Using Free Wi-Fi to Connect Africa’s Unconnected

The Wall Street Journal

Kenya’s Safaricom Outfits City Buses, Rural Markets to Get Consumers Hooked on Mobile Internet



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.

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.