Balancing Act (London)

5 July 2013

Africa: Hunting Africa's Newest Holy Grail - an Affordable Internet and Content Device for the Home

London — Up until now, the focus has largely been on seeing how the price of mobile phones (whether smart or feature phones) can come down to open access to different content and services to wider numbers of people. But the new Holy Grail is finding a cheap household or "on-the-go" device that can deliver both Internet and VoD content to households. Russell Southwood looks at the kind of projects that are coming forward to tackle this need.

Whatever anyone tells you, Africans buy content. Go anywhere in an African city and you will find a market stall or small shop selling DVDs and VCDs. Take Kenya, for example, pirated DVDs sell for between US46-57 cents a copy and large numbers of people spend several dollars every month on this form of entertainment. The same is true for music DVDs. Even the most remote villages get DVD shops the moment electricity arrives.

A pirate market is simply one that functions at a level people can afford (remember the grey market in VoIP calling) not the one that suits the rights holders. So the commercial challenge is to be able to deliver both Internet and VoD content that works within these spending parameters.

In small markets, the cost of rolling out fibre to households is enormous so there is a "chicken-and-egg" barrier: the market is too small so there can never be sufficient "critical mass" to get prices to a level that is affordable so the market stays small.

However, even in places like Kenya, the practical challenges of delivering VoD content have left some of the best minds in disarray. Jamii Telecom may have built a fibre network and connected people with Fibre-To-The-Home but they have not yet created a convincing VoD content bundle to make use of it.

Enter stage left one of Kenya's bountiful supply of small entrepreneurs, Kahenya Kimunyu, CEO and Founder of Able Wireless. He has created a modified Raspberry Pi with inbuilt wireless access (via Wi-Fi on 802.11G) that can give Internet access to two devices in a household.

His vision is to get local franchisees to put up local wireless aerials that will service several households locally. Each aerial will be able to service 20-25 people. The aim is to sell the box for KS500 (US$5.73) and to charge the same amount for an unlimited content service. He is looking to launch in November 2013 and reckons that it will be possible to get to 20,000 people by the end of year one.

The weakest part of his launch narrative so far is the content piece:"We'll work with anyone who will offer a revenue share and our terms are generous." He has one or two aces in his hand he can't yet talk about but thus far the content is mainly low cards. A streamed channel of Al Jazeera, curated local You Tube content and the possibility of other local content providers coming in:"We want to get the kind of content people are currently buying at pirate DVD shops." He may yet solve the content problem so let's not judge too early in the process.

Another example of a different approach is a project at the "We"nnovation Hub in Lagos. One of its members has designed a piece of hardwire to use Wi-Fi and it can create its own network (within an area like a neighbourhood or a school) that can hold a digital library of content. It would allow users to stream content locally but have digital rights management that prevented piracy and it can be operated just within a local network.

These projects represent are just two examples of the kind of low-end, hybrid content delivery plays that people have talked about to me. They may not succeed but they are an attempt to find a way that suits the local context at a price people are already affording. One day soon maybe one of them will succeed...

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