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The Queen of the Internet Reboots

Published 10 years ago
By Forbes Africa

Amolo Ng’weno always wanted to be a doctor. But when she went to college, it all changed. At Harvard University in the Unites States, Ng’weno, a then 20-something ambitious Kenyan girl, became fascinated with computers and everything they could do—especially transmitting information. Overnight, she fell for the new, wide world of technology.

“My first experience with computers was at a US trade exhibition when I was in high school, but I didn’t actually get to use a computer until I got to college,” she says.

Amolo Ng’weno

Luckily, Harvard had a course for every student to learn the rudiments of computers.

“This experience totally changed my perspective on the tools for getting any kind of work done and has shaped my career ever since.”

Ng’weno studied psychology and social relations at Harvard, but the computer bug had bitten and not even a master’s in economics and public affairs at Princeton University, or working for the World Bank would get in the way.

Fate took a hand through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the east coast town of Cambridge. Here, two fellow Kenyans—Ayisi Makatiani and Karanja Gakio—had developed a similar obsession. So, when the three met one evening, breaking bread and sipping black coffee at a small café in Cambridge, the idea of an online news service was mooted. It began on an internet community, hosted at MIT, called KenyaNet. In 1994 it became Africa Online, the internet giant that lives to this day.

“We saw the utility of local news to the African diaspora and we thought the opposite would also be true; people in Kenya would want to communicate with the world and know what was going on internationally,” recalls Ng’weno, who quit as an economist with the World Bank in Washington to help set up Africa Online.

“It was the very early days of the internet in the US and although we were ambitious for our company, we didn’t dream it would change all our lives the way it has.”

As the internet boom kicked off, Africa Online shifted focus from providing news to connecting Africans to the internet. In 1995, it was bought by Boston-headquartered International Wireless, which became Prodigy. That year, Ng’weno was sent to launch the Kenyan operation, becoming the first internet service provider (ISP) in East Africa’s largest economy. A year later, perhaps after proving herself as start-up honcho, she was moved to Côte d’Ivoire to set up a subsidiary.

Africa Online was on a roll. It expanded to Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland, with the three coffee drinkers from Cambridge in charge. It acquired several ISPs, such as Pipex Internet Solution (Swaziland), Net2000 (Kenya), UUNET (Namibia) and Swift Global (Uganda).

In 1998, Prodigy sold the company to African Lakes Corporation, a British investment firm that was diversifying from agriculture and mining. For a while, the company traded on the London Stock Exchange, enjoying favor from investors, then listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange in 2001.

As the new century turned, the internet (dotcom) bubble burst, wiping out many companies around the world and leaving erstwhile eager investors in the red.

“The company needed additional cash for growth which could only be supplied by international investors,” says Ng’weno, who won’t reveal what stake she held in the company, in a country where too much wealth is frowned upon.

“At the same time, the internet bust and investor jitters about Africa had really hammered the share price of our UK parent company, The African Lakes Corporation, forcing its management to de-list from the London and Kenyan stock exchanges.”

In 2001 the three founders exited, with the company firmly in eight countries and the largest ISP in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa.

Surveying the scene: Amolo Ng’weno looks over Nairobi’s bustling city

Six years later, in 2007, South African fixed-line telecommunications company Telkom SA bought Africa Online Limited from African Lakes Corporation for £10.32 million ($15.8 million). The ISP, which had been running at a loss, had just started to make some profit, but it was not enough to raise the necessary capital to take full advantage of the opportunities in Africa’s fast-growing telecoms industry.

Ng’weno left to work for a number of organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Now, aged 46, Ng’weno is trying to make a comeback in the industry where she made her name, at a time when many would be slowing down.

In April 2011 she launched a business process outsourcing (BPO) company in Kenya, just a month after leaving Bill and Melinda Gates. Digital Divide Data (DDD) Kenya blends a for-profit technology business with social welfare.

“We’re a social enterprise,” she said recently in an interview at her office on the seventh floor of Paramount Plaza in Nairobi.

“Which means, while we’re a for-profit company in Kenya, we also have a social mission which is to give young people from disadvantaged backgrounds a path out of poverty.”

Most of DDD Kenya shares are owned by the US NGO, also called Digital Divide Data (DDD), which received a grant of $895,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation to bring its social enterprise model to Kenya. DDD has invested in an information technology services business that targets to train and employ 300 youths from slum areas in Nairobi.

The grant is part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Poverty Reduction through Information and Digital Employment (PRIDE) program. PRIDE is working in Africa to foster and scale up a new arm of the outsourcing industry called “impact sourcing” by supporting projects aimed at creating jobs for the poor.

Ng’weno, who is managing director at DDD, says the organization hires young people from Nairobi’s vast slums to deliver high-quality BPO services. There’s also a team of deaf people working as digital management operators.

“Our staff works with us half day and go to tertiary education the other half day,” she says. “It’s a model that has worked well for DDD in Asia, where our staff typically graduate from their university education, and from the company, after four to five years.  When they graduate, they are on a path to careers in IT and other fields that would have been difficult for them to access without our support.”

From 35 workers at inception, DDD Kenya has grown to more than 100.

“We don’t think profit is incompatible with achieving a social mission. We actually believe the profit motive is an important one—and the only way that we can grow our business sustainably so that we can fulfill our goal of providing employment and career development to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. If we don’t make a profit, we can’t deliver on our mission,” says Ng’weno.

