Tech Companies Reach Out To Africa’s Bottom Billion With Free Wi-Fi

Tech Companies Reach Out To Africa’s Bottom Billion With Free Wi-Fi

Written by Heidi Vogt | From WSJ

As young pitchmen shout to potential passengers over blaring music, a graffiti-covered private minibus fills up more quickly than the other dozen in the scrum. It has free Wi-Fi.

The specially outfitted matatu, as the minibuses are known in Swahili, is part of an experiment by Safaricom Ltd. to connect Africa’s unconnected, offering a glimpse of what it takes to bring some of the world’s most price-sensitive users online.

Once on board, Mwenda Kanyange updates his Facebook status and browses the Web for his hour long trip home through Nairobi’s traffic-clogged streets.

“It gets kind of boring,” the 23-year-old college student says, “Wi-Fi is good for that.”

Matatus with free Wi-Fi, like this one in Nairobi, fill up faster than others. The program covers about 3,000 matatus and buses nationwide. Sven Torfinn for The Wall Street

Tech companies world-wide are trying to reach billions of people just beyond the middle class, and many of them are in Africa. Only about 16% of Africa’s one billion people use the Internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union industry group. That is well behind Asia, with 32%, and Arab states, with 38%.

But Africa is the fastest-growing region for accessing the Internet by phone. Mobile-broadband penetration on the continent rose to 11% last year from 2% in 2010, the group says.

“The numbers can only move in one direction,” says Erik Hersman, who founded a Kenyan crowdsourcing site and a tech incubator here in the capital.

The key to unlocking that growth is discovering ways to bring the Internet to people for whom even phone calls can be too expensive.

Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and other companies are funding groups like the Alliance for Affordable Internet, which work to bring down the cost of getting online globally. Intel Corp. is working in Africa with phone manufacturers to bring down the price of smartphones running on Intel processors. IBM Corp. has opened a research center on the continent.

Read more at WSJ