Few people are as keen to bridge Africa’s digital divide and connect the continent to the global information infrastructure as Funke Opeke.
As an engineer, entrepreneur, mother, mentor and founder of Main Street Technologies and CEO of MainOne Cable Company, a trailblazing telecoms infrastructure provider out of Africa’s most populous economy, she is helping to attract more females into the “meritocracy” of science and mathematics and deepening the strategic alliances between the business, computing technology and telecommunications landscape.
Once described by a telecoms industry buff as a “brilliant mind; and a nice, easy going, friendly geek”, FORBES AFRICA also found her to be a witty, diligent executive with a canny flair for corporate diplomatese. She was also once worth millions of dollars on paper… but that’s a story for another day.
Opeke excelled in mathematics and physics at school but loathed biology. Her father’s career choice for her was medicine. She however had other ideas, enrolling for undergraduate and graduate-level degrees in electrical engineering at Nigeria’s University of Ife in Ile-Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, and Columbia University in the United States. She spent the next two decades in North America gaining invaluable international engineering and management experience, and during that time she noticed that the poor statistics of females in engineering did not significantly improve.
“I was the only female in my class at Ife,” she says. Social profiling is partly to blame for this. Engineering in Nigeria, and even in a matured market economy like the United States is still somewhat riddled with gender stereotypes.
“Even in computing today, you still hear things like ‘whilst guys write code, women can only check or test code,” she says.
While engineering might be struggling to attract more female talent, Nigerians have had no qualms embracing digital mobile technology. The country had about 450,000 functional telephone lines for a population of about 140 million people as at December 2001. By December 2012, it had 113 million active subscriber lines, according to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the industry regulator.
Nigeria’s cellular transformation began with telecoms industry reforms that culminated in the 2002 auctions of GSM licenses for $285 million each to Econet Wireless in Zimbabwe, South Africa’s MTN and Nigerian-owned CIL. All the new operators had grossly underestimated their market projections for Nigeria. As the country gradually became one of the fastest growing telecoms markets in the world, Nigerians flocked home in droves, especially professionals in computing, engineering and telecoms law, whose skills were in short supply.
In 2005, Opeke quit her job as executive director of Verizon Communications Wholesale Division in the USA to take up a role as chief technology officer of MTN Nigeria. The MTN experience lasted only a few months. She moved on to help with the resuscitation and privatization of state-owned Nitel (Nigerian Telecommunications), acting for a while as chief operating officer of the still moribund entity. With entrenched institutional graft and high-wired politics, it became obvious that Nitel was a complicated case; and barely two years after upending her career and cozy life in the States, Opeke was jobless, unfulfilled and in search of new meaning for her life in Lagos.
This turbulent landing into the deep waters of Nigerian telecommunications helped Opeke identify salient opportunities in the sector, especially the need to upgrade West Africa’s internet infrastructure. It also prepared her adequately for the rough and tumble realities of doing business in Africa. She could see an opportunity: everyone was tilling the retail space, but Nigeria lacked robust connectivity at the enterprise level. She galvanized private and institutional investors, and established Main Street Technologies, a telecoms infrastructure provider, which gave birth to MainOne. No mean feat for someone who was barely three years old in town.
“After almost 25 years in the US, I saw an absence of telecoms infrastructure for business. I found it fascinating that we were running our ATMs on GPRS networks, and based on my experience, no country ran its business on mobile networks. The mobile network infrastructure is not robust and resilient enough, even though technology is developing to allow us to push data around more efficiently, I still don’t know serious stock exchanges functions or defense applications that run purely on mobile infrastructure…that was one of my key motivations for joining Nitel.”
“Because a lot of African countries never had well established telecommunications infrastructure, we were able to start with mobile and create a veneer of infrastructure but that underlying, unifying infrastructure, that enables different companies new services to plug in to, does not exist,” she argues.
