Mark Zuckerbergs Africa tour tracks techs growing interests on the continent

After a surprise Nigeria visit to meet with techies in Lagos, Mark Zuckerberg took his Africa tour to Kenyathis Thursday. There the Facebook CEO visited the iHub innovation space, reviewed the BRCK mobile Wi-Fi device, had lunch with Kenyan ICT Cabinet Secretary Joseph Mucheru, and met with tech leaders Juliana Rotich and Erik Hersman.

Like theLagos expedition, the trip was unannounced. Originally, we knew that Facebooks Ime Archibong was coming in, said Hersman (a co-founder of iHub), but we didnt know about Marks visit until the last minute. Archibong is Facebooks Strategic Partnerships Director.

Though no formal business commitments are planned on Zuckerbergs first Kenya visit (something Facebook reps confirmed to TechCrunch), Hersman believes it is likely a precursor.

Look, these meetings in Nigeria and Kenya, its largely PR for everybody right now, he said. However, from the interactions I sawbetween Facebooks team and different people within the tech community, I think theres going to be some real stuff happening soon.

While Zuckbergs Nigeria visit was less anticipatedgiven the country only recently registered in global tech newshis dropping in on Kenya is less of a surprise.

The East African nation of 44 million has become the continents unofficial tech capital, dubbed Silicon Savannah for its advances indigital finance, tech incubators, and local IT innovations such as BRCK and the Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform.

Local telco Safaricoms M-Pesa mobile money product is globally recognized. The company has used its mobile infrastructure to innovate a number of digital products including solar electricity (M-Kopa), online TV, and the recent launch of its M-Pesa integrated ride-hail app (Little), an Uber competitor.

The Kenyan government, which established an ICT authority, is one of the continents more proactive in supporting its tech ecosystem. And iHub helped spur Africas tech incubator movement, which now includes over 300 innovation spaces across the continent, according to a recent GSMA survey.


From a tech perspective, Zuckberbergs decision to visit Nairobi is relatively straight forward. Two initiatives he focused on were the BRCK venture and digital prototype startup Gearbox, both outgrowths of the iHub infrastructure Erik Hersman and Juliana Rotich established in 2010. BRCK developed in response to local IT challenges of poor net connectivity and electricity.


The solar powered BRCK Wi-Fi product (about the size of an actual brick) provides device charging capabilities, 3g and 4g internet for up to 20 connections, and now ships to over 60 countries. He got a demo of the next generation BRCK device, and was pretty intrigued by our Kio devices, said Hersman, referring to BRCKs educational tablet for primary school students.

Zuckerberg also reviewed the Gearbox supported Strauss solar energy panel and PayGo Energy home cooking product. He was really interested in the integration of M-Pesa into other services, said Hersman, noting the PayGo product allows Kenyans to finance the kit using mobile phones and M-Pesa mobile payments.


Zuckerbergs Nigeria and Kenya trips coincide with Facebooks expanding Africa presence and the continents growing digital profile. Facebook has 84 million users in Sub-Saharan Africa, 17 million in Nigeria, 14 million in South Africa, and 5.7 million in Kenya, according to spokesperson Sally Aldous.

As previously reported, a particular Facebook Africa play will be tapping the online advertising market thats rising with the continents shift to digital commerce, expected to reach $75 billion by 2025.

Facebook opened its first Africa office in South Africa in 2015, appointing Ogilvy and Mather advertising executive Nunu Ntshingila as Head of Africa. In Kenya, the company has provided financial support to iHub events and workshops (Erik Hersman confirmed).

Kenya is also one of Facebooks Free Basics countries, a program that allows users on Airtel networks to access limited internet services free on mobile. Facebooks commitment to connect more Africans to the internet suffered a bit of a setback Thursday when the SpaceX rocket carrying the companys Amos-6 satellite crashed pre-launch.

As for what to expect from Facebook in Africa after Zuckerbergs trip, company reps would not provide detail. iHub, Gearbox, and BRCK co-founder Erik Hersman sees possibilities to upgrade Facebooks connectivity efforts, Free Basics is growing but its still not the open internet, he said. There could be an opportunity to open it up around a business model that works.

Hersman also believes the Facebook CEOs will also draw more attention to Africa from Silicon Valley. He could have just visited South Africa, which is what more people would have expected, he said. Visiting Nigeria and Kenya sends a message that could get other global tech players off the sidelines. If Facebook is putting so time, interest, and money into these markets other will definitely pay attention.

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