The cell-phone revolution in Africa has been called a “silver bullet” for development. On my first trip to Uganda in 2007, I remember being astonished to find that the mobile phone networks even in remote parts of the country were better than those in cities in the United States. On the other hand, the internet revolution still lags. On my most recent trip to Uganda, the speeds at internet cafes were still at dial-up levels and in Kisangani, D.R.C. residents pay as much as $550 per month for regular service.
Why mobile phones and not the internet? The answer lies in the very construction of these two interrelated, but different budding industries. While the mobile phone costs approximately $30, a computer still runs over $1000 in most African cities. In addition, airtime credits for mobile phones can be purchased at thousands of venders in every village across the continent. These credits come in denominations as low as pennies. In contrast, most internet services are still on a monthly basis. Lastly, mobile phones are easy to charge anywhere and have a long battery life. As John Travis over at aboutfog commented, the tablet computer could change this aspect of portability and long battery life in computing – but without reliable WiFi and dramatic decreases in prices, tablets will face the same problems as other traditional computers in Africa.
But what about internet cafes? The same issue applies. While these are widely frequented throughout the continent, their speeds are terrible, their computers are ancient, and their hard drives are full of viruses awaiting the unsuspecting customer.
So why not design a company that can deliver internet to subscribers just like a mobile phone? Why not move the internet café to the household?
This is exactly what Adnaan Jiwaji, Guy-Richard Kayombya, Ammar Jiwaji, and Raymond Besiga had in mind when they designed PayU Computing. Using mesh networks, they have designed a cloud technology that helps to deliver internet services to households, businesses, and schools at reduced cost and faster speeds. Clients pay for the workstation and internet services as they go. Workstations for households are preloaded with Open Office, Adobe Reader, and other common programs. Their packages for educational use include 20-25 workstations preloaded with educational software. Their partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology allows them to provide access to MIT’s iLabs Remote Electronics Experiments and MIT Open Courseware.
PayU is still in development, but a pilot study in Kigali, Rwanda in January 2009 using both consumers at a coffee shop and a high school was positively received by the Rwanda Information Technology Authority.