New Sun Road: A focus group with women in Alta Verapaz
New Sun Road and USAID-Microsoft, a joint initiative striving to close the gender digital divide and increase digital opportunities for Indigenous women in the Alta Verapaz region of rural Guatemala.
“I do not understand how [Internet] coverage works, but I do know that I want this project in our community,” said Nadia Macz Sel, a representative from a savings and entrepreneurship program in Guatemala. “I want my kids to have access to electricity, Internet, and a computer. It might be too late for me, but it is not too late for them.”
Earlier this year, Nadia and her colleagues met with New Sun Road—a company specializing in accelerating renewable energy deployment and access for remote communities—to discuss a joint USAID-Microsoft initiative striving to close the gender digital divide and increase digital opportunities for Indigenous women in the Alta Verapaz region of rural Guatemala. To reach these women and bring them online, USAID and the Microsoft Airband Initiative launched an innovative public-private collaboration designed to help close the rural broadband gap in communities like Nadia’s.
“As the world becomes more digital, it becomes even more imperative to ensure women and other marginalized groups are not left out of digital development,” said Lauren Grubbs, a Digital Technology Program Specialist at USAID. “Accordingly, the Microsoft Airband Initiative helps tackle the gender digital divide through locally-tailored projects to extend Internet coverage, develop stronger female technical pipelines, ensure inclusive connectivity and employment programs for women, and demonstrate the business case for women’s connectivity.”
As part of these efforts, Microsoft Airband partners—local Internet service providers in Guatemala, India, Ghana, Kenya, and Colombia—will expand their user base of women in rural communities by providing digital literacy training, custom service offerings and marketing efforts, and programming that addresses and confronts detrimental social norms around women’s technology use. Though programming is still in early stages of implementation, USAID is already seeing the potential of this model as a sustainable and scalable way to bring connectivity to marginalized groups and rural areas.
“This model helps achieve development outcomes of a more inclusive Internet and women's economic empowerment,” emphasized Grubbs. “This intersection of gender priorities and business interests can be scaled in multiple communities and areas where social norms and other barriers keep women and girls from equal digital access and use.”
Electrification and Digital Access in Rural Guatemala
In Guatemala, 1.5 million people currently lack access to energy, primarily in rural and Indigenous communities—including the Alta Verapaz region, which only has a 45 percent electrification rate. Without access to electricity, people are unable to connect to information and communications technology (ICT) services, which limits their economic opportunities and access to educational and health resources. These limitations are further exacerbated for Indigenous women in Guatemala. Because of political, social, and economic marginalization, they lag behind other groups in literacy rates, education level, and economic participation in the formal workforce and are generally less empowered to participate in decision-making at the household and community levels.
In February 2021, Microsoft Airband partner New Sun Road (NSR) began implementing a gender-focused connectivity program in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. According to 2018 census data, only 10 percent of the region has access to a computer, and only 13 percent has access to any form of Internet connection. To address this lack of connectivity, NSR is utilizing USAID grant funding under the Microsoft Airband partnership to build ten Stellar Ixq-Saq'e Digital Community Centers (SIS Centers) in ten unelectrified rural communities in the region. These SIS Centers will serve as solar-powered, technological hubs for women to access the Internet and take courses on digital skills. NSR created a curriculum for digital literacy programming linked to competencies of the Ministry of Education of Guatemala, Microsoft Digital Literacy Course, and online resources of local partners. The digital literacy program was recently launched in all ten communities, and the 22 lessons of the first course were completed successfully by 319 women and girls.
“I think sometimes in developed countries, people think ‘why [do] women in rural areas need access to Internet or to electricity?’” posited Susana Arrechea, Project Director for NSR’s SIS Centers. “I have heard people say, ‘they just need food,’ or ‘they just need water.’ But, for me, personally, being in contact with the people themselves and knowing that they want [the SIS Centers], that they need this access… that has been very encouraging,” she said.
Teresa, who lives in the Alta Verapaz community of San Antonio IV echoed this sentiment: “Others may give us things or food, but you are giving us knowledge. And this is very important for us.”
In recent focus groups with 122 women from the Alta Verapaz communities, over 99 percent said they would like to learn how to use the computer and the Internet. “I would like to have light and technology in our community for us women,” shared Carmelina, a participant in one of the focus groups. “[The SIS community center] serves us and our children, too. We must learn.”
Among the focus group interviewees, there was particular interest in using the Internet to access health services and information; to help children with their homework, a more dire need as education has partly transitioned to a virtual format; and for economic purposes such as enrolling in training courses on entrepreneurship or marketing homemade crafts on the Internet. NSR’s SIS Centers serve to provide women these opportunities through accessible, safe, and inclusive spaces to learn about the Internet and how they can use it to benefit their own lives.
One of NSR’s goals is to train at least 1,000 women with digital skills via the SIS Centers and accompanying digital literacy programming. Programming includes the exploration and instruction in how to interact with computers, cell phones, web and mobile applications, printers, webcams, and other associated technological devices.
“That, professionally, will allow them to achieve better jobs but will also allow them, personally, to connect with other people,” said Arrechea. “Another tangible outcome of these digital community centers, in addition to the communities having access to electricity and connectivity, is that [the SIS centers] allow community members to have a safe space where they can hang out, they can share, they can learn, and they can actually get some income, too.”
Human-Centered Design and Public-Private Collaboration
The USAID-Microsoft Airband Initiative is dedicated to taking a human-centered design approach to development to ensure women’s realities and needs are the focal points of cultivating meaningful connectivity.
“In addition to financial resources, USAID brought gender expertise, including local gender experts, to be part of the project design to ensure each project responded to the specific connectivity needs of women and girls in the communities,” said Grubbs. “Microsoft contributed resources, used their expertise in the industry, and helped identify the local Internet service providers open to this sort of gender digital divide project.”
This type of public-private partnership enables the initiative to build on existing trust and relationships within the target communities, often allowing partners to deliver training and materials in local languages and from trusted community sources, both of which are essential components of human-centered design.
“I was there myself when we did the validation of the business model and determined the amount that community members were going to pay [for services at the SIS Centers], and it was very exciting,” said Arrechea. “Because some people were really encouraging them and supporting [the women leaders] … They were essentially saying, ‘I trust you. I trust that they are going to do a good job. I trust that they know what our children need.’”
Instilling this community trust in tandem with ensuring connectivity and continued access to affordable ICT services are cornerstones of public-private collaboration, achieving market expansion, meeting development objectives, garnering community support, and advancing gender equality.
“Right now, our engineering team is installing some of the centers,” remarked Arrechea. “And we have good reception from not only women working with us but from the whole community.”
Read more on the digital divide here.