The first broadband cable will connect west Africa to the rest
of the world on July 1, fulfilling a dream that former Verizon
executive Funke Opeke had when she returned to work in the
Nigerian telecoms industry in 2005. Alan Burkitt-Gray
interviews the CEO of the company which plans to work with
Seacom to create a ring round Africa
Funke Opeke: MainOne is working on the engineering of
phase two, to Cape Town. Installation will probably not start
until the second half of 2011
Pulling the cable up the beach into Portugal: west Africa's
first broadband connection to the internet
Tyco's Resolute cable ship at the port of Tema, close to
Ghana's capital, Accra
MainOne cable lands in Lagos, Nigeria, completing the
installation of phase one
One July 1 2010, if all goes well, communications between west
Africa and the rest of the world will improve out of all
recognition. That's the date that the MainOne cable is due to
go into service from Ghana and Nigeria to Europe - the first
broadband cable to serve any part of west Africa.
Following that Nigerian-funded MainOne plans to connect other
countries on the bulge of the west African coast from Morocco
southwards, and then to extend right along the coast to South
Africa, where it wants to connect with Seacom, the east African
cable that went into operation in 2009.
Between them, these two cables will transform the economies of
the African coastal states, which will suddenly get
developed-world standards of connection to the internet. They
are already inspiring the construction of networks towards the
centre of Africa.
Getting ready for the celebrations in early July is the woman
behind MainOne, Funke Opeke, a Nigerian electrical engineer who
worked in the US for 20 years before leaving Verizon Wholesale
in New York in 2005 and returning home to join African operator
"I was back in Nigeria and I could be doing something about
it," she says. "That's really what motivated me after being
back in the country two years and observing that the dearth of
infrastructure was limiting education, business, and just
really this part of the world had a huge information gap and
She took on the challenge, raised $240 million plus $28 million
contingency, and now "the installation of phase one is done",
she says. "It's not in service yet. We're working to test and
commission to put it in service."
Phase one, installed by Tyco Electronics Submarine
Communications which "did all of the work, the manufacturing,
the surveying, the cable ships", runs from Seixal, close to the
Portuguese capital Lisbon - where it runs into a Tata
Communications landing station - to Accra in Ghana and then
Lagos in Nigeria, both landing stations owned by MainOne and
built with Huawei kit.
"The capacity of the cable is 1.92 terabits a second, but on
July 1 we will light up 30 gigabits on each link we have on the
network - 90 gigs in all." That's one from Seixal to Accra, one
from Seixal to Lagos and one from Accra to Lagos.
"We are looking to go up the table on our expectations," says
Opeke. "Within a few years we hope we will be able to upgrade
the terminal equipment so that the capacity of the cable will
exceed 1.92 terabits that it's capable of delivering today. We
are confident that the technology will continue to evolve and
we will be able to get more capacity on the cable as we fill it
Before then, she hopes to connect other places in between
Portugal and Nigeria, including Senegal, Ivory Coast, Morocco
and the Spanish Atlantic islands of the Canaries. "We've done
the survey work already," says Opeke. "They should take less
time and less money than phase two. We are looking to see how
we can put landing stations in place and connect to those
Phase two, which will result in an optical fibre ring round
Africa via a partnership with Seacom, will come towards the end
of 2011, she believes.
"We're not taking much of a pause because there's a lot of work
to do before the actual installation. We have not yet started
installation of phase two but we have started working on phase
two," says Opeke.
"We're working on licensing and design, and then the
finalisation of the engineering and then manufacture and
installation - installation will probably not start until the
second half of next year."
MainOne is working on the Nigeria to South Africa cable with
Seacom and a South African investment group, eFive Telecoms.
Seacom has a close relationship with Tata Communications, which
controls South Africa's second national operator, Neotel, but
"MainOne does not have that direct relationship with Tata. The
relationship we have is with Seacom and eFive", says Opeke.
"We have signed a memorandum of understanding and we are
working towards a definitive agreement so we can put that
contract in place to complete the build."
