“Without the Internet, it’s like living in darkness,” says Benson Maina, who runs the town of Nanyuki’s Internet café out of a 20-foot shipping container.
“My main duty is to communicate to the community, in terms of the Internet, the advantages they can get from it,” he says.
Affable and outgoing, Maina, 35, is the perfect ambassador.
To say the container, sunshine yellow, with an electric blue roof, stands out along this quiet road in rural Kenya is understatement. If cheap access to the Internet wasn’t enough of a draw, its alien appearance in this African landscape would be.
The container is powered by local company Mawingu, which provides Internet access via underutilized broadcast bandwidth, called TV white spaces. It’s part of a broader effort, by Microsoft and partners, to connect rural communities in Kenya and beyond.
For the people who come to Maina’s café, having Internet access that’s reliable and affordable is opening doors and creating opportunities.
“Bringing the Internet connection to the community… People never knew the possibilities, but now they have the whole world in their hands,” Maina says. “The people who use the solar cyber are working-class people who need a place to work. They’re also village people who don’t have much Internet competence. We help them learn.”
Many of his patrons come every day. They’re students, studying or applying to universities; farmers checking forecasts and crop prices; and budding entrepreneurs, earning a living transcribing or posting to social sites on behalf of others. They stay anywhere from two to eight hours.
“We also have job seekers,” Maina says. “People around here believe they’re so behind. They think the people who live in cities will always be on top. Power comes from having information.”
Beatrice Mwangi, 23, is in charge of registering and renewing clients at the container. She helps students who have just completed high school check what courses to take at the university. Sometimes, she helps them sign up for Facebook, a favorite in a region where a sometimes nomadic lifestyle makes it easy to lose track of one another.
Mwangi, who has lived most of her life in the area, says the affordable online access is changing the community for the better.
“The 15-year-olds come at noon. It keeps them out of mischief,” she says. “Their parents know they’re at the container.”
Educating people about the Internet and connecting them online is a great experience, Mwangi adds. “You feel good about helping people out.”
In Nanyuki, located about 125 miles north of Nairobi, not having to travel to get information is enabling the community to grow, and dream of the future, in ways not possible just a few years ago.
Maina, who grew up in Nanyuki, recalls how one of his regulars used to have to travel two or three days to communicate with his employer and get his work done. Now, he can do his job in a matter of hours.
“People used to come here from other villages and wonder how we lived here, how we survived,” he says. “Now, not having to travel to get information, we can live our lives, get an education. Having information now in rural areas will help the region. We will be producing engineers and doctors from this place. Everyone is coming to believe that the Internet will change the lives of the people here.
“Nanyuki will become unbelievable. Amazing.”