US media giant Facebook, in partnership with local Internet operator Surf Kenya, rolled out Express Wifi — a service meant to provide affordable Internet — in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa.
So far they have set up more than 100 hotspots in high-traffic areas, including shopping centres and bus termini in the three towns, with plans to replicate the project in other areas.
The Business Daily talked to Uche Ofodile, Regional Head Africa, Express WiFi by Facebook, on Kenya’s place in the world of technology and Facebook’s quest to increase Internet penetration around the world.
Over the past year Kenya has managed to attract the attention of Facebook in a big way. No less than your company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has come visiting, leaving the question as to what this magnet is.
The leadership that Kenya has in Africa when it comes to all things technology is amazing, and it is not by chance that Kenya is referred as technology hub of Africa.
Look at the digital policies, technology in place affecting various industries whether it is agriculture, health and banking. The last time I visited there were government plans to establish hotspots everywhere in the country.
There is a lot of thought that has gone into how important technology is in terms of empowering Kenyan citizens. This excites us and we want to be part of it.
We have not come in because we think that we can do it better, we want to be part of that journey. Kenya remains one of the few countries in Africa that have gone digital and recognised the importance of technology to the economy.
Facebook has over the years campaigned for a more connected world. Why is it so important to increase Internet penetration globally?
I have spent the last 15 years working in different markets in Africa like Nigeria, Ghana and DRC, and when I compare how things used to be in the past and now, there has been a great change.
There is no doubt that the impact Internet has had is quite significant. And it is not just people being able to connect, small businesses use the Internet to grow, there is a lot more knowledge in the community now that is driving economic change as well.
A lot of debate on Net Neutrality followed Free Basics. Is Express Wifi an afterthought?
Not at all. Free Basics is successfully running in a number of countries today and making available information that was previously not obtainable. At Facebook, there are other opportunities and ideas we have and will execute as we go along.
Facebook has a pool of talent that keeps churning out new and exciting ideas, and so those that we have and will execute in future will not be in response to Free Basics. Each product is tailored to meet specific needs that Facebook feels need to be addressed.
The Express Wifi project kicked off in Nairobi more than a year and a half ago. What did it take to actualise the project?
We embarked on this project 18 months ago, when we partnered with a local operator to actualise it. The operator did a pilot project and confirmed its viability. We are now rolling out the service commercially.
We partner with local operators because they understand the market dynamics better. They also get to set the consumer prices of the Internet but have to ensure that they remain affordable to the locals.
The point is that we do not have exclusivity but have a huge task of reaching out to four billion people around the world. If we find another operator that can work with us, we will partner with them as well.
What is Facebook’s game plan in this Internet-for-all crusade?
What we want is to broaden connectivity, something that I am so passionate about too. The task of getting the world connected is one per cent done and we still have a long way to go because four billion people have no access to the Internet.
In Kenya, we are driving affordability through Express Wifi. We are making investments in infrastructure and software in order to reach more people.
We have a lot of projects that speak to this course, for instance, the Voyager project in Uganda. We plan to go to Tanzania and Nigeria later on.
How do you identify local partners?
When it comes to identifying local partners we are keen to link up with firms that share the same values and goals. We work with partners that are equally passionate about what we want to achieve.
We do not dictate what the price will be because the operators are best placed understand the economics. We do not get involved in pricing but affordability remains a key factor just to make sure that the agenda of getting more people online is realised.
They have to demonstrate how they are going to bring in more people online.
The coverage per hotspot remains 250-metre radius. Are there plans to increase this?
When embarking on a project, we first have to ensure that it is sustainable. We are investing to ensure successful rollout.
Our investment comes in the form of software and hardware to ensure smooth rollout and continued expansion, so we are trying to do that.
Coming up with ways to cover more people in an area is still part of our agenda and we will be looking into ways of expanding coverage and driving Internet penetration.