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Teachers and students outside of Sulaulo Bhairabi School at Dhading in Nepal

Second year of Microsoft Affordable Access Initiative grants awarded

Meet some of the entrepreneurs bringing internet connectivity, access to energy and economic opportunity where they're needed most

He made a vow. When his 16-year-old daughter died from an illness doctors could not diagnose, Allen Bailochan Tuladhar promised he would carry out her dream to help young people in Nepal obtain better access to technology and computer science education.

In the 10 years since Ellaine’s passing, it’s a vow Tuladhar has kept. He has established a foundation in his daughter’s name that offers scholarships and helps educate young women about technology. And his company, Picosoft Nepal, is working to bring low-cost internet to schools in the country’s heavily rural areas.

On Monday, Picosoft Nepal received additional support for its mission. Microsoft awarded an Affordable Access Initiative (AAI) grant to the company, and to nine other businesses whose solutions deliver internet connectivity, access to energy and the power of the cloud to communities in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the U.S.

Once we have access to the internet in an affordable manner, I think Nepalese, whether they’re in Silicon Valley or whether they’re in Dhading Valley, will be able to escape information poverty, which is a vicious cycle.

“We are really super-excited about the grant and what we’ll be able to do with it,” said Tuladhar during a Skype interview from Kathmandu, near Dhading Valley, one of the first areas of Nepal that will benefit from the grant.

“Once we get connectivity and once we have access to the internet in an affordable manner, I think Nepalese, whether they’re in Silicon Valley or whether they’re in Dhading Valley, will be able to escape information poverty, which is a vicious cycle.”

To many it might seem hard to fathom, but more than half the people on the planet lack internet access. That means the kinds of digital communication, information and economic opportunities many of us take for granted simply do not exist in much of the world. The causes often include a lack of infrastructure, and the level of digital literacy required to build affordable solutions.

Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative grant program, now in its second year, seeks to help remedy that. Each grant recipient is given seed funding, mentorship and access to a network of peers to help them pilot and scale their solutions. Areas of interest include last-mile internet access technologies, including the use of TV White Spaces and other forms of internet connectivity solutions, energy access for off-grid communities and Internet of Things (IoT) for agriculture. The goal is to deliver internet and energy access, and to create economic and academic opportunities as a result.

Grant recipients also receive Microsoft BizSpark, Microsoft’s development and test software that includes Azure, Windows, Visual Studio, Office and SQL Server. BizSpark comes with access to hundreds of free training classes and other technical content. Microsoft Philanthropies also provides digital literacy, online safety and computer science education programs in communities in which Affordable Access Initiative grants are given.

This year’s recipients include Electric Vine Industries (Indonesia), Kukua Weather Services (Uganda), Picosoft (Nepal), Sigora International (Haiti), Solaris Offgrid (Tanzania), Standard Microgrid (Zambia), SunCulture (Kenya), VABB (Virginia), VisionNet (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and WrightGrid (Democratic Republic of the Congo).

“We’re inspired by our grantees’ passion to bring internet and energy access, and the economic benefits that flow from it, to parts of the world that need it most,” said Paul Garnett, senior director of Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiatives. “It’s our privilege to support the work of innovators helping to improve their communities.”

AAI recipient Electric Vine Industries (EVI) is a solar micro-grid developer bringing sustainable energy access to households in Southeast Asia. That includes Indonesia, where Electric Vine’s AAI grant money will be used.

There, the only light in homes often emanates from candles, kerosene lanterns or generators, with the latter being expensive to operate. With 1.3 billion people worldwide who lack access to electricity, rural communities often rely on inefficient, expensive, dangerous and environmentally harmful energy sources such as kerosene. By helping to scale early-stage entrepreneurs such as EVI, millions of consumers and small business owners eventually stand to benefit.

I believe in the power of education and how transformative access to information can be.

Alex Okuonzi Bahati works on installing Wi-Fi
“It is important for me to provide internet, especially in the education sector,” says Alex Okuonzi Bahati of VisionNet, one of this year’s Microsoft AAI grant recipients.

Two AAI grant recipients are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in central Africa, which is perhaps the poorest country in the world. The DRC has a population of 77 million, and residents earn an average of $394 a year. VisionNet, one of the DRC recipients, uses cloud-managed Wi-Fi to provide low-cost internet access to rural university students, individuals and nongovernmental organizations.

Alex Okuonzi Bahati, who founded VisionNet’s “Pocket Cyber Cafes” program, is determined to increase internet accessibility and affordability, since his own frustrating experience in secondary school, five years ago.

“Internet was so expensive and considered to be a luxury,” he says. “I had to pay $1 to have access to the internet for 15 minutes, which was not enough time to perform my assignment.”

From that day on, he says, “I focused my studies on technology to be able to provide low-cost internet” to people of the DRC, especially to students, who often pay by the megabyte – not gigabyte – and pay dearly, up to $1 per 65 megabytes.

Through VisionNet’s “Pocket Cyber Cafes,” Wi-Fi hot spots are made available from area to area, depending on need. Bahati says, with the help of the AAI grant, he hopes to provide 24 hours of unlimited internet access at rates below market pricing.

“It is important for me to provide internet, especially in the education sector, because I believe in the power of education and how transformative access to information can be,” says Bahati, who was selected last year to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin, focusing on business and entrepreneurship.

The connection between access to the internet and access to education is crucial to Tuladhar, who, like Bahati, is driven by his personal experiences to serve his community in Nepal.

The country of 26 million people has been working to rebuild its infrastructure since 2015, when a devastating earthquake killed more than 8,500, injured nearly 22,000 and resulted in more than 500,000 homes being demolished.

Mug shot of Allen Bailochan Tuladhar
Allen Bailochan Tuladhar

It was after the earthquake that Tuladhar’s company, Picosoft Nepal, experimented with TV White Spaces – unused frequencies in the wireless spectrum band that can be made available for wireless broadband – to help provide internet service, and saw its potential for regular use in schools, says Tuladhar.

Using TV White Spaces and super Wi-Fi technology after the quake, “We were quickly able to deploy the internet from the prime minister’s office to disaster relief organizations, and we were very pleased with how easy and how effective TV White Spaces technology was,” he says.

The country, home to Mount Everest, is landlocked, sandwiched between India and China, with terrain that that is steep, “ranging from sea level to the highest point on Earth,” says Tuladhar.

There are 75 districts in Nepal. Picosoft Nepal will use the Microsoft AAI grant immediately to provide internet to 20 schools in the Dhading District, with students who are the equivalent of kindergarten through high school age. Ultimately, the grant will help put the TV White Spaces network in two districts of Nepal by the end of this year, and in 10 districts in five years.

“There are really rural schools where the children would be able to not only use Microsoft technologies to learn, but also be able to access the wealth of information on the internet to be able to have better skills and knowledge,” Tuladhar says.

He has been in the technology field for 25 years, including serving in a non-paying role as a country director of Microsoft Innovation Center in Nepal. His late daughter, Ellaine, loved how technology opens doors to education, but “questioned the way we think about technology and dismantling barriers that keep women and minorities from entering computing and technology fields,” he notes on the website of the foundation in her honor, EMFound.

He won’t be stopping any time soon. Five years from now, he says, he wants to see “equal access” internet in Nepal, “which I believe is the right for every human being in the world, to be able to use that power of the internet.”

Top image: Teachers and students outside of Sulaulo Bhairabi School at Dhading, where the first installation of internet using TV White Spaces is being carried out by Picosoft Nepal. (Photo courtesy of Team Picosoft Nepal)