A decade after the GSM auctions, and despite multi-million dollar investments in the sector, cellular teledensity has clearly improved. But decades of underinvestment meant a lack of bandwidth capacity for international traffic, a decrepit nationwide backbone and total disregard of the all important ‘last mile’ infrastructure, which is the bedrock of municipal and metropolitan access to data and voice-based communications services. She therefore disagrees with the view that Africa is awash with bandwidth, notwithstanding the plethora of fiber optic cables between Africa and Western Europe.
“The real challenge is getting the capacity to the people who require it. We are leapfrogging in some services but we are not necessarily deepening the infrastructure. We are dealing with situations now where some of the landlocked countries have so much difficulty getting access to the internet because they do not have the infrastructure, but they have mobiles for phone calls. No backbone, no last mile, only mobile, and mobile voice.”
To plug this gap, MainOne Cable Company is investing in its own terrestrial infrastructure in Nigeria. This pan-Nigeria link will enable ‘efficient, more affordable’ connectivity inland, and assist the hook up to the company’s coastal fiber optic link. MainOne currently employees 250 people; its initial capitalization of $250 million was for its trans-Atlantic submarine cable, which was completed in 2010. With clients in Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Ghana and Nigeria, the company is looking to expand its services to Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon. Opeke reckons the current worth of the business is about $500 million. The firm continues to reinvest extant revenues into the business and will open its new data center in 2014, a strategic milestone development for the company and tactical response to customer needs for hosting and outsourcing services.
“The new baby when fully deployed will cost us between $40 and $50 million,” Opeke says.
MainOne’s large institutional customers wanted more than reliable connectivity from the company.
“As connectivity improves and becomes the norm, companies will migrate to outsourced facilities. Private cloud computing infrastructure as a service will grow. Our data centre will provide co-location spaces and handle disaster recovery activities, and we believe this is the first of its kind in this environment, indeed in West Africa.”
The fact that MainOne will be competing for a share of the corporate services market with established operators like MTN, Airtel, Glo and Etisalat, Vodacom, across Africa does not bother the bandwidth queen.
“Our focus is our key asset. We operate at the high-end of the market where customers expect 100% reliability. We’ll continue to invest in world class infrastructure. We will continue to grow because we provide a high degree of quality and accountability that is not typical of service providers in this region,” Opeke says.
31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help
The coronavirus pandemic has continued to take a catastrophic toll on America’s small businesses. According to Facebook’s State of Small Business report, 31% of small businesses and 52% of personal businesses have stopped operating as a result of the crisis.
“What we know today is pretty sobering,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We’re in a really hard economic situation that is hitting all businesses, but particularly, small businesses really hard. We also know how critical small businesses are for jobs—long before coronavirus,” she says. “Two thirds of new jobs in this country happen because of small businesses and so that means what’s happening with small businesses has always been important, but it’s more important than ever.”
Especially concerning is that only 45% of business owners and managers plan to rehire the same number of workers when their businesses reopen. That number is just 32% for personal businesses.
“If these businesses are letting people go, it’s not that they don’t want to rehire them,” Sandberg says. “It’s because they don’t think they’re going to be able to. That’s a pretty serious thing for us to be facing.”
Businesses that have been able to maintain operations still face significant hurdles, namely access to capital and customers. Some 28% of businesses surveyed say their biggest challenge over the next few months will be cash flow, while 20% say it will be lack of demand.
The report, conducted in partnership with the Small Business Roundtable, was based on a survey of 86,000 owners, managers and workers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees. It is also a part of the company’s broader data collection initiative with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the Future of Business.
“We were already in the process of developing this report before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Sandberg says. “We expected it to be a pretty rosy tale back then of low unemployment, flourishing entrepreneurship, and jobs growing all over the world. Fast forward to today and we’re in a very different position.”
Now, the company is launching Facebook Shops, an ecommerce product that allows businesses to set up online “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses can customize their digital shops, using cover images to showcase their brands and catalogs to highlight their products. And just as customers can ask for help when shopping in physical stores, they can message business owners directly via WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, track deliveries and more. “Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new product. As was the case with the survey, the rollout was planned prior to the pandemic, but was accelerated as businesses have turned to online tools to adapt in the face of the ongoing crisis. According to the survey, 51% of small business owners have increased their online interactions with customers, and 36% of operational businesses are now conducting all sales online.
