Fast internet creates tech jobs in Nairobi’s poor neighborhoods

A woman runs as a commuter train passes through the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya on March 24, 2022. [Monicah Mwangi, Reuters]

Daniel Nzoma’s face shines in the light of a computer screen as he examines computer codes used for driverless cars and crop disease detection, an unusual job in Nairobi’s crowded Pipeline district.

Nzoma’s job, which includes “geolocation,” requires reliable and fast internet connectivity that was unavailable in Pipeline.

But start-up Poa Internet aims to provide fast and cheap internet access to low-income Kenyan neighborhoods, like Pipeline.

“Geolocation really requires high internet speed for you to be accurate,” Nzoma said, as peddlers and car horns sounded outside his home.

Companies often outsource the work that underpins artificial intelligence to people who label roadside objects or teach driverless cars to recognize their surroundings, to distinguish between a spot of dirt on a fruit and a disease, teaching machines to do the same.

General view of houses in Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya, March 24, 2022. [Reuters, Monicah Mwangi]

But this is only possible with high-speed Internet.

Poa’s bespoke software platform and inexpensive off-the-shelf Wi-Fi components connect home antennas to the towers it builds in the neighborhoods it serves. So far, they have connected 12,000 households and also serve internet cafes in Nairobi.

“We use a form of super amplified WiFi to deliver. So we use a wireless network to deliver to customers’ homes and that allows us to reduce costs,” said Poa chief executive Andy Halsall.

Kenya is one of the most connected countries in Africa – 42% of Kenyans were online at the start of 2022, according to Internet researchers Datareportal. But the quality of the connection is often poor.

Cheap and fast internet bridges the ‘digital divide’, providing better access to jobs, commerce, education and social inclusion. But few, if any, companies are installing fiber optic connections in poor neighborhoods. Most people connect through their phones using 3G or 4G data plans.

Nzoma pays 2,500 Kenyan shillings ($21.78) a month for unlimited fast internet, about half the fees charged by other internet service providers and cheaper than phone data plans, provided by companies such as Airtel or Safaricom.

In January, Poa closed a $28 million financing round led by the Africa50 infrastructure fund; he hopes to expand beyond Kenya. Halsall said the five-year-old company will turn a profit within a year.

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