Mainone’s Stamp On West Africa’s Digital Economy

Exactly 10 years ago, one of the most epic steps aimed at connecting West Africa to the rest of the world was taken. MainOne, a little-known company at the time, had just landed a state-of-the art 7, 000-kilometer submarine cable connecting West Africa to Europe, and by extension, the rest of the World, after a 10-month construction drive that cost an estimated $300million.

The vision of Ms. Funke Opeke who founded the company was clear - to bring the same quality of Internet access and connectivity that the rest of the world was already taking advantage of to Africa, in an efficient and affordable manner. West Africa was the launching pad from which the Internet penetration revolution envisioned by Ms. Opeke was to begin.

A daunting landscape

Back in 2010, West Africa’s broadband market was characterized by slow and exasperating Internet access; most of West Africa’s 307 million population had either no access to the Internet or had to visit retail ‘cyber-café’ outlets to send a simple  e-mail which in some cases, took over thirty minutes to complete. Ghana had recorded some progress in terms of broadband and voice service uptake, because of the liberalization of the telecommunications industry which began in 1994. However, the broadband industry in Ghana was witnessing challenges ranging from infrastructure to the high cost of delivery due to high prices of upstream providers. 
Broadband penetration in Ghana was at an abysmal 7% in 2010 and this led to the National Broadband Policy in 2012. Other countries in the region, including the Republic of Benin, Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mauritania, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo, were not doing significantly better in terms of connecting their people to the Internet. Indeed, data from the International Telecommunication Union suggests that as at 2010, about 10% of Africa’s population were Internet users while 67% of Europe’s population had access compared to 49% of access in the Americas. It was against this background that MainOne began operations in 2010, with a clear vision to turn the tide. 

Pouring out maps

In the 10 years following its initial launch, MainOne has implemented a policy that has driven broadband penetration in some of the most densely populated city centers in West Africa, while also paying attention to places less travelled. The company has invested an estimated $400million on various broadband penetration drives to meet the needs of the expanding business environment in West Africa. At present, MainOne delivers services to 10 West African countries. The company has also built Tier III data centers in Nigeria, Ghana (Q1 2020) and Cote d’Ivoire, hosting the largest institutions and global content in the region. Currently, it is engaged in an on-going expansion of its data center footprint in Nigeria and Ghana.

In 2018 and 2019, it pursued an aggressive strategic network expansion in the West African Region. Its submarine cable system was expanded to Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal in 2018 while in 2019, its data center was launched in Cote d’Ivoire. MainOne consolidated on its network expansion by launching its Managed Cloud Services and MDXi Azure Stack in 2020. By taking these steps, incrementally, Internet penetration grew from a trickle to a flood in West Africa. Indeed, MainOne played a critical role in enabling Internet access across West Africa where Internet penetration rates have grown from less than 10% in 2010 to close to 40% ten years later. 
Data released by Renesys, a global broadband intelligence organisation, indicates that MainOne is the foremost Internet Protocol (IP) provider in the West African region, with majority of the Internet traffic coming out of West Africa on its network. All of this has had significant impact on the economies, businesses, and people of west Africa.

Beyond rhetoric

In 2010 MainOne began providing its services from its office at Airport residential Area. MainOne instantly revolutionized wholesale pricing and brought on board all major network players in the country due to its competitive pricing. It had built a robust network to ensure superior service delivery and reduce downtimes. MainOne’s broadband services in Ghana fostered the growth of Internet Service Providers like Teledata, Surfline and Blu Telecoms.

MainOne currently serves customers across the various industries as it grew its operations to include enterprises in addition to its wholesale service. The company has also made remarkable territorial expansion in Accra, Tema, Kumasi, Takoradi and Paga with PoPs in all these locations. These investments continue to enable MainOne serve customers within these areas at competitive prices all in a bid to increase broadband penetration. The company also actively supports social entrepreneurship and start-up community by connecting technology incubation hubs, including, Hackerspace, Meltwater amongst others.

MainOne, as a player in this industry, has built an excellent relationship with the government and regulators, Ministry Of Communications, National Communications Authority (NCA), National Information Technology Agency (NITA) since inception to help build and develop the ecosystem: MainOne over the years has pushed Cable Awareness events to sensitize key stakeholders (GMA, Shippers, Fishing community, etc,) to regard submarine cables as Key National Infrastructure). MainOne also spearheaded legislation for cable awareness in Parliament.
A 2016 World Bank paper with the title “Exploring the Relationship Between Broadband and Economic Growth,” shows that there is a direct correlation between Internet penetration and economic growth. Using an econometric model and cross-sectional data drawn from 1980-2006 for 120 developing and developed countries, the author concluded that “a 10%-point increase in fixed broadband penetration would increase GDP growth by 1.21% in developed economies and 1.38% in developing ones.”

“We started on this journey to deploy critical infrastructure to bridge the digital divide in West Africa,” Ms. Opeke said in a statement to herald the 10th anniversary celebration of MainOne. “While we are pleased that we have made an impact, there is so much more work to be done. The recent challenges we have faced with the COVID-19 Pandemic highlight the need for additional investment and smarter policies to deploy shared infrastructure required to make access to broadband a reality for more Africans at a price they can afford. MainOne has been leading that charge across West Africa for ten years and we are even more committed to realizing our vision today than we were 10 years ago,” she said.

There is no doubt that MainOne has made significant impact on Africa’s digital economy in the last decade. While the company continues to pursue its dream, those who hold the reigns of policy have a major role to play so that when broadband penetration is evaluated in the next 10 years, West Africa’s story will be that of significant progress that has left no one behind.