Africa Online – Kenya’s & Africa’s First Pan-African Internet Brand
Earlier this week it was announced that Google had been around for 15 years. Really? Is it that long already? I can actually remember quite vividly when Google came onto the scene those 15 years ago. At the time, everyone thought that the whole search engine thing was done and dusted. No one built a new search engine then. AltaVista, HotBot, Yahoo, MSN Search, etc more or less owned the game in those days and none of them worked particularly well. You used to do multiple searches on multiple search engines to find what you needed. It was clunky and time consuming. So, the amazing thing is that when Google showed up you would do one search and almost always found what you wanted. This was back in 1999 or so, before the Millennium. It was amazing. Google worked right out of the box. The rest you could say is history.
Thinking about Google’s amazing rise to the top and going beyond just being a search engine got me thinking about the past 15 years or so as far as the Internet is concerned in Kenya and Africa. Indeed, the landscape has changed massively as today the biggest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are the mobile networks like Safaricom and many of the ISPs from 15 years ago don’ even exist today. Indeed, in the days just before the Millennium if you were to think which Internet brand in Kenya was top of mind it would have had to have been Africa Online. I worked at Africa Online between 1997 and 2000 and it was one of the most exciting techniology startups in Kenya at the time. This was really at the start of Web 1.0 and Africa Online was clearly leading the Internet charge during that era. I remember Africa Online being so dominant that people often used the phrase “Africa Online” as a metaphor for describing the Internet in Kenya.
The origin story of Africa Online reads like many of the startup stories that we hear about from Silicon Valley which you can read in full from Wikipedia as follows:
The company was started in 1994 by Ayisi Makatiani, Karanja Gakio and Amolo Ng’weno, three Kenyans who met each other while students in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Makatiani and Gakio were at MIT while Ng’weno was at Harvard.
The basic idea for an online news service for Kenyans developed from an online community hosted at MIT called KenyaNet. KenyaNet was one of several Africa-focused online communities (the others were Okyeame inGhana, Naijanet in Nigeria, and Salonet in Sierra Leone) formed and run by MIT students and hosted on MIT servers.
With the commercialization of the internet, Africa Online moved its focus away from providing news to connecting Africans on the continent to the Internet. In 1995, the company was bought by International Wireless of Boston, which ultimately became Prodigy. During this period, Africa Online began operating as the first Kenyan ISP, and later expanded to Cote d’Ivoire (1995) to Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland, with the three Kenyans continuing to manage the operation.
In the process, Africa Online acquired several ISPs, such as Pipex Internet Solution (Swaziland), Net2000 (Kenya), UUNET (Namibia) and Swift Global (Uganda).
In 1998, Prodigy sold the company to the African Lakes Corporation. African Lakes had been listed on the London Stock Exchange since 1877 and was now moving away from its traditional background in agriculture and mining.
For a while the company enjoyed favour from investors, listing on the Nairobi Stock Exchange in 2001, but its stock subsequently lost ground and it was delisted in both London and Nairobi in 2003. By that time, the 3 founders had departed Africa Online. Africa Online was bought by Telkom South Africa in 2007.
In a nutshell, Africa Online was arguably the first truly homegrown African Internet brand of scale. From 1995 and in a few short years, Africa Online established their ISP and Content Portal across quite a few African markets. I can remember them buying companies in Kenya and beyond for millions of dollars and in the process building an Internet behemoth of sorts. Sadly, 15 or so years later, the Africa Online brand has more or less faded into complete obscurity. We have a lot to thank the Founders of Africa Online for since if it was not for them there may never have been a Silicon Savannah today. Long live Africa Online!