There is still funding to raise, "but obviously having a going
business and revenue coming into the company in a few months, I
think that changes the dynamics in terms of raising the money",
says Opeke. "Two years ago when we were raising the money for
phase one we were a greenfield company with no track record and
there was doubt whether we could get this done. Having achieved
what we have in the timeframe that we promised, within the
budget that we planned, we've achieved our business objectives
we set out to accomplish. So it's a different story raising
money for phase two."
Raising the money for phase one was a challenge, she is ready
to admit - and Opeke faced considerable scepticism while she
was doing it.
"When I started I was told that other cables were being built
and as an independent operator we didn't stand a chance," she
recalls. "And here we are today the first to go into service,
and realising how difficult it is to get these things done, and
the challenges of building infrastructure like this and finding
funding in Africa. All I can say is we recognise it is
challenging but we do expect other cables to eventually be
built. When those cables will be in service we cannot tell."
So how did she go about it? Firstly, determination that west
Africa needed the sort of connections that most other parts of
the world have come to expect in the last decade or so.
"Like every business idea with an entrepreneur, you write up a
plan, you do your homework, you put what resources you have on
the line and you look for other similarly inspired people to
help you along. You gain traction and you approach more people
and you get bolder because you have some success. That's how we
The seed money "came from a group of Nigerians", the founding
shareholders "who wrote the cheques for the first few million
dollars to keep the company going", she says. "They then put
themselves on the line to raise some more private money before
we started getting any sort of institutional commitment."
Institutions that rallied in support of the project are "all
African equity investors", including Africa Finance
Corporation, Skye Bank of Nigeria, Pan African Infrastructure
Development Fund and First Bank of Nigeria. "The founding
shareholders who kicked us off have a platform called Main
Loans came from the African Development Bank and DEG, the
German development bank. "The two banks that were already
equity participants - First Bank and Skye Bank - are providing
additional debt funding to the project as well."
Now the cable is in place "the outlook is quite promising even
though there is a lot of noise about new capacity coming into
the west coast", says Opeke. "We are here first. We did have
some early customers sign on and right now we are focused on
connecting those customers as soon as the cable is ready."
MainOne is a wholesale provider, "and working with operators
and service providers not just locally but internationally as
well to meet the requirements of anyone round the globe who has
a communication requirement with this part of Africa", she
But even though MainOne is not directly seeking contact with
end users, Opeke says "I've had enterprises call me and ask
about approaching their operator customers to make sure they
get the service, and our operator customers are confirming the
same as well. In terms of general media interest we're seeing,
there is growing consumer awareness and interest about what
MainOne represents in the market at large. The market is very
excited. Operator customers are very enthusiastic. Consumers
are catching on because they want to know when MainOne will be
operating so that they can get service from their retail
operators. There is excitement in the air."
What difference will it make to Ghana and Nigeria - and, later,
to the other countries that will be connected to the cable?
"We think this is a game-changer and operators need to get on
board early and grasp the market share," says Opeke. "Look at
how businesses use information in advanced countries,
everything from disaster recovery to business process
outsourcing and technology transfer."
Once the cable is in operation, "you can be sitting in Lagos
and using the most advanced technology out of Tokyo or Houston
and not see any difference in performance from an engineer
running the same application locally".
Manufacturers and other global companies will be able to take
advantage of the labour market in Nigeria. "This will drive a
lot of possibilities in terms of business," she adds. "There
are just a lot of possibilities in terms of leveraging the
access to the labour market here and obviously the market that
Nigeria represents in terms of global flow of information and
skills. Now we will be able to deliver that into the global
Meanwhile she's looking forward to the "big opening ceremony in
July", which will take place simultaneously in Lagos, Accra
"and London where we terminate service", she adds. "We want to
have a simultaneous launch and made a big splash. We're
confident. We're wonderfully on schedule to deliver on July 1."
CEO and founder of Main Street Technologies, the holding
company for the MainOne cable
BSc in electronics and electrical engineering from Obafemi
Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Nigeria
Masters degree in electrical engineering from Columbia
University, New York
20 years working in the US, ending as executive director for
performance assurance with the wholesale division of Verizon
Wholesale in New York in 2005
Returned to Nigeria as CTO of MTN Nigeria Communications. Then
advised Transcorp on the acquisition of Nigerian incumbent
operator Nitel and briefly served as the interim COO of Nitel,
Dual Nigerian and US citizen