x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Dubai offers internet leap for Africa

A Dubai-based company plans to roll out 5,000 internet kiosks in Africa and beyond, and has signed a connection deal with Abu Dhabi satellite firm Yahsat.

Intersat Africa staff work on a rural internet kiosk that would be deployed in countries such as Kenya and Uganda. Silvia Razgova / The National
Intersat Africa staff work on a rural internet kiosk that would be deployed in countries such as Kenya and Uganda. Silvia Razgova / The National

A Dubai company plans to roll out 5,000 internet kiosks in Africa and the Middle East, and has signed a connection deal with the Abu Dhabi satellite operator Yahsat.

Intersat Africa says its solar-powered kiosks, which cost upwards of US$9,900 (Dh36,362), will bring internet connectivity to rural Africa and provide jobs in some of the most impoverished areas of the continent.

Features of Rural Internet Kiosk include internet access, a mobile-phone charging station, advertising screens and a photo booth. The company hopes to deploy kiosks across the continent.

Intersat Africa was one of the first companies to partner with Yahsat, signing a deal with the Abu Dhabi company in 2009. It will resell consumer internet packages once Yahsat's second satellite, which will facilitate consumer broadband services, is launched at the end of this year.

Under an extension of the 2009 partnership agreed this year, Intersat Africa will also build thousands of kiosks that will be connected to the internet via Yahsat's satellite.

"We have a roll-out plan for the first phase of at least 5,000 by the end of next year," said Abdul Bakhrani, the chief executive of Intersat Africa. "We are taking the internet to the grassroots."

There are also plans to launch the kiosks in Afghanistan and the company is looking at opportunities in more developed markets such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The kiosks have already been piloted in Uganda and Kenya, and Mr Bakhrani said the Kenyan government had expressed interest in launching an additional 4,500 units there. The company said the units would be run on a revenue-share basis with local entrepreneurs.

"They can get a loan from a microfinance company, buy the kiosk … and then it becomes a business for them," said Mr Bakhrani.

The kiosks will not require any fixed infrastructure, as they are powered by the sun and connect to the internet via roof-mounted satellite dishes.

The units are manufactured in Sharjah, while Intersat Africa is run from its headquarters in Dubai Silicon Oasis.

The basic kiosk costs $9,900, while more expensive models are available with scanning and printing facilities ($10,900) and solar-powered refrigerator ($11,900).

During testing, Intersat Africa said, an individual kiosk had taken up to $600 a month in revenue. Vendors sell scratch cards that give customers access to services, with internet access typically costing $1 an hour.

Intersat also plans a centrally managed advertising network, displaying commercials on each kiosk's three LCD screens and larger TV screen.

"All these kiosks are centrally managed from one location," said Mr Bakhrani. "When we sell advertising, we share the revenue with the owner." He said projected advertising revenues of $1,500 a month per unit was a "conservative" estimate.

Shawkat Ahmed, the chief commercial officer at Yahsat, said the kiosk initiative was "a self-sustaining empowerment model".

"The rural population has the right to information … If they have access to information, this will change their life," said Mr Ahmed. "We believe there will be thousands deployed once our [satellite] service is available."

The kiosks "can be placed anywhere in our coverage area, from the bushes of Africa to the mountains of Afghanistan to the deserts of Iraq", he said.

Yahsat is a subsidiary of Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government.

bflanagan@thenational.ae