It is this social enterprise that has anchored Ng’weno’s second coming on the internet platform, albeit at a more advanced level. The company is championing digital marketing by helping organizations use the internet to grow their brands and markets. Recently, the company became the first in the region to be certified by Google to offer advisory and technical services for the search engine giant’s AdWords advertising service. Ng’weno says DDD Kenya has a growing number of clients in Kenya drawn from various sectors including tourism, real estate and financial services as well as big clients across Africa and overseas.

Digital marketing covers a broad range of channels marketers can use to communicate with their customers. It could be anything from email, desktop text and banner ads, social media marketing or mobile and text ads.

But it is the banner ads placed on websites that have been attracting the attention of marketers and brand managers lately. With more than 25% of the 44 million people in Kenya online, according to the Communication Commission of Kenya (CCK), advertisers are increasingly realizing that they need to fish where the fish are.

“The internet has become an integral part of everyday life in Kenya and Africa and it’s changing the way people work, shop, look for information, communicate and meet people,” says Olga Arara-Kimani, Google Kenya’s country manager.

“This, coupled with the fact that advertisers are increasingly looking for mediums that deliver high, measurable returns on their investment, has led to higher proportions of ad spend going to online channels.”

A number of big businesses in Kenya are advertising online. Kenya has one of the highest internet penetration rates in Africa and emerging markets, currently at 25% and growing at 17% annually. About $8 trillion exchanges hands each year through e-commerce, but only a tiny fraction of that is in Africa. DDD Kenya hopes to increase this figure.

“Because it’s so targeted, this kind of online marketing is cost-effective. Many people want to get into digital marketing because it’s possible to know exactly who you are targeting.”

DDD Kenya recently diversified into electronic books. It is already digitizing reading materials for the government-run Kenya National Library Services, with a number of other projects in the pipeline. It’s betting on e-books and hopes publishers will buy into the idea.

“The Kenyan education system seems to give us a great pool of candidates, despite having gone to schools that are not seen as being high achievers. Our staff speak, read and write good English, which is important for all our international and many local clients.”

Harking back to the days when they set up Africa Online, Ng’weno says technology has come a long way on the continent. The infrastructure has improved dramatically, especially with the arrival of undersea cables.

“However, it’s still not clear to me why the entire internet slows down in the late afternoon (especially on Fridays),” she says.

For Ng’weno, training at Harvard, the world most prestigious business school that has produced some of the world’s biggest entrepreneurs played a part in shaping her into a shrewd entrepreneur. “Harvard is a great place to be challenged and to grow intellectually,” she says. “I’m sure it has contributed to my life in many different ways, which is the purpose of a good university education.”

Tenacity appears to run in the family. Her father, Hillary Ng’weno, was the owner and editor of the Weekly Review, Kenya’s first independent news magazine. He was a ground-breaker in lively and objective journalism. Ng’weno had a degree in mathematics and nuclear physics from Harvard. Fleur, her mother, is a naturalist and expert on bird life. She ran the Rainbow Magazine for children in the 1970s and 1980s.

So what does it take to be a great entrepreneur? Amolo Ng’weno says it is simply taking advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself and surviving disasters, so you are still there to fight another day.

In a patriarchal society like Africa, where men dominate business and leadership, success stories like Ng’weno’s are rare. You may wonder if being a woman has worked against her in business.

“People usually think it would be a disadvantage. But I’d say I was raised to see the potential in each individual, regardless of their sex or social background. And I think that’s what I’ve also found in my dealings with others.”

Tall and endowed with an African female figure, Ng’weno does not cut the image of a tech nerd. She’s easy in her attire and conservative in her use of jargon. Unlike the noisy tech types Ng’weno, who loves horses, talks as if it is not her job to be audible, yours to listen carefully.

On a warm Wednesday in Nairobi, she paces in her hi-tech office to oversee the Kenya National Library Services e-books project is completed on time. She is undeterred by road construction noises outside, which includes a huge trench outside her office building. It means she has to park her car 300 meters away and walk through the mess of rubble, earth, man and machine.

“Right now I’m too busy for hobbies,” she says when asked if she finds time for leisure. “Given the Nairobi traffic situation, maybe I will say, sitting in traffic listening to radio while doing email on my laptop computer. Our car was imported from Japan and can only get two stations so I listen to Ghetto Radio (a Nairobi radio station that broadcasts in local slang known as sheng) a lot.”

To succeed in business, she has learnt to turn what is perceived as her weaknesses on their heads. It all depends on how you look at strengths and weaknesses, she says.

“I am frequently told I’m impatient but I regard this more of a strength than a weakness. Similarly I can be detail-oriented and meticulous, which my staff complain about, but I think I’ve found a line of work in which that is, again, a strength rather than a weakness. Overall, I think most attributes can be strengths in some circumstances and weaknesses in others and the trick is to find the right combination.”

With a meticulous eye for detail backed with zeal for results, it is surprising that a team with Ng’weno on its side could go wrong. Yet, while running Africa Online, she realized that even IT wizards can make terrible miscalculations.

“We had acquired a company in Zimbabwe but we failed to take into account that our corporate cultures were very different,” she recalls. “Their IT people could not get on with our customer service people. Within a month most of their staff had resigned, taking with them most of their customers.”

Africa Online ended up paying money in Zimbabwe but getting next to nothing in return. “This,” Ng’weno says with a shy smile, “was a big lesson in thinking about corporate culture issues.”

Many more big lessons surely await the comeback kid in Kenya’s tough and competitive digital world.

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Related Topics: #Amolo Ng'weno, #Digital, #Harvard, #Internet, #Kenyan, #KenyaNet.