Nestled in the heart of Githurai 44 estate, about 20 kilometers from the city centre of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, is a buzzing IT hub making waves within the community and beyond.
The hub is owned and run by the Ahadi Corporation, a company founded by Tao Zhou in early 2018 with the aim of building the world’s largest last-mile Wi-Fi broadband network in Africa to deliver affordable internet services.
The target market is low and lower middle-income residents, who form a significant portion of the population and struggle to afford the high cost of internet services despite their desire to be part of the ever-expanding digital world.
Africa has extremely low 4G and fixed broadband penetration, exacerbated by the highest cost of network in the world. Mobile data usage per subscriber per month is only 0.8GB in Sub-Saharan Africa, compared to the world average of 7.5GB. Consequently, the continent’s internet economy falls far behind the rest of the world despite a massive young population.
Zhou said after a painstaking process that took about two years, a solution was found and the project (Konnect Internet) took off in early 2020 in two areas: Githurai 44 and neighbouring Zimmerman.
The project has taken off well bringing in close to 45,000 users so far in both the densely-populated communities which roughly host at least 240,000 people.
“I am sure you are familiar with the internet services here, especially for the people around here, the affordability is the biggest problem. There are still so many young people using (data) bundles to get there and it is never satisfying,” Zhou told CGTN Africa.
“We have found a real practical solution that allows us to provide affordable and fast internet to dozens of thousands of people. This is just the beginning. I am proud we have taken the first step and there are many more to come.”
The tech-preneur said the issue of affordability and reliability of internet services came to the fore especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when several services and operations, like learning and certain office duties, moved online.
Signing up to Konnect Internet individuals pay Sh20 ($0.18) per hour, Sh70 ($0.65) daily, Sh350 ($3.23) weekly and between Sh1,000 ($9.24) and Sh2,000 ($18.47) every month to access the internet.
Zhou said the timely entry of the Konnect Project helped several households adapt to the situation and not be left behind as digital services took prominence for the better part of the last year or so.
“At the end of the day, it is not only the cost, it is also the flexibility of paying. Most of our clients are not monthly users, they are daily users. Many of them choose to pay Sh70 a day for, at least, 25 days out of 30,” he said.
Zhou, however, acknowledged that low prices should not deceive anyone about the quality of services offered as the internet speeds are quite fast of up to 8mbps per device.
The Konnect Project hopes to complete coverage of 3,000 buildings in eight communities by the end of 2021, serving at least 200,000 residents, and, in the next five to six years, have a presence in the majority of Kenyan suburbs.
The next community they expect to connect is the neighbouring Githurai 45 estate which, according to Zhou’s estimate, has more people than Githurai 44 and Zimmerman.
“The internet economy of Africa is less than seven percent of the world market and the population of Africa is almost a fifth of the world population. Obviously, there is so much room (to grow) and that gives us a very strong reason to stay here and grow for many years,” Zhou said during an interview.
Powering Ahadi Corporation’s ambitious drive is China Telecom (Kenya) Limited, a strategic partner and primary internet backbone provider for the Konnect project.
China Telecom has also helped the firm build local points of presence (POPs) or network connection points and local data centres.
According to Zhou, there is a plan “in the near future” to offer an internet-based TV service among others with the continued cooperation of China Telecom.
There are a few minor challenges facing the project, especially the occasional interruption of power supply, which is an issue countrywide, but Zhou said his team sought to address this problem.
“In our server room, even within the community, we have transmitters powered by UPS (uninterrupted power supply). The UPS can allow working to continue for six to eight hours and, if within that time, the power does not come back, we have generators.”
“We also like to deploy solars which not only helps reduce the cost of electricity but also helps with the continuity. During the nighttime, we have batteries.”
The project has not only brought internet access to thousands of people but there have been other socioeconomic benefits to the communities.
Dozens of people have been employed, either permanently or on contract basis, to ensure the smooth running of the project and 24/7 onsite support.
“We need to employ about 20 field technicians doing the deployment work and another 20 sales agents who negotiate with the building owners, sign on new customers and provide customer service. That is a benefit,” he added.
The project has also seen the establishment of “value-added services”, namely, community and learning centres. The community centres, which are three and known as Konnect Hubs, are aimed at providing services and working spaces for freelancers, creatives and the youth in general at a small fee.
“We are putting a co-working space within the community so the young people do not need to spend extra money and struggle with traffic for a few hours a day to get to the other side (of the city),” Zhou noted.
Under the Konnect School program, volunteer teachers from China, the U.S. and Kenya, specializing in English literature and math, have been recruited and children, aged between four and 15, within the community have been invited to take online classes in a digital learning environment.
Though the program is less than three months old, it has proved to be quite popular with several parents making requests to sign up their children.
Ahadi also launched some programs to improve the good images of talents and communities. One of them is Project ASH (African Silences, Heard!), a series of short films collecting and sharing real stories from all walks of life in Africa which would ordinarily not be broadcast on mainstream media.
“At the end of the day, we are not just providing affordable internet but we are building a very basic service, the internet as a tool, to promote the opportunities on top of the infrastructure. The idea of ‘Konnect’ is not just connecting with the internet but connecting with people in the community and outside the community.