Got my Moja working – BRCK’s free Wi-Fi service targets bus and matatu users in Nairobi and Kigali

2 November 2018

Top Story

Kenya’s growing number of data users tread a fine line between using free data and paying for access: they want the digital services that data brings but not the cost of being always connected with apps that are always updating. Russell Southwood spoke to Erik Hersman, CEO, BRCK about how its Moja service is trying to overcome some of these barriers.

Moja Wi-Fi is a free public wi-fi service focused on public transport and based around its SupaBRCK rugged router. The device can hold 3 SIM cards with support for both 4G LTE and 3G network. It connects users to the internet via Wi-Fi network, and the network can support up to 100 users simultaneously with no loss of quality.

SupaBRCK also has the content delivery network (CDN) capability, which allows companies or individuals where they can store their content locally. This setup reduces data cost as some of the content are stored locally on the device itself as opposed to downloading them from the internet.

This year Moja Wi-Fi has rolled out in Nairobi and Kigali. Anybody who gets on the bus or matatu can get connected. There are 850 hot-spots of which 750 in Nairobi and 100 in Kigali and there will be 400 more in Kigali in the next two months. There are a number of static SupaBRCK hot-spot locations.

It has 350,000 active users per month and the ratio of users between Nairobi and Kigali is three to one. Actives are anyone who has used the service in the last three months:”It’s always commuters and we know the demographic that rides and there’s an even split between males and females. They’re largely aged between 20-35.”

In Kigali it has a grant from the Government that covers the cost of the backhaul of a high-speed backhaul through KTRN. So how long do people spend on it on matatus? It varies depending on the traffic: 45-60 minutes on the busy Thika Road but only 10 minutes on the much improved Ngong Road.

In addition to the bus and matatu hot-spots, it has 1,000 nodes in static places like kiosks:”We find a kiosk or business owner who wants to be an agent. He or she provides the location and marketing. The financial incentives are based on user numbers. The average is 350 unique users per week but some have over 1,500. You need to hit about 200 per week to make it work.”

As Hersman sees it:”80% of people who have smartphones don’t pay for connectivity. We don’t target the people who pay. It’s people who want to catch up with the news or use WhatsApp.”.

The user has local access to a range of content loaded on the server and updated regularly. Facebook offers free updates to its app and they can access loans from local online start-up loan company Tula. There are TV shows, books, music and music videos:”We local cache hyper locally.” The content offered includes Yes TV and the locally popular Shamba Shape Up. Games content is also on its way.

The top sites used are Google, Facebook and WhatsApp and lower down the pecking order there are things like biNu, Opera and You Tube. Interestingly, there is nothing local in the Top 25 websites used. The users are largely on Andriod phones using apps but there are some tablet users:”You can run the Opera browser on an Andriod phone.”

So how does the business model work?:”SupaBRCK is a micro data centre so we’re not your typical Wi-Fi provider. We’ve signed deals with Facebook (to allow users to update their apps) and Tala (a mobile loans company). For Facebook, we make the app updates available from the local node. Previously the updates were 250 MB every two weeks. Now they can update for free and it’s very fast.”

The other line of approach for generating income from content:”We’re looking at people who would pay us to have content on there or pay for content and we distribute it”. It wants to find people who want to get advertising messages to this group of people and offer deals where you listen to an ad message to download attractive content.

“We’re looking for shorter form content, 5-15 minutes because people on public transport might change if they get into static locations. In these circumstances, people wish they could take (the content they’re watching) with them. That’s the next step and we’re working on it so that they can keep it for 48 hours. You can start it on the matatu and finish it at home.”

BRCK (which employs 60 people) does both the hardware assembly for the device and its software:”We’re vertically integrated because we have to be and it derisks the process. We’re nimble and we can get stuff to do what we want it to do.” It’s no longer selling BRCK products:”Moja is what BRCK does these days.”

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