After a surprise Nigeria visit to meet with techies in Lagos, Mark Zuckerberg took his Africa tour to Kenya this Thursday. There, the Facebook CEO visited the iHub innovation space, reviewed the BRCK mobile Wi-Fi device, had lunch with Kenyan ICT Cabinet Secretary Joseph Mucheru and met with tech leaders Juliana Rotich and Erik Hersman.
Like the Lagos expedition, the trip was unannounced. “Originally, we knew that Facebook’s Ime Archibong was coming in,” said Hersman (a co-founder of iHub), “but we didn’t know about Mark’s visit until the last minute.” Archibong is Facebook’s Strategic Partnerships Director.
Though no formal business commitments are planned on Zuckerberg’s first Kenya visit (something Facebook reps confirmed to TechCrunch), Hersman believes it is likely a precursor.
“Look, these meetings in Nigeria and Kenya, it’s largely PR for everybody right now,” he said. “However, from the interactions I saw…between Facebook’s team and different people within the tech community, I think there’s going to be some real stuff happening soon.”
While Zuckberg’s Nigeria visit was less anticipated — given the country only recently registered in global tech news — his dropping in on Kenya is less of a surprise.
The East African nation of 44 million has become the continent’s unofficial tech capital, dubbed “Silicon Savannah” for its advances in digital finance, tech incubators and local IT innovations such as BRCK and the Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform.
Local telco Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile money product is globally recognized. The company has used its mobile infrastructure to innovate a number of digital products, including solar electricity (M-Kopa), online TV and the recent launch of its M-Pesa integrated ride-hail app (Little), an Uber competitor.
The Kenyan government, which established an ICT authority, is one of the continent’s more proactive in supporting its tech ecosystem. And iHub helped spur Africa’s tech incubator movement, which now includes more than 300 innovation spaces across the continent, according to a recent GSMA survey.
From a tech perspective, Zuckberberg’s decision to visit Nairobi is relatively straightforward. Two initiatives he focused on were the BRCK venture and digital prototype startup Gearbox, both outgrowths of the iHub infrastructure Erik Hersman and Juliana Rotich established in 2010. BRCK developed in response to local IT challenges of poor net connectivity and electricity.
The solar-powered BRCK Wi-Fi product (about the size of an actual brick) provides device charging capabilities, 3G and 4G internet for up to 20 connections and now ships to over 60 countries. “He got a demo of the next generation BRCK device, and was pretty intrigued by our Kio devices,” said Hersman, referring to BRCK’s educational tablet for primary school students.
Zuckerberg also reviewed the Gearbox-supported Strauss solar energy panel and PayGo Energy home cooking product. “He was really interested in the integration of M-Pesa into other services,” said Hersman, noting the PayGo product allows Kenyans to finance the kit using mobile phones and M-Pesa mobile payments.
Zuckerberg’s Nigeria and Kenya trips coincide with Facebook’s expanding Africa presence and the continent’s growing digital profile. Facebook has 84 million users in Sub-Saharan Africa, 17 million in Nigeria, 14 million in South Africa and 5.7 million in Kenya, according to spokesperson Sally Aldous.
As previously reported, a particular Facebook Africa play will be tapping the online advertising market that’s rising with the continent’s shift to digital commerce, expected to reach $75 billion by 2025.
Facebook opened its first Africa office in South Africa in 2015, appointing Ogilvy and Mather advertising executive Nunu Ntshingila as Head of Africa. In Kenya, the company has provided financial support to iHub events and workshops (Erik Hersman confirmed).
Kenya is also one of Facebook’s Internet.org Free Basics countries, a program that allows users on Airtel networks to access limited internet services free on mobile. Facebook’s commitment to connect more Africans to the internet suffered a bit of a setback Thursday when the SpaceX rocket carrying the company’s Amos-6 satellite exploded pre-launch.
As for what to expect from Facebook in Africa after Zuckerberg’s trip, company reps would not provide details. iHub, Gearbox and BRCK co-founder Erik Hersman sees possibilities to upgrade Facebook’s connectivity efforts, “Free Basics is growing but it’s still not the open internet,” he said. “There could be an opportunity to open it up around a business model that works.”
Hersman also believes the Facebook CEO’s visit will also draw more attention to Africa from Silicon Valley. “He could have just visited South Africa, which is what more people would have expected,” he said. “Visiting Nigeria and Kenya sends a message that could get other global tech players off the sidelines. If Facebook is putting some time, interest, and money into these markets others will definitely pay attention.”