All aboard for free Wi-Fi: How companies are trying to connect Africa's unconnected

This information provided by Smart Cities Council Compassionate Cities.
Wed, 2014-04-16 06:00 -- Liz Enbysk

Only about 16% of Africa's one billion people use the Internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a Council Advisor. But the ITU says Africa is the fastest-growing region for accessing the Internet via mobile phone with 16% growth in 2013 compared to just 2% in 2010.

Private minibuses, or matatus, are how many in Africa commute to work.So the potential – and the challenge – of bringing the region's price-sensitive consumers online are not lost on telecoms and other tech companies flocking to the region.

A fascinating story in the Wall Street Journal describes how Kenya-based telecom Safaricom is using free Wi-Fi on thousands of the private minibuses – matatus in Swahili – that African commuters use to and from work. The idea is that tech novices mingling with tech aficionados who are using the free Wi-Fi to pass the time during long commutes will entice more people to sign up for its paid services.

"We looked at where our [potential] customers were, and they were in the matatus. Most of our customers spend two or three hours commuting every day," Gideon Karimi, who oversees Internet marketing for Safaricom, told WSJ. The matatu owners get the equipment for free and Safaricom charges them a discounted monthly data rate. According to the WSJ story, matatu owners see it as money well-spent due to the increased ridership.

The telecom uses TV and radio commercials and flyers to explain the advantages of the Internet – from free services like Facebook and web-based email to being able to find soccer scores or farming advice.

But getting Africans connected is one piece of a much larger technology challenge. The big picture challenge is preparing African cities for massive urbanization – which some estimate could be as high as 85% for some of them in the next 15 years.

Council Partners accept the challenge

IBM opened its research center in Nairobi in 2013.Toward that end, late last year Council Global Partner IBM, with the support of the Kenyan government, opened a research lab in Nairobi where it will work with local organizations to identify solutions to Africa's most pressing challenges --energy, water, transportation, agriculture, healthcare, financial inclusion and public safety among them.

“My government is proud that Kenya, and indeed Africa, will benefit from the presence of one of the most advanced research facilities, with some of the world’s most talented people, using some of the most powerful technologies to develop solutions for some of Africa's most intractable problems," said His Excellency, the President of Kenya, Hon. Uhuru Kenyatta on the opening of the facility.

In a recent interview with IT News Africa, Cisco VP for Africa David Meads talked about the work his company – also a Council Global Partner -- is doing in Africa where it has a presence today in 11 countries.

Meads noted that broadband penetration and education are major issues in Africa.

“You have to level the playing field with broadband, and education is still a major challenge," he told IT News Africa. "Our strategy is to work with service providers and infrastructure to push on both ends. Our vision is to connect on the continent and so that it becomes more productive. Coupled with that, the standard of living increases, and then it starts to become realized.”

Cisco is also involved on the education end. Meads says the company started a Networking Academy in Africa in about 1998 and today has 790 of them across the continent, training students in basic ICT skills on up through upper-level training that includes Cisco accreditation.

Council Global Partner Bechtel is working with the government of Gabon in Central Africa to drive a three-pronged strategy aimed at the sustainable development of industry, provision of services, and “greening Gabon” for the country’s economic and social growth.

The master plan in Gabon focuses on mid- to long-term infrastructure strategies and includes such major sectors as transportation, facilities, housing, energy and waste management.

Bechtel is also working with Engineers Without Borders-UK on a "Building Africa through infrastructure" competition that offers students interested in careers in infrastructure, engineering and construction a chance to win a paid, four-week internship with Bechtel including time working on an active project.

Just last month MasterCard, which is also a Council Global Partner, announced it had extended its presence to 48 of the 55 markets that make up the continent, where it is working with African government officials, central banks, mobile network operators, retailers and other stakeholders to contribute to the building of robust electronic payments ecosystems that support the region's potential for economic transformation.

“Africa’s ongoing economic development, steady population growth and encouraging political outlook means that there is an increasing need for innovative and secure payment solutions that address market needs,” said Michael Miebach, Middle East and Africa President at MasterCard “The continent has immense strategic importance to MasterCard and we will continue to invest in infrastructure, people and know-how in this part of the world. This has been the fastest growing area for MasterCard for the past few years, and we expect it to continue to register high growth.”

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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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