If you asked me is passengers on SWVL needed free Wi-Fi, my answer would be a big no because most of these SWVL customers leave their cars at home to hop on a decent matatu and can afford data. They are also not the target audience for the funny content on the supaBRCK.
But, this is Africa and page views or any other vanity metrics and startup announcements attract investors holed up somewhere in North America or Europe hungry to have a piece of Africa for themselves.
From our internal surveys, free Wi-Fi is not a product to sell anywhere in Kenya, not even in slums. Facebook’s Surf Express WiFi sold to BRCK after years of struggle. Poa Internet, another free WiFi provider is just sticking inside there because it has some money to burn. Liquid Telecom had mapped all the areas with free Wi-Fi and she only knows what happened to them.
BRCK’s sales pitch of rugged Internet routers for marginalized areas only worked for the press as the firm quickly moved to order normal routers from its China-based manufacturing partners. The new supaBRCK routers differ in brand name only from routers from Hauwei, ZTE, Asus, TP-Link, D-Link among others.
BRCK had a chance to go into the home fiber business before Safaricom, Liquid Telecom, SEACOM and Jamii Telcom took on struggling Zuku which had massive market share but lost its clients due to poor customer care. It would be great for BRCK to move from VC-targeted products like BRCK Education and Moja Free Wi-Fi to a real customer-centric Internet subscription business.
Free WiFi in Kenya has failed to work from the days of Google’s Wazi Wi-Fi. Poa Internet failed. Internet balloons have failed. Safaricom also tried with Vuma Online and failed terribly. Telkom and Nairobi County govt recently tried their hands at free Wi-Fi and things haven’t worked out as expected. But BRCK with over $10 million in VC money has to prove itself-especially with negligible sales of its rugged internet router as users realized the firm was still depending on the country’s 2G and 3G networks to connect.
Telcos are working on 4G and eyeing 5G and their monthly rates have become considerably affordable even to populations in informal settlements.
Apart from BRCK’s original failure at the rugged routers, its BRCK Education arm also flopped. BRCK‘s partnership with another struggling venture has some positives to it. Both have VC backing and can attract the attention of their PR partners writing for Forbes and TechCrunch to evade the scrutiny of local media. Unlike local media which is on the ground, most of these global media platforms are easily carried away with page views are monthly active users.
Therefore the partnership between BRCK and Swvl is a huge PR win, but on the ground in Nairobi, SWVL, which recently raised $42m, has failed to grow its routes or give its driver-partners any reasonable business leaving most of them as tourist vans or shuttles for hire. However, it’s too early to judge SWVL as the Kenyan market is especially hard to new players in the Matatu industry.
SWVL is doing a good job of recruiting new users from scratch. A lot of marketing is being done too by Little Shuttle, a competing service from Safaricom-backed Little.
Little tried to use free Wi-Fi as a sales strategy in its cab-hailing service but realized this doesn’t work. Time will tell if SWVL will maintain BRCK’s routers in its buses and if SWVL bus users like the free Wi-Fi and music paid for by ads from merchants.
This is not BRCKs first partnership. Eight months ago, BRCK partnered with Clear Blue for its Smart Off-Grid technology and service for a multi-year rollout of thousands of WiFi hotspots across Africa, set to begin in 2019 and running through 2024.
Both BRCK and Clear Blue are also part of the Telecom Infra Project, founded by Facebook, Intel, Nokia, SK Telecom, and Deutsche Telekom. Early this year, Clear Blue supplied its Smart Off-Grid technology to power Moja WiFi hotspots at 10 sites in Kenya. The two firms now are focusing on a large rollout in 2019.
In2017, BRCK launched Moja, a free public WiFi project for smartphone users in Kenya rural Rwanda.