Facebook’s fiber optics in Nigerian state put Africa pivot in focus | World news

When government officials in the southern Nigerian state of Edo set about radically improving poor internet access for its population of 4 million, they didn’t have to look far for help. MainOne, a company responsible for laying a vast network of fiber-optic cables across west Africa, was an obvious partner. Another, perhaps less obvious one, was Facebook.

A joint agreement was signed to install fiber-optic cables running across the state’s capital, Benin City. Since 2019, 400km (250 miles) of cables have been laid in Edo, about a quarter via the partnership between the two companies and the government.

“Obviously, Facebook isn’t really a digital infrastructure company, but they invested in these cables,” said Emmanuel Eweka, who worked as a senior government official for the Edo government until last September.

In recent years as Facebook has come under rising, pressure has increased in the west, the company its focus on Africa, particularly in countries where the regulatory and environment tends to be much looser.

The combination of weak and expensive internet coverage for most of Nigeria’s fast-growing population of more than 200 million people has meant that companies hoping to tap into a potential goldmine of new users – and their data – have sought to invest in the business of helping those potential users get online in the first place.

“To make internet data more affordable, Facebook needs to build infrastructures that are almost free,” Eweka said. “In fact, I’d say Facebook actually loses in terms of making money out of those cables. But then they gain it back on the user data that they will generate, and obviously that has huge potential in a country like Nigeria.”

An advertising billboard for the Facebook service Free Basics on a street in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

New potential users are rapidly emerging in countries with fast-growing populations and rising smartphone use driven by increased connectivity. Just over half of Nigeria’s population currently has access to the internet, and the proportion with access is rising each year.

In like Edo, where government officials are committed to overhauling sparse and expensive internet access, there are ripe opportunities for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, to become central to digital infrastructure, thereby positioning itself to capitalise on the increased connectivity that will follow.

Edo’s governor, Godwin Obaseki, has in recent years driven a digitisation agenda that touches on many areas of ordinary life, and tech companies have become fundamental parts of it.

In 2019, Facebook invested $20m in internet infrastructure in Edo, and committed alongside MainOne to laying 750km of fiber-optic cables in Edo and the south-western state of Ogun. Both states have committed to building business and technology hubs, expanding internet access for entrepreneurs, tech workers, government agencies and schools.

Faster internet supplied through the cables has underpinned a drive to change the way the government in Edo works.

The state’s previously “analogue” civil service now uses a Microsoft-based government portal, according to Eweka, using fiber-optic internet access provided by MainOne and Facebook. “The level of accountability this system brings is so effective,” Eweka said. “Right now, if a case file is sent to a civil servant from the governor’s office, the can see exactly when it is opened, and whether it has been actualised. So the days where you send one file somewhere and it gets lost in the system are gone.”

Edo state election campaign posters in Benin City in September 2020.
Edo state election campaign posters in Benin City in September 2020. Photograph: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

Schools in Edo and areas where fiber-optic cables can be accessed have benefited from subsidized internet connectivity and are also working with Microsoft-based learning programs, improving the quality of education, officials say.

Last November, the government launched the Edo Tech Park, a largely as-yet-unbuilt project on 200,000sq km of land that developers envision will be the center of the state’s growing tech ecosystem.

The hub will provide “live-in, work apartments, residential and commercial real estate, tech incubators, and offices for rent”. Fundamental to the plans are the increased access to faster and cheaper internet services that Meta has helped provide.

Stephen Osawaru, a 38-year-old entrepreneur and business consultant in Benin City, works with a network of more than 300 startups in the state. “Many internet businesses in education, agriculture, health and finance didn’t exist five years ago that have now taken advantage of the connectivity in Edo,” he said. “The internet is better and cheaper than it was five years ago; internet penetration is growing at an exponential rate and creating more opportunities,” he said. Both of his businesses have thrived as a result of engagement through Facebook and Instagram and through WhatsApp broadcasts to customers.

Funke Opeke founded MainOne in 2008. Since then, a single deep-sea cable running south along the edge of the Atlantic, from Portugal to west Africa and on to South Africa, has expanded, spawning a vast maze of fiber-optic connections. She describes the public-private partnerships in Edo as “a model” for how internet access in Nigeria can be rapidly increased.

Funke Opeke, the founder and chief executive officer of MainOne
Funke Opeke, the founder and chief executive officer of MainOne. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Opeke said cables are leased by other telecommunication companies and that this lowered costs for mobile operators because operators do not have to build their own infrastructure.

“We also build to all the critical points of importance for governments so that we’re able to deliver services to them and help their automation. It’s accelerating development and state services to the people – a win-win for the government and the private sector.”

Others are more circumspect, acknowledging the potential benefits to the country alongside the motives of the companies involved. When partnership announcements are made, the tone has sounded “quite altruistic, like they [the technology companies] are doing this to help,” said Gbemisola Alonge, a senior development analyst at Stears, an economic analysis company in Lagos. “But it’s never like that. It’s to expand their reach and increase their [user] base.”

A Meta spokesperson said the company worked with partners “to drive innovation on all aspects of performance and efficiency” and that its partnership with MainOne had helped bring online training to 2,000 teachers in Edo and connectivity to four schools and their surrounding communities.

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