped them to digitally transform and reach new markets. By providing these SMEs with access to more local ICT professionals, we can support their transformation even further and help them enhance their offerings. As a start-up in a small town ourselves, we know how difficult and expensive it can be to hire the right talent, but sometimes that option is not even available to us, and we end up having to outsource to other countries,” noted Tim Hobbs, Director, and CEO of Mawingu Networks.

Microsoft owns a 10 percent stake in Mawingu.

Packages

It should be noted that Mawingu does not sell unlimited internet, but the price for existing packages is attractive. Access is availed at select hotspots with a one-time login. Pricing is as follows: 300 MB for KES 50, 500 MB for KES 100, 2GB at KES 300 and 8GB for KES 1000. These packages expire in 90 days, save for the 50 MB bundle and 100 MB bundles (for KES 10 and KES 20 respectively) that have a 7-day validity.

To register, users must visit Mawingu merchants. An access code is sent to a customer’s device, which they must use to get online.

Businesses and homes can get access to the service where the product is availed as follows: 10 MBPS attracts a KES 17,999, 7.5 MBPS goes for KES 13,999, 5 MBPS costs KES 9,999 whereas KES 6,999 will get businesses 3 MBPS. There is also a 2 MBPS package that costs KES 4,999. Yeah, we were appalled too.

For those who need a robust bandwidth, Mawingu is capable of up to 34 MBPS, which is conveniently unpriced on the company’s website for obvious reasons. I also believe that’s the same package in their head office at Cedar Mall based on multiple tests.

Mawingu SpeedsA visit to Sweet Waters High School was used to showcase the offering of the product to the unconnected. The all-girls school is located about 12 km from Nanyuki town. It is a rural setup, with rough access roads and sparse populations. In such a region, one expects instructors to head over to Nanyuki town for Internet services – which is not the case as Mawingu has availed its service to the institution. Students have also benefited from the program that has extras a full government-approved curriculum, a bunch of eBooks and resources for online research.

Microsoft 4Afrika Academy Dean Lutz Ziob with Dahabo Abdi a student at Sweetwaters Secondary during a familiarization trip of the Mawingu Project
Microsoft 4Afrika Academy Dean Lutz Ziob with Dahabo Abdi a student at Sweetwaters Secondary during a familiarization trip of the Mawingu Project

Leveraging the offerings of Kaizala

In November 2017, Microsoft launched a productivity app called Kaizala. The core design element of the app is based on addressing large group communication as well as work management that no other messaging app has managed to solve before. In other words, the app purposes to make it easy and manageable for companies and business institutions to collaborate on work programmes on smartphones and desktop support.

Since Mawingu installs and manages hotspots in outlying areas, field staff are not often connected to the internet.  However, such issues have been resolved using Kaizala, which has also allowed the collection of customer information and feedback in real-time during activations and monitoring saves time through automated reporting.

“Our main goal was to improve communication between the field teams and office teams, simplify the data collection process and save time in reporting. Kaizala ensures clean lines of communication, and customer and partner feedback within the organization,” added Tim Hobbs. “Kaizala has improved our internal communications and greatly enhanced our operations. Through the AppFactory, we hope to scale our use of Kaizala even further. Apprentices will be tasked with building custom Kaizala Action Cards and extending the platform via an application programming interface.”

Which brings us to…

AppFactory Launch

The Apprentice Factory for Developers or AppFactory is a partnership between Mawingu and Microsoft 4Afrika. Its launch was the 16th of such an initiative in Africa, with others in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mauritius, Uganda, and Rwanda. The setup, which has already received more than 250 applications, will be used to develop digital skills such as computer programming and employability of young graduates within Nanyuki.

Accepted groups will undergo a 6-month training program where they will work with senior software technicians to gain workplace skills and the knowledge to build and deploy modern software solutions. Upon successful completion, apprentices will get job openings at Mawingu Networks and its associated SMEs.

“The AppFactory will turn young people into highly competent, in-demand ICT professionals. Local companies, including ourselves, need more of this talent, especially in an increasingly digital world,” remarked Tim Hobbs.

“A lot of skills development programmes happen in and around big cities, benefitting largely urban youth,” says Lutz Ziob, Dean of the 4Afrika Academy. “By working with an innovative, local company in Nanyuki, we are demonstrating our commitment to extending the reach of opportunities to youth and small businesses across the country.  This is in line with our global mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. It also supports Kenya’s 2030 vision, which aims to become a middle-income country and provide a higher quality of life to all its citizens.”

 Future Prospects

Mawingu is building capacity to expand to Isiolo, Samburu, and Kirinyaga. It is also working with fiber connectors such as Jamii Telekom Limited (JTL) to see how the product can be improved in the coming days.

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