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Johnson Weru, ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, supports technology that offers rural students educational and economic opportunities they never imagined.
When Microsoft introduced the Microsoft 4Afrika initiative to African leaders tied to the European Union at an event in Brussels in June, it was only natural for Johnson Weru, the Kenyan ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, to attend. He wanted to show his support for 4Afrika, and for the technology projects that were equipping schools and villages in rural Kenya with touch-screen tablets and broadband Internet. But as the attendees watched a video, Weru was transported back to his childhood, to the rural village where he grew up — just a few miles from where the students on the screen were getting their first glimpse of computers and the Internet.
He eagerly raised his hand.
“That’s where I’m from,” Weru said. He was deeply moved at the sight of the students opening the tablets, swiping the icons on the screens, and discovering the vast world of information that had previously been out of their reach. And he wanted to speak with them as soon as possible. Before long, the ambassador was in a conference room talking with the students over a Skype connection, and telling them how much he had in common with them. The students laughed in recognition when he told them where he grew up, and soon were volunteering their thoughts about what their schools needed to ensure opportunity for everyone. Weru reminded them that through education and technology, they can pursue opportunities they had never dreamed of.
“It is possible that you can come from such humble beginnings and enjoy this historic moment to speak to you,” Weru told the students.
Microsoft 4Afrika and the Mawingu project
Africa is home to more than 1 billion people — 15 percent of the world’s population — including some of the world’s poorest citizens. The continent’s vast savannas, deserts and jungles present enormous challenges to the installation of technological infrastructure that can connect African citizens to the rest of the world. Even in countries with advanced technology and education systems, the rural villages are located far from the electrical grids and fiber-optic networks that make Internet access easily available to city dwellers.
“The adoption of technology in Kenya has peaked at a very, very fast rate. Most Kenyan citizens can access simple IT gadgets like cell phones and televisions,” Weru says. “What is critical about the Mawingu project is its ability to reach areas that are beyond the existing coverage of fiber-optic cable.”
Through “Mawingu,” which means "cloud" in Kiswahili, villagers in these isolated areas are now able to use Windows tablets and services to browse the Internet. Mawingu is a collaboration between Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communications, Indigo Telecom Ltd., and Microsoft that takes advantage of TV white spaces — unused portions of the broadcast spectrum on which signals can travel much greater distances than via radio frequencies. Solar panels provide power for the TV signal relays and the computing devices.
The result is reliable broadband Internet access that offers Kenyans a world of new knowledge and opportunities in education, healthcare, commerce and delivery of government services. The Mawingu project is not philanthropy designed to improve resources for the underprivileged; it is an economic development project helping Kenyan citizens start or build small businesses and create prosperity for local communities and wider regions.
“The adaptation of occupational workforce technology to the daily lives of Kenyans is phenomenal,” Weru says. Using handheld devices and broadband Internet, Kenyans can safely send money to business associates or customers, or communicate with friends and relatives elsewhere in the country or in the world. They can secure buyers for their goods and services before traveling to meet them — a key advantage in a region where the nearest settled area might be a full day’s travel away. With easier access to new customers and markets, local entrepreneurs can build businesses and enrich their communities.
Microsoft is implementing similar pilots in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and the Limpopo province of South Africa. In Tanzania, Microsoft is working with the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) and UhuruOne to bring broadband connectivity and services to university students and faculty. In South Africa, Microsoft is working with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the University of Limpopo, and local network builder Multisource to bring broadband connectivity and computing equipment to five secondary schools in remote areas. Both projects enable students to access the wealth of information available on the Internet in order to drive educational advancement and economic development.
The Kenyan government has set a goal of bringing 80 percent of the country’s population online within the next few years. Microsoft is committed to helping achieve that goal, and white spaces technology will be a key enabler. The International Telecommunications Union reports that more than 2.7 billion people use the Internet — just over a third of the world’s population. Projects like Mawingu, which use innovative approaches to solve the problems posed by geographic isolation and limited resources, promise to bring the next 4-plus billion users online.
The ambassador’s journey
As a child, Weru thought he would need to join the military as a parachute jumper if he wanted to see the world. But then he discovered that Kenya’s education system offered him the chance to take a different path: from a goat-herding village to the University of Nairobi; then to a master’s degree and additional study abroad; and finally to Brussels as the Kenyan ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg.
Weru has traveled far since his days as a student in a rural village, but he is determined not to leave today’s students behind. As part of his role as ambassador, he works to develop educational exchanges between Kenyan institutions and those in Europe and Asia, and to partner with international businesses on projects that can expand educational and economic opportunities at home. He is determined to show these students paths to the future that they have never imagined, just as he never imagined the path he has followed.
The Kenyan government is pursuing initiatives to prepare students for the changing world that lies before them. In January 2014, first-year primary school students will be issued free laptops or tablets designed to provide a wealth of educational resources. Weru expects students not just to learn to use the computers but to grow into the next generation of IT developers and innovators who will create the businesses and technological advances of the future.
“That is the way we are hoping we will be able to create a huge base of young minds that are able to advance the use and the customization of technology,” Weru says. “That is what we expect will turn around our economy.”
Learn more about opportunities for students at 4Afrika.
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