“One of the things I find so amazing is how much of the activity has migrated online and that we’re doing things we never thought were possible,” says Sandberg. “If I had asked you or you had asked me, could I work entirely from home? Can my whole company go home? I would have said ‘No way.’ But we did it. Small businesses have even more entrepreneurial spirit.”
There are more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S., many of which are struggling to stay afloat amid forced closures and are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to survive the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.
Employees of these businesses are disproportionately affected, with 74% and 70% reporting not having access to paid sick leave and paid time off, according to Facebook’s survey. For hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, those figures are over 90%.
Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first major tech companies to provide much-needed aid. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses, the majority of which will be distributed in cash, with some ad credits for business services. Of those funds, $40 million will be distributed across 34 American cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world. In addition to financial assistance, the company also rolled out various product offerings including digital gift cards, fundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers.
Small businesses are resilient, even during times of crisis. According to the report, 57% of businesses are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future, with only 11% of operating businesses expecting to fail in the next three months, should current conditions persist.
“The report raises awareness about the struggles small businesses face from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Rhett Buttle, founder of Public Private Strategies and co-executive director of the Small Business Roundtable. “But small businesses have brought us out of previous economic downturns and they will do so again.”
Birds Of A Feather: The Stepchickens Cult On TikTok Is The Next Evolution Of The Influencer Business
Like any self-respecting cult, the Stepchickens follow a strict code of conduct as dictated by their absolute leader, Mother Hen, a comedian named Melissa who posts on TikTok as @chunkysdead. Mother Hen has widely preached a message of peace, telling her 1.7 million TikTok followers: “We do not rule by being cruel, we shine by being kind.” Further, she has asked all Stepchickens to make themselves easily identifiable and make her photo their TikTok profile picture.
Mother Hen has created TikTok’s first “cult.” (Her word.) Boiled down, she is a social media influencer, and the Stepchickens are her fans, just as more famous TikTok influencers—Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae and the like—all have their fanbases. But Mother Hen’s presence and style is quite singular, particularly in the way she communicates with her followers, what she asks them to do and how the Stepchickens respond to her. After all, not every member of the Charli hive use her image as their profile pictures.
“These influencers are looking for a way to build community and figure out how to monetize their community. That’s the No. 1 most important thing for a creator or an influencer,” says Tiffany Zhong, cofounder of ZebraIQ, a community and trends platform. “It’s become a positive for Gen Z, where you’re proud to be part of this cult—part of this community. They are dying to be part of a community. So it’s easy to get sucked in.”
Mother Hen, who didn’t return a request to comment for this story, already had a popular comedy vlog-style TikTok account on May 6 when she asked her followers to send suggestions for what they could name their cult. From the ideas offered up, she chose Stepchickens, and in the 19 days since, her following has more than doubled. (It was around 700,000 back at the beginning of this month.) She has posted videos about taking edibles, her celebrity lookalikes and her relationship status (“all this cult power, still no boyfriend”). And perhaps in violation of her first-do-no-harm credo, Mother Hen has implored her followers to embark on “battles” and “raids,” where Stepchickens comment bomb other influencers’ videos, posting messages en masse. She has become the mother of millions: TikTok videos with #stepchickens have generated 102 million views on the app, and her own videos have received 54.6 million likes.
Mother Hen is now concentrating on feathering her nest. She has launched a large range of merch: smartphone cases ($24), hoodies ($44), t-shirts ($28) and beanies ($28). Corporate sponsorships seem within reach, too. TikTok accounts for the Houston Rockets, Tampa Bay Rays and one for the Chicago Bulls mascot, Benny, all changed their profile picture to the image distributed by Mother Hen. The Rays sent her a box of swag, addressing the package to “Mother Hen,” of course. She dressed up in the gear (two hats, a fanny pack, a tank top) and recorded herself wearing it in a TikTok, a common move by influencers to express gratitude and signal that they’re open to business sponsorship opportunities. Mother Hen has launched a YouTube channel, too, where she’ll earn ad revenue based on the views that her 43,000 subscribers generate by watching her content.
