Unlocking the potential of four billion people

By Elizabeth L. Littlefield, President & CEO, Overseas Private Investment Corporation; and Benjamin Hunt, Special Assistant and Advisor to the President & CEO

Off the grid but connected by technology: In rural India, OPIC partner Simpa Networks provides home solar kits that accept mobile payments.

Four billion people in the world don’t have access to the internet. That’s the majority of the world.

Yet, we know that internet access can increase GDP, promote democratization and civic engagement, and even collect and distribute health and education services. These benefits will only increase as technology becomes more embedded in the way we live and work. It is therefore a development imperative to bridge the digital divide.

Today marks the kickoff of the U.S. State Department’s Global Connect Initiative Conference here in Washington, D.C. Launched this past fall 2015, by Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, Catherine Novelli, the Global Connect Initiative is a first-of-its-kind U.S. Government initiative that aims to bring 1.5 billion people who lack Internet access online by 2020.

Today’s event, which brings together government ministers, tech companies, and key implementers, will explore concrete approaches the U.S. Government can pursue to increase internet access. The event has already triggered the creation of new tools. For example, an interagency team has developed a factsheet for investors interested in the information and communications technologies (ICT) space that lists the full USG financial toolkit available for overseas projects.

For OPIC’s part, we have worked hard to support a diverse array of projects in ICT — we have $630 million currently invested in 37 ICT projects in 25 developing countries. OPIC’s diverse portfolio of projects range from e-commerce to telecommunications infrastructure (towers and subsea cable), from mobile voice and data networks to wireline broadband and triple play networks.

OPIC’s Alex Hadden penned a blog this week for State Department’s DipNote on our current work in the space, including how OPIC supports businesses that are making ICT services more affordable for the world’s most economically disadvantaged.

OPIC is also supporting projects that utilize technology in new and unique ways. For example, Simpa Networks is making buying solar energy for rural Indians as simple as sending a text message.

Indeed developing countries are even leading the innovating, inventing and leap-frogging. In 2015, I penned an article published by AllAfrica on technology innovation in Kenya. I talked about a “silicon savannah” where small Kenyan start-ups are harnessing innovative technologies and disruptional mobile systems for payment and even the provision of electricity services.

The potential impact of OPIC’s investments in technology is best illustrated in one of our most recent projects: Our agreement to provide financing to the Tikona telecom project in India, which aims to provide over 6.5 million residential subscribers with internet, with speeds up to six time faster than current average internet speeds in India and be delivered for less than $10 per month. That’s connectivity that we can get behind.

About OPIC
OPIC is the U.S. Government’s development finance institution. It mobilizes private capital to help address critical development challenges and in doing so, advances U.S. foreign policy and national security priorities. Because OPIC works with the U.S. private sector, it helps U.S. businesses gain footholds in emerging markets, catalyzing revenues, jobs and growth opportunities both at home and abroad. OPIC achieves its mission by providing investors with financing, political risk insurance, and support for private equity investment funds, when commercial funding cannot be obtained elsewhere. Established as an agency of the U.S. Government in 1971, OPIC operates on a self-sustaining basis at no net cost to American taxpayers.

All OPIC projects adhere to high environmental and social standards and respect human rights, including worker’s rights. By mandating high standards, OPIC aims to raise the industry and regional standards of the countries where it funds projects. OPIC services are available for new and expanding business enterprises in more than 160 countries worldwide.