Kooba set to become the first carrier-independent data centre in East Africa – Will target international content companies

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South Africa has had an independent data centre company (Teraco) and Nigeria has one as well (Rack) but until now there has not been one in East Africa. This will all change in Q1 2016 when Kooba launches its first data centre in Mombasa. Russell Southwood spoke to Kooba’s founder and CEO Richard Bell about what he’s got planned.

Founder of Kooba Richard Bell is a long-time veteran of the tech industry in Kenya and East Africa. He launched one of the first East African ISPs Swift and subsequently grew KDN. While at KDN he built a data centre at Park Side Towers which he says was way ahead of its time.:”It took years to fill the 20 racks or so it was offering.” After KDN, he then did an MBA at the London Business School before coming back as an investor in Wananchi (through East Africa Capital Partners), where he ended up doing a stint as interim CEO.

“Wananchi’s now fully financed with the US$100 million input at the end of last year. I don’t have control any more but I have a partner who sits on the Board. I’ve been working on this data centre company for the last 12 months and I decided I would quite like to run a business again.”

Kooba has “just pressed the button” on its first facility, a data centre in Mombasa that will open in Q1 2016:”It will connect to the IXP in Nairobi so content will be easily accessible”. In Q2 2016 it will develop a campus with a data centre outside Nairobi near Limuru.

The Mombasa facility will be developed in three phases up to 1500 sq mtrs with 6MW of power. The first phase will be 500 sq mtrs with 2MW of power:”We’ve made a huge investment in the power supply because the big boys are pretty demanding. There are two separate 33 kilowatt lines from two different power stations. We own our own sub-station and will step it (the power supply) down ourselves. On top of that it has all the generators and UPS needed.”

Kenya’s power supply position has gone from “a generation deficiency to a generation supply surplus. Distribution is now the problem.”

“We faced a similar situation to what Teraco faced in South Africa except the transition (to cloud services and the like) has been much more compressed. In order to get the data centres moving and localised, we had to start in Mombasa where the cables land. Eventually there will be a greater demand from local users in Greater Nairobi”

“We don’t want to build a data centre in the centre of the city hence the campus approach, a large facility towards Limuru where there’s more space and it’s cooler. We’ll start by building 500 sq mtrs ourselves and the expectation is that over 5 years it will grow to 3,000 sq mtrs. There will also be space for people to build their own data centre facilities and offices for disaster recovery.”

So why would a customer go to Kooba rather than to a carrier they already do business with?:”If you look at the top 10 data centres globally, there’s not a single one that is operated by a carrier. Customers like carrier neutrality. There are also the arguments for net neutrality. International content providers want to localise and they want an independent data centre for that task.”

The trust factor is a pretty large part of getting a functioning independent data centre going and here the signs look good. Bell points to a discussion amongst Kenyan banks that they want to outsource and that data centres are not part of their core business:”They want to get costs down and efficiencies up.”

The key clients it is targeting are global content partners:”I can’t mention names but discussions are well advanced. It will create a sea change in terms of serving local content. That will have a major impact across the whole scene. Local latencies will go down and speeds will go up.” It will also be going after local banks and other large-scale companies offering disaster recovery services.

In terms of the geographic reach of the company’s services, he is focused on Greater East Africa:”We were looking at having a facility in Dar but we’ve put that on the backburner. We want to see what happens with the elections. Tanzania is a disaster because of the national backbone. If the election results in the opening up of the long-distance capacity, we’ll go there but at the moment Tanzania is a bottleneck.” It would also like to offer links to Kampala and Kigali to offer services to local businesses there:”We want to see how business ramps up first.”

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