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MainOne: 10 years building West Africa's internet infrastructure
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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Narrator: In 2008, Funke Opeke, a former executive with Verizon Communications in the USA had a vision.

She had just moved back to Nigeria three years earlier and, while working with MTN Nigeria, one of the country’s leading telecommunications companies, she noticed the low internet penetration in the country. Internet cafes were popular but very few smartphones were available.

Her plan? To bridge the digital divide in West Africa with the provision of enabling infrastructure. That vision gave birth to MainOne, one of Africa’s biggest telecom infrastructure providers.

In this episode of Built In Africa, Funke takes us 10 years inside MainOne’s journey of building West Africa’s Internet infrastructure

On Thursday, July 1, 2010, MainOne officially launched the first ever private submarine cable in West Africa. 10 years on, Funke Opeke looks back at that moment in time with fondness.

Funke Opeke: “Putting a cable in operation 10 years ago today. First private cable, on time, on budget, we were a startup company. It was a big bet and we succeeded. So, yeah, that was a high moment”

Narrator: The launch heralded a massive boost to Internet speeds in the country. With a large presence in Lagos, one could draw links between the rise in Internet speeds and the proliferation of startups in the city.

Funke Opeke: “You kinda look back and see what’s happening with startups in Yaba, and the entire tech space in Lagos. Each time any of the founders reaches out and I see the appreciation, the recognition of what we have done, that truly touches me because I feel like I’ve really made an impact, helping people achieve their dreams”

Narrator: For Funke, the rising levels of Internet penetration in Nigeria, being invited to chair the Nigerian National Broadband Plan 2020 – 2025, and the White House invitation to discuss Internet connectivity for the globe and to unserved populations in Africa, show admirable level of recognition for the company’s work.

But the journey hasn’t been without its fair share of challenges

Funke Opeke: “MainOne has been more successful in having impact than we have been commercially successful. A lot of people don’t realise that “

Narrator: One of the biggest challenges has been raising funds in such a capital-intensive endeavour as telecommunications. 

Funke Opeke: “We capitalised the company with $240m to start and it takes significant amounts to run this infrastructure and keep it performing at a world-class standard while continuing to invest in local distribution, infrastructure, and data centres”

Narrator: Of course, like every company with a base in Nigeria, stable power is also an issue

According to Funke, MainOne has invested a lot in power. With privatisation, they were able to make a private connection to the national grid. This meant they’ve had better power than most.

Despite this, the company’s distributed operations still face the same power challenges as others. Apparently, they still have to invest in backup power, colocation facilities, and other power solutions.

Besides the working environment’s challenges, she still looks back on the company’s impact with some longing.

Funke Opeke: “I look back and I never imagined that ten years after we launched, every school in Nigeria would still not have access to the Internet. What does that say about us as a society, about how much value we place on the education of our young people? So those kinds of things are still low moments for me, to see how far we’ve come and how much there is still to do

Narrator: When the MainOne cable was first laid in 2010,  the concept of private submarine cables was very new to a lot of regulators. Though the company was in a hurry to bring Internet access, they could not secure the permits to connect the countries along the way, between Nigeria and Europe. But they found a way to solve this

Funke Opeke: “So we put up branching units which are just connectors on the cable, which we could extend to those markets. As we continued exploring the opportunities, a fabulous one came up with Orange, which was already present in 2 markets as a major provider, to expand their international capacity.

And it just made sense commercially, business-wise and also we had a good technical, compelling solution for them. It was a win-win for both sides. We gave them access to additional cables, they gave us access to new markets to bring more traffic onto our cable which is still not fully utilised.”

Narrator: In November 2019, MainOne expanded its submarine cable to Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal in partnership with French telecom company Orange Group. A move Funke says was in line with the company’s vision for the west coast of Africa.

MainOne is looking at more expansions in Africa and has recently signed an agreement to extend its services to Burkina Faso.

Funke Opeke: We just recently signed an agreement to extend services into Burkina Faso. We continue looking at extending services into more land-locked countries, taking more capacity in there, investing with our partners in infrastructure to do that. 

And also, entering into a market does not necessarily make the traffic happen overnight. So, you have to continue taking all the necessary steps into connecting various networks, bringing people onto the backbone, so to speak, so that they can actually get access to services.

Narrator: Also, MainOne has struck a partnership with Vertiv for the expansion of its data centre services.

So, what does the future hold for MainOne?

Funke Opeke: “We stepped up the data centre business and we’ll continue to invest. We are building a data centre in Ghana as we speak. We’ll expand our data centre footprint in Lekki, Nigeria. 

We are starting to look at development of a data centre property we acquired in Sagamu. We will likely expand our data centre in Côte d’Ivoire. So, expanding our services across regions, delivering more managed services to large enterprises. What we see, especially post-COVID, is that everyone is trying to reduce the operational intensity of their business. They can offload those infrastructure services to us, so we’ll continue to grow there.”

Narrator: And how about that possibly overdue IPO?

Funke Opeke: “Um.. you’ll have to ask the shareholders [laughs]… It’s not a time to go public anyway”

Narrator: Of course, MainOne still has a lot to do. Africa still has a long way to go in deepening its Internet penetration to unserved and underserved areas of Nigeria, and MainOne looks set to be a big part of that future.

Thank you for listening to the Built In Africa podcast.

This script was adapted by Muyiwa Matuluko

Research and interview by Emmanuel Paul

Sound design by Oghenekaro Obrutu

This is a production of Techpoint Africa

I am Emmanuel Paul

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