An opportunity for small businesses expanding affordable internet access: Grant applications open now

Phot of man outdoors installing micro-grid technology on one of Uganda’s Ssese Islands.
New Sun Road’s micro-grid technology being installed on one of Uganda’s Ssese Islands. Image courtesy of New Sun Road.

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New Sun Road is literally lighting up Uganda’s economy. The small business, supported with a grant from Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative, provides a critical service, creates jobs and is the kind of enterprise we aim to support with a second round of grants for innovators around the world.

Initially conceived at UC Berkeley, New Sun Road designed, built and operated the first 24/7 metered electricity service on an off-grid island chain in the southern part of Uganda. Now they are sharing their technology solutions with other entrepreneurs to accelerate development and scale clean, renewable power systems in developing markets such as East Africa and Southeast Asia.

A challenge, and an opportunity, in Uganda

The 50,000 inhabitants of the Ssese Islands in Uganda depend on an economy largely driven by the fishing industry. Before New Sun Road’s system went online, local businesses had only an intermittent power supply, provided by costly diesel generators, which made it difficult to provide predictable hours of operation. Since the introduction of a solar grid, fishing-adjacent businesses including taverns, restaurants and food processors enjoy improved physical security, due to around-the-clock lighting, and much lower utility fees.

Electricity costs – which had previously accounted for up to a third of clients’ daily incomes – have fallen by 50 percent. Extended hours enabled by the new system are allowing businesses to stay open later, increasing earning potential and job creation. Most importantly, New Sun Road’s prototype demonstrated strong local demand for solar micro-grid power, giving new utility companies confidence to build larger systems and expand service throughout the remote Ssese Islands.

“While building our micro-grid in the Ssese Islands, we encountered a lot of obstacles stemming from lack of power, water, sanitation and transport infrastructure – and this helped us better understand the daily struggles residents of the islands face,” said Jalel Sager, director at New Sun Road. “We are proud to have provided our early customers with 24-hour reliable clean energy and tablet-based connectivity on the island as a first step toward securing the rest of the services they need for a better future.”

New Sun Road’s micro-grid management systems also use various Microsoft Azure cloud-connected tools, such as real-time analytics, automated event notifications and machine learning, to maximize efficiency. The company gathers data on electricity usage and identifies patterns that can predict when there will be outages or potential failures. Once a possible lapse is identified, the system alerts local technicians and keeps customers updated. And New Sun Road systems provide the foundation for broadband internet capabilities in the community.

Affordable Access Initiative grants: Year Two

Unfortunately, 3.9 billion people worldwide, often in economically disadvantaged, rural and other underserved communities, lack internet connectivity. That’s why Microsoft created the Affordable Access Initiative, a holistic, partnership-based program that invests in new last-mile access technologies, cloud-based services and business models to reduce the cost of internet access and help more people affordably get online. The initiative is a call to innovate. By using seed grants, mentoring networks and sparking community engagement, we cultivate partner companies that demonstrate promising market-based solutions through hardware, software or infrastructure improvements that deliver connectivity.

One important aspect of Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative is a grant fund which has, since November 2015, awarded funds to 12 companies in 11 countries and five continents, offering affordable internet access or cloud-based services in fields such as power generation, health, education, finance and agriculture. The social enterprises we support have inspired us with practical, high-impact and scalable approaches to help close the digital divide. It’s a privilege to see these solutions take shape, and to play a role in helping local entrepreneurs spur job creation and economic growth.

This initiative is also connected to the work of Microsoft Philanthropies, which is helping to bring technology’s benefits to those who need them most. Microsoft Philanthropies is making its digital literacy, online safety and computer science education programs available to grant recipients and the communities they serve.

“Too many people around the world lack internet connectivity and the educational, commercial and economic benefits of cloud-based services,” Mary Snapp, corporate vice president and head of Microsoft Philanthropies, told me. “Affordable Access Initiative grants, and the technology ecosystems they help support, empower entrepreneurs to provide connectivity which then enables the creation of critical services for those who need it most.”

Businesses wishing to apply for this year’s grants may find a list of criteria, and the application, here. Applications will be accepted until midnight PT on Jan. 31, 2017.

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