Connecting in Kenya

Stephen DeAngelis

February 23, 2009

Kenya has most recently been in the news for its violent elections and the tragic gasoline truck explosion that killed over 100 people and injured dozens more. A more positive story about how Internet connectivity was brought to a small, remote village was also recently published [“Bringing the Internet to Remote African Villages,” by Chris Nicholson, New York Times, 1 February 2009]. As the headline notes, the Kenyan experiment is aimed at creating a template that can be used elsewhere in Africa. The focus of the article is a small village called Entasopia. Nicholson writes:

“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. 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 [2008], 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.”

Anyone familiar with the cost of satellite Internet service understands that affordability is the big question — especially in an experiment such as this one. In a post about Rwanda [Wiring Rwanda to the World], I reported that Rwanda’s desire to be connected to the Internet via satellite were abandoned because of cost and that it had placed its connectivity hopes on fiber-optic cable. Unfortunately, as noted in the second post, Update on Wiring Rwanda to the World], even those efforts were stillborn because of “the technical challenges of linking Rwanda’s Internet network to the rest of the world. The only way to do it is to buy bandwidth capacity on satellites, but there are not enough satellites to meet demand.” Those challenges exist across the African continent, not just in Rwanda. Estimates are that less than 4 percent of Africa’s population is connected to the Web. Most of the subscribers who are connected reside in North African countries and the republic of South Africa. The biggest problem, and one being explored in the Kenyan experiment, is a lack of infrastructure. Nicholson continues:

“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.”

Before tackling the issue of cost, Nicholson examines what Google and the Michigan students hope to learn from their experiment.

“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.'”

If Internet connectivity was primarily aimed at “communicat(ing) with friends and family,” there would be few “opportunities” for the market to exploit. Connectivity provides opportunities when it creates jobs and connects businesses with customers. For the most part, the Masai are cattle herders and farmers. The Internet can help them find customers as well as gage market prices. It might also open other commercial avenues, such as selling native crafts to distant markets. Internet connectivity is one of the pre-conditions that helps make Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ approach more viable. If seed money from organizations like Google can help set up sustainable Internet connections in remote places, then those living there will be much more likely to climb out of poverty. That, according to Nicholson, is a big “if.”

“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.”

One of the benefits of connectivity is that it brings out the entrepreneurial spirit in the local population. You never know exactly how such connectivity will change people’s lives until you see them actually use it in new and innovative ways.

“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. Julius 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.”

Of course, the benefits of connectivity generally increase with the number of people with whom one can connect. A telephone system, for example, that connects two people is nowhere near as useful as one that connects millions of people. The same is true for the Internet. The number of people who can be reached by Internet remains a problem in Africa including Kenya — and the problem is not entirely technology-related.

“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.”

When I talk to government leaders in emerging market countries about Development-in-a-Box™, I stress the importance of developing human capital by investing in education and training. Too often people seem more interested in building infrastructure than in helping people, even when that infrastructure is of little value without enough people to operate and exploit it. That is why Development-in-a-Box™ stresses using a holistic approach that addresses an array of challenges simultaneously rather than sequentially.

“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.'”

For too many developing countries, Ms. Mule’s lament about not being able to establish priorities leads to inaction. It’s the old conundrum that given the task of eating an elephant one is left wondering where to begin. The answer, of course, is that you begin by taking one bite at a time. The problem is that in developing countries there are dozens of “elephants” that must be “eaten” one bite at time. That is why I applaud efforts like Google’s. It will take all kinds of public/private partnerships to tackle all of the challenges simultaneously. Even if only small steps are made across a broad array of challenges, progress is progress.