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 MTN.
“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 knowledge gap.”
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 up.”
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 countries.”
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 started.”
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 Street Technologies.”
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 says.
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 marketplace.”
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.” GTB
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, post acquisition
Dual Nigerian and US citizen