Kenya’s low cost data operator poa! Internet moves from soft launch in Kibera to hard launch and will roll out nationally and in East Africa

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Last May poa! Internet  (formerly Argon began its soft launch in Kenya’s high-profile slum district Kibera. Now the service is bedded down, it’s moving to its hard launch there and getting read to roll out nationally. Russell Southwood spoke to one of its co-founders Andy Halsall.

At the beginning of September poa! Internet began to ramp up its sales and marketing activity. It now offers access all over Kibera with 55 access points with Wi-Fi hot-spots. If slums could be celebrities then Kibera is Kenya’s celebrity slum. This city within a city has – with some nearby rural edge of city areas – a population of 3.1 million.

It sells Internet bundles that range in price from KS10 (US1 cent) to KS3,000 (US$29.11), although the majority of bundles it sells vary from KS10-KS100 (US97 cents):”Our focus is on low-income communities. We’re not going to places like Karen and Lavington (Nairobi high-end suburbs). We’ll be going to other places like Kibera but although low income, they may be more developed than Kibera. That’s the gap we see in the market.”

Most of the Wi-Fi technology used has been “off-the-shelf. There are good companies with good equipment out there.” The wireless access units cost “a few hundred dollars” and they are installed on buildings in sight of the community. To get the coverage required, there will be a large number. To ensure a lower level of vandalism, they have been sited in community locations like schools, churches, mosques and NGO offices:”We hope to give community locations a certain amount of free Internet access for hosting the equipment.”

One of several social benefits from this network roll-out is that through a combination of lower pricing and free content it hopes to encourage greater online content use by Kibera’s residents. This includes both stuff that does you good (for example, health and jobs information) and stuff for enjoyment (For example, entertainment). The free content is delivered through a small walled garden on the network and in combination with the promised lower data prices for looking at content more widely. In the future, it’s looking to add value-added services to this free content bundle.

So what’s the emerging pattern of content consumption?:”In terms of the free content, it’s split between some of the socially impactful stuff and more traditional entertainment, especially football. Once people connect to the Internet beyond our content, it’s not radically different from a Western profile: Facebook, WhatsApp. Twitter, Instagram and Google. There’s a little less of You Tube and streaming services.”

Perhaps more interesting are the types of devices used by people living and working in Kibera:”Again they split into two part. Firstly, what are known locally as China phones: cheap Android devices that sell for US$30-40. Secondly, there are high-end devices like Apples and Samsungs, old models that are either secondhand or have been passed down by their original owners.”

So how has the Wi-Fi technology model deployed held up in real-life market conditions?:”It’s been holding up fantastically, certainly better than we hoped for. There is practically no downtime and very little latency. It’s held up like an absolute champion. There are things we can do to improve it and we’re going to do them.”

So what of future plans? It plans to roll out more networks (in single figures) in Nairobi over the next few months:”Once it’s happily bedded down, we’ll roll out across Kenya and other countries across East Africa.” The current network is connected fairly conventionally by fibre to a local data centre and out into the world. But its nationwide roll-outs will go beyond existing fibre networks:”We want to make sure that everyone can get access to the network so we’re working on product extensions.”

In terms of funding, poa! Internet has closed two tranches of Series A funding with Novastar Ventures for “several million dollars” and is looking to get more funding from Biscayne Investment, a fund with a strong relationship with Cisco:”We’re developing a relationship with Cisco and they’re hoping to learn from what we’re doing how they can change their products for local markets like ours.”

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