Microsoft Explores the Internet's Frontier in Kenya with Platon
Each television channel operates on its own frequency, and as a result there are frequencies that go unused. These unused frequencies are known as “TV White Space” and they offer a technological infrastructure available for new employs. Malcolm Brew was exploring using TV White Space in Scotland as a way to spread wireless internet over the same reach that television frequencies do (areas with more than a six mile radius), but after a chance meeting with his old friends, and Kenyan rose farmers Tim and Maggie Hobbs, together they began exploring opportunities for this technology in Kenya. The result is Mawingu Networks, which has begun using this technology to bring Internet access to huge swaths of Kenyan communities. They’ve partnered with Microsoft’s 4Afrika initiative to impact as many people in the most positive and efficient ways possible. As Brew explains to Microsoft, “The Internet changes how you can run yourself as a community. If you’re not connected, you’re on the wrong side of the digital divide.” Last month, the major players from both Mawingu and Microsoft came together to experience the impact of their work and Platon was on hand to help them visualize the experience through the stories of the people touched by this project.
By merely looking at the photographs one can gain a stark appreciation for the current situation of the students in Nanyuki, a town that the team visited on their trip to Kenya. Many residents have no access to electricity, but because of this joint initiative they now have access to the world community. It’s enabling jobs, new farming techniques, and a new generation of students. “They have a pencil each, they have notebooks. But now they have a laptop and a window to the world,” says Platon. Beatrice Ndorongo, the Principal of Gakawa Secondary School, reports to Microsoft that since they gained access to the Internet two-and-a-half years ago her students have improved their scores in every single subject on the Kenya national Exam. This is changing the world.
On the team’s last day on the ground, they welcomed Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to their voyage to meet the students in Nanyuki (you can read Nadella's story here). “You know he’s the new style of leadership. Transparent, humble, feet on the ground, and wants not just to make good business and good money for his company, but cares passionately about leveling the playfield of opportunity in the world,” explains Platon. Satya took the time to sit with the students and show them Microsoft’s newest operating system and answer their questions about how best to use the Internet and computers as a tool. “You have this kid who has nothing and he’s sitting next to one of the most powerful men on the planet and they’re both sharing an experience together,” says Platon. “And that was, for me, symbolic of this idea.”
We all know that access to the Internet offers an incredible volume of educational resources and reference materials. But the incidental education that comes from being online is in many ways far more powerful. Social interaction with communities of different cultures offers the expanding of minds in a way that transforms into a way of seeing the future differently. It turns into a new form of hope. “I’ve been to so many schools, certainly in Europe and the US, where the system is broken and for many complicated reasons, the children no longer want to learn. And so they have so many more opportunities than these kids [in Nanyuki] had and yet they’re just not interested,” says Platon. While he was photographing the kids, he took some time to point out to them that they were the beginning of a new generation. That with these new tools they had unprecedented potential and it would permit them futures that were previously out of the question. Their potential could reach the level of Prime Minister, and in the world that they see online, there are no boundaries to those potentials, gender included. “They all stood up and clapped, it was the most amazing thing,” says Platon. “And they weren’t clapping me, they were clapping their future, they were applauding the hope that they have.”
Platon’s work has always been aimed towards human rights, and as more and more people gain access to the Internet and see its changeable potential, we become closer to recognizing this kind of effortless communication is a human right. “It turns out this project is in perfect tune with everything I believe in,” says Platon. It is no fluke that Microsoft would invite him to be a part of this documentation. Steve Clayton, Chief Storyteller for Microsoft, explains why Platon was the perfect choice for telling this story in particular: “Admiring Platon’s work from afar is one thing – it’s wonderful art of course. Seeing the creation is another art form in itself. During our trip to Kenya I saw how Platon brought the story to life through his photography. He immerses himself in the story to be told, the environment in which to tell it and most importantly through deeply connecting with his subjects. The result is powerful moving photography but even more than that, it’s a story, told through his lens.”
This program started a few years ago, but there is still a lot of work to do. We are standing on the precipice of enabling the great equalizing power of the Internet. No one knows what exactly will happen when we bring the next four billion online, but as Maggie Hobbs tells Microsoft, “The Internet is important to everyone in the world. Kenya is no different… You want to give the young people the idea that there is a hopeful future. And control over their own destination.” The location of that destination is consigned to the future, but wherever it is will be a place of power and inclusion.