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

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HEIDI VOGT CONNECT April 13, 2014
NAIROBI, Kenya

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.


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