NEW YORK - Without adequate power, even the best smartphone or laptop can quickly become useless. It’s a simple concept that’s often taken for granted in industrialized nations. But not in the developing world where basic internet access is a challenge.
“You have a very large population of people who are not on the electrical grid, so you can’t bring them internet access if you can’t also solve issues around energy access,” said Paul Garnett, director of Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiatives. “Companies who are starting out in the internet access space are ending up in the energy access space, and vice versa.”
Two years ago, Microsoft launched the Affordable Access Initiative (AAI), which recently doled out $75,000 to $100,000 to 10 firms working to bridge the digital divide. Each firm also receives Microsoft’s cloud services and software.
Andy Bogdan Bindea, CEO of California-based Sigora International, knows a thing or two about the challenges of bringing power to developing countries. Sigora’s electrification efforts in Haiti made it one of this year’s grant winners. The company works to build solar-powered, mini electricity grids in the country’s most remote regions.
“It is a very, very difficult place to work in, logistically. It costs about 28 percent extra to bring any kind of equipment into the country,” said Bogdan Bindea, “It takes us 12 hours to get from the capital to our pilot project, which is 100 miles away ... nine hours if you drive like a maniac.”
Through the partnership with Microsoft, Bogdan Bindea hopes to expand Sigora’s offerings, building a web portal for instance, so customers can pay for internet access and online content using digital wallets.
“More than anything, a company like ours needs names like Microsoft, needs partners like Microsoft” said Bogdan Bindea.
Access to the internet is as essential a need as food, shelter and clothing these days. More than half of the world’s population, 3.9 billion people, are stranded along the digital divide, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
Picosoft is a startup in Kathmandu and one of this year’s AAI grant winners. The company uses untapped TV frequencies or “white space”, to provide internet access to schools in the remote, mountainous regions of Nepal.
“One of the great things about TV white space frequencies is they are in the broadcast bands, and therefore the signals that are transmitted over those frequencies travel over very long distances,” Garnett said.
SunCulture was another one of this year’s grant winners. The Kenya-based startup offers solar-powered irrigation kits to smallholder farmers across Africa. Working with Microsoft, team members plan to build a digital platform for farmers that will provide data on crops, collected from connected sensors and cameras in the field.
“Internet is a conduit to other services in the markets that we work in,” said Samir Ibrahim, SunCulture CEO and co-founder.
“The value that SunCulture provides and the value of our company isn’t in the things that we sell to farmers, it is in the connected experience and the relationship we build with them,” said Ibrahim. “So internet for us is a conduit to build the relationships with farmers so we can continue to develop solutions for them.”
Microsoft’s AAI grant winners may have clinched the prize, but Garnett says the real gains can’t be counted in dollars and cents.
“The bigger value that the relationship delivers is really the network and the mentorship, helping companies to adapt and evolve their business models,” said Garnett.