Kenyan Public WiFi Sensation BRCK Launches In South Africa
22 November 2019
Internet provider BRCK is launching its free internet service in South Africa, having expanded this year to become the largest supplier of public WiFi in Sub-Saharan Africa.
BRCK CEO Erik Hersman made the announcement at the AfricaCom conference in Cape Town, which is the largest telecoms industry conference in Africa.
"I'm excited to be back in South Africa, where the idea for BRCK began, and excited to be bringing equitable internet to South Africa as we have in Kenya," he told me.
Part of this excitement, he says, is because the country has "the most developed country on the continent and represents a business customer market that is a lot further along. At the same time there’s a vast number of South Africans with smartphones who can’t afford the internet costs, so there seems to be a perfect storm for Moja WiFi to operate in."
BRCK is a remarkable Kenyan company that is bringing internet access to East Africa. Earlier this year it acquired Surf, another internet provider, to become the largest public WiFi network in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is currently in 2,700 locations in East Africa and has 700,000 monthly active unique visitors.
"More than 7 million sessions each month means that we’re providing a much-needed service to a market in need of real answers," he says.
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BRCK was formed in 2013 by some of the co-founders of Ushahidi and Nairobi's iHub as a means of countering Kenya's notorious power failures with a ruggedized portable hotspot, called BRCK v1. It expanded into education with its Kio Kit that brought multimedia video education into classroom across East Africa. In 2017 it launched a smart system called SupaBRCK which aimed to solve the lack of internet access in Africa by bringing the internet to rural villages. Moja is the operating system and ecosystem that runs the BRCK devices, and provides added value for users.
Although many companies provide internet access – and Google Station launched in Cape Town a week before – BRCK is vastly different because of the Moja business model which gives free internet access.
"We work from where the African internet user is, not where we wish they were," says Hersman. "We understand that their wallets are rigid and that they cannot pay, therefore our business model is setup to make our revenue from our business customers and instead have our users earn their internet with time, not money."
SupaBRCK devices are fitted to taxis in Kenya, known as matatu, and provide internet access for commuters, amongst other public spaces.
"Moja differs from other public WiFi as it is free for the consumer. They don’t need to pay anything to get online or to access premium content. While most just try to charge less for their service, at BRCK we realized that there just wasn’t the ability for the majority of smartphone owners in Africa to pay at all.
"The uniqueness of Moja is found in a business model that monetized people’s abundance of time and subsidizes that internet connection with our business customers connecting to our user with some form of digital work.
"Moja monetizes people’s time, and creates a marketplace for them to use that value that they’ve earned for internet, subscriptions for premium content, and even services like insurance. This will only continue to grow as the network and Moja platform proliferates across South Africa."
For Hersman, it's poignant that the announcement was made at AfricaCom because he had the original idea while travelling back to Kenya after attending the conference in 2011.
"As I was leaving Cape Town to head back to Nairobi that I had a conversation that would change the trajectory of my life," he told me. His friend Henk Kleynhans whose startup SkyRove that created software for hotels, cafes and restaurants to get their customers online.
"On the flight home that evening I was sitting on the airplane and I couldn’t stop thinking of a specific problem, which was why we were using routers and modems not designed for our African context, and started to wonder if we could build something better."
With no battery left in his laptop or smartphone, Hersman sketched ideas in his paper notepad, envisaging a brick-sized form, with a big battery and redundant SIM for when the ethernet access went down. "It was simple, and I called it BRCK."
South Africa is an interesting market with a wide swath of smartphone users, many who cannot afford data bundles, but is mixed with a more mature business market than is found in any other African country.
"We’re already inking deals with some great FMCG suppliers, banks, and insurance companies."
But importantly, he says, Moja is supporting African creatives. "We’re onboarding more of the top-level content creators from this hotbed of talent. With Moja I think we’ve finally found a way to connect Africans to the internet, and a way to monetize Africa’s content creators."