Solar power is the key to universal internet access

Currently, online media is only second to radio in audience reach thanks largely to established mobile telephony and data networks across the country. The possibility of internet access surpassing radio’s reach is around the corner due to the impressive developments in the solar energy field that make electricity affordable for low income homes that have been left off the power grid.

There are 5 million homes in the country that are off the electricity distribution grid which represents 40 percent of the households, and this has dropped from 60 percent over the last few years. The people who live in darkness face tough conditions as they use kerosine, fire wood and charcoal for their domestic requirements which negatively affect health and productivity. It is good to note, though, that Kenya Power and the Government have recently revised their rural electrification programme which was quite uninspiring a few years ago.

Having such a large number of households off the grid is deplorable in this day and age, but the introduction of affordable solar power is a game-changer and promises to bring our entire nation into the modern world. Azuri Technologies, a provider of solar power on a pay-as-you-go model, launched a satellite TV package targeting homes without electricity last week and they aim to cover 5 million homes over the next few years. M-KOPA Solar, which launched their affordable home solar system in 2011 has already connected 400,000 throughout East Africa and the efforts of these companies, among the 20 or so other providers around the continent, will literally light up Africa.

Also in the game are organizations like the Canadian firm Sky Power, a major investor in Kenya’s grid-connected solar sector, which aims to give as charity 2 million solar home kits. These and other enterprises are laying the groundwork for the ambitious government project to provide tablets to every student under the Digital Literacy Programme (DLP), which promises to transform our education systems and make our future workforce ready for the world. The DLP intends to provide 22,000 schools with 1.2 million tablets by next June and in order to make this a reality the Government has to ensure that the schools have reliable electricity connections. The next step will be to ensure that the students have power and an internet connection at home so that they can access the school server remotely to complete their homework, as well as provide the opportunity to other household members to connect for work and leisure.

The spread of the internet has reached epidemic proportions and it is pulling TV along with it. The executives at Azuri said that the 2 top things that their customers want after electricity is TV and the internet in that order and beyond that I’m sure that they will want a hard-drive and keyboard to connect to the 24 inch flat screen. The internet was expected to kill TV after it had made quick work of print, but that has not necessarily been the case as TV viewership is still growing globally due to their ability to host exclusive content including televised sports and TV series with cult-like following. However, TV viewership in Kenya is growing primarily because of the spread of electricity.

So it beats the purpose when Government imposes high taxes on these solar powered TV kits, making it more expensive for the end user. Wouldn’t it be in their interest to get these kits to users across the country as fast as possible so that their DLP has guaranteed success? Over and above that, the increased advertising expenditure on the internet and TV will yield more tax shillings that can be plowed back into development projects in education and culture. I think it’s time that the treasury, the ministry of information, the ministry of education and other related government agencies create policies that pull in the same direction towards our 2030 development goals.

We are truly at the tipping point of the digital age in Kenya brought to life by the vision of our leaders and the efforts of social entrepreneurs, but in order for it to be fully consummated it requires a long term view to guide our actions both in the private and public sectors. There are boundless opportunities in this for the software industry, content developers, the education sector as well as the online retail ecosystem.

Other benefits of universal internet connections is the ability for brands to ubiquitously reach their consumers through interactive advertising that creates meaningful engagement in ways that no other media can match. In the words of Peter Drucker “the best way to predict the future is to create it”.


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