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Then there is the Stepchickens app available on Apple devices. This digital roost is a thriving message feed—it resembles a Slack channel or a Discord server—where Stepchickens congregate, chat and coordinate their raids. They can also use it to create videos, ones “to glorify mother hen,” the app’s instructions read.
The app launched last Monday and has already attracted more than 100,000 users, a benchmark that most apps do not ever see and the best reach within months of starting. Since its debut, it has ranked as high as the ninth most popular social media app in the world on the download charts and in the Top 75 most downloaded across all types of apps. The Stepchickens have traded 135,000 messages, and the app’s most devoted users are spending as long as 10 hours a day on it, says Sam Mueller, the cofounder and CEO of Blink Labs who built the Stepchickens app.
“There’s this emergence of a more active—a more dedicated—fan base and following. A lot of the influencers on TikTok are kind of dancing around, doing some very broadcast-y type content. Their followers might not mobilize nearly as much as” the Stepchickens, says Mueller. Mother Hen’s flock, by contrast, “feel like they’re part of something, feel like they’re connected. They can have fun and be together for something bigger than what they’re doing right now, which is kind of being at home bored and lonely. There’s untapped value here.”
Op-Ed: How Nigerians Can Unlock Their Potential In The Digital Age
By Uzoma Dozie, Chief Sparkler
Nigerians are some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and entrepreneurial people. We are rich with talent, enthusiasm, and passion.
Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track-record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.
Ultimately, this comes down to the lack of effective solutions in the market to support the lifestyle and finances of Nigerians and our businesses. For too long, we have been underserved by the traditional physical retail environment, which is limited by bricks and mortar infrastructure and legacy technology – the weaknesses of which have been laid bare by the Covid-19 global pandemic.
Unlocking Nigeria’s digital economy
While Nigerians are being underserved by current circumstances, there is also an exciting opportunity to start filling a gap in the market.
Nigeria’s digital economy is thriving, but it remains informal. Nigeria has a population of 198 million people – 172 million have a mobile phone and 112 million have internet access.
Many of us access social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram through our phones and use them as valuable sales tools, especially female entrepreneurs. Data and digital applications have the potential to revolutionize the daily lives of millions of Nigerians.
Therefore, new digital-only solutions are required. These should not just focus on finances though – they have to be intrinsically linked with everyday lifestyles, rather than thinking about linear processes and transactional outcomes.
Let us take one example. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence have long been used to provide financial advice. But these chatbots could do so much more and evolve to provide support for more sophisticated usage, such as a personal adviser or lifestyle concierge.
Furthermore, these solutions should not just support Nigerians at home, but the ever-growing diaspora across the world.
The opportunity to play an integral role in transforming Nigeria’s digital economy and lead the charge in growing the digital economy across Africa inspired the creation of Sparkle.
Sparkle was founded with five core values – freedom, trust, simplicity, inclusivity, and personalization. We are adopting these values and embedding them in everything we do.
We will be leveraging technology and data to create and apply new digital-only solutions which bring more Nigerians into the formal economy thereby benefitting Government, businesses, and individuals.
Starting with the launch of a current account, we will co-create with our customers and collaborate with our partners to improve our services and increase our user base. We embrace collaboration and we are
working with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google, Microsoft, Visa, and PwC Nigeria, to achieve our vision.
In addition, we want to create a more inclusive economy and break down barriers by accelerating the role and influence of female entrepreneurs, many of whom already operate in the informal economy with the help of Instagram and other social media apps.
At present, we are facing a global crisis in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a strong digital infrastructure to ensure the economy continues to function. It will likely completely change the way we operate and conduct business in the future.
COVID-19 has only reinforced our belief that new digital solutions like Sparkle are required now more than ever before to serve Nigerians, boost the formal economy, and unlock potential in the digital age.
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