For some time last year, the first thing you saw when you visited the website of a company called Able Wireless was a documentary titled The Internet’s Own Boy. The film tells the story of Aaron Swartz, who has been described as a programming prodigy, entrepreneur, writer, political organizer and internet hacktivist. Among other things, Aaron was involved in the development of RSS, Reddit and Creative Commons. But what made him stand out, and probably why his story sits on this company’s home page, is the work he did in social justice, political organization and his fight for increased access to information. The change he made in his short life.
We have put his video on our homepage to remind people that it takes very little to change the world. Take time to watch it and share it with others. This should be our real aspirations.
These words formed part of the text that accompanied the video on the site. They could have probably been written by Kahenya Kamunyu, the Founder of Able Wireless.
Kahenya is one of those figures you cannot fail to notice. If you are conversing with him, you find yourself doing most of the listening. Not because he is domineering, but because he makes a lot of sense. If he stands before an audience, he captures everybody's attention with his commanding baritone, and a punchy, measured delivery of words.
So, when he stood before a room full of people at the iHub during BarCamp 2013, everybody listened keenly as he talked about the company he and his partners had formed. It was called Able Wireless, and their main product was a gadget that had come of a purely engineering experiment. This technology, which arose from the desire to meet the need for content and high quality internet at an affordable price, and the challenge of Kenya’s infrastructure to deliver this need, promised to be revolutionary. It would disrupt even the estate movie pirate. In his estimation, they would hit the market in a few months.
In a nutshell, Able Wireless is an Internet Service Provider and a Content Distributor Network company. The gadget the company developed, called a blackbox, connects the user to a wireless network which gives them access to the internet and enables them to stream video content at a monthly fee of Kshs. 500.
The user is required to buy the blackbox to enable them join the platform. The box costs Kshs. 3500. The user will be able to stream movies, news and other content and make the whole house a wireless hotspot. Part of the content will be provided by the community (the users), the rest by media companies. The platform supports legacy, linear and on demand services. One is also be able to make voice calls.
They plan to launch soon. Their launch date is dependent on an internal work schedule, whose milestones have to be realized first. When that comes to pass, it will be the climax of a three year journey for Kahenya, and a 19-month one, for the rest of the Able Wireless. It will also be a few months since the Communication Authority of Kenya gave them a license. When they applied for the license, the industry regulator was a commission, known as CCK. Now, it is known as CA, and it is an authority. In the duration of Able Wireless waiting for their license, this government arm had undergone a complete rebrand, in line with the requirements of the new constitution.
It is this transition that delayed their issuance of the license. At least, so is the accepted narrative within the official circles. However, it is only the naive that take things at face value. The license application went in at the end of January 2014 and was gazetted on 21 March. There’s then supposed to be a 60 day waiting period and the decision is then delivered in an indicative letter. Team Able was told that their application had been caught up in the transition, which was to take a few months, and they had to wait for it to be completed first before their application was processed.
This took longer, and because of that, they had to postpone their launch dates, twice, at their own expense. That cost them.
"This Regulatory overhead means that every month, we have to meet financial commitments to our suppliers per contractual agreements without having earned a single shilling. August 1st marks the 2nd time The Regulator will have delayed our launch owing to their own internal processes"
The company wrote in a blog post sometime last year.
Luckily, that came to pass in August, last year. Kahenya got a call from the regulator asking him to go to their offices. Off he went, carefully moderating his hopes. The moderation turned out to be unnecessary. They had been awarded a license. Finally!
Eventually, one of the main stumbling blocks was out of the way. However, Kahenya admits that it wasn't the only one that held them back a bit. This was a big project, right from the beginning. And he might have underestimated the amount of time and resources that will have to go into the project. But why not? Everything was working fine. The technology was, and still is, pretty sound. They had challenges, just like any other young company, challenges they could address. So he might have wrongly estimated the time periods.
Some guys, however, couldn't wait. Some didn't think they could make it. But they were wrong. Currently, the company is busy manufacturing all the necessary equipment in China. Another thing they never intended to do, but had to due to an unconducive environment in Kenya.
When they started out, Team Able’s plan was to build a manufacturing plant in Ruaraka, Nairobi. They hoped to build more than one hundred blackboxes a day. The plant would, at least, employ 200 people. In fact, their first few blackboxes were made locally. However, the costs and infrastructural bottlenecks they had to surmount to make that remotely possible were numerous. Manufacturing in Kenya didn't make business sense. It was practically and technically impossible. This predicament was best captured in a blog post by Erik Hersman, one of the makers of BRCK, a wireless internet router aimed at the African market.
BRCK were early collaborators of Able Wireless. They also worked on the earlier prototypes of the Able Wireless device. Their story mirrors that of Able Wireless. Their intention was to manufacture in Kenya. However, they soon found it more sensible to move the production overseas. They tried to make it work, but it was hard. Kahenya even wrote a letter to the President. He never got a response. Probably, the letter never got to him.
The environment is more conducive for manufacturers in China.
“We receive more tax concessions from the Chinese government than our own,” notes Kahenya.
Ironical, given that Able Wireless is the first fully Kenyan owned Network Operator. They plan to keep it that way. If a foreign investor wants a piece of the pie, they have to incorporate a local company through which they can invest in Able.
Able Wireless plans to expand their network to cover the whole country. The company plans to build its own network and own the infrastructure independent of existing platforms. The network will cater for internet speeds of 6 terabytes per hour. Their test runs work at speeds of 8.5 terabytes per hour. They recently halted a test they were running in Kiambu where more than 1200 people were using their services. However, they have also been streaming, and still are, from a few locations to a small closed group.
“We want to give people control of what they watch, not what regulators deem fit for a diverse growing society,” Says Kahenya, who is the company’s CEO.
Since the issue of the license, a new energy has taken over Team Able. They are all in launch mode, making sure all things are being done according to deadline, and to deliver the quality they promised. They have to build relationships anew. And, staying through to their aim of ensuring their services are affordable to everybody, they are building appropriate credit streams, so that buying the box is easier than a simcard.
“We have to eliminate credit inequalities on our network, so that those who can't afford to pay for the box upfront get options,” says Kahenya.
Their vibrancy fits right in to the optimism with which several people have viewed them. Able Wireless has received considerable positive mentions. It was listed as one of the 15 African Startups to Watch in 2014. There have also been several attempts to acquire them, including by one of Kenya's biggest companies. Their valuation is mind boggling, for a company that is yet to officially start signing customers. It is company policy not to divulge figures, but the numbers he gave me after promising not to publish them are clearly worth losing sleep over.
This is the type of news that keeps the team upbeat. Because, at times, building a company can be quite a challenge, to anyone. Sometimes you face issues you don’t think should be coming your way.
I spend more time solving problems that are more political in nature than commercial. Problems I shouldn't be handling.
This is not an indictment to the government. It is a request to the powers that be to create favorable systems. Systems that favour Kenyans, that allow those who are willing to do, to build and to own, to exactly do that.
Every night, before he goes to sleep, Kahenya reads several pages of Wikipedia on everything and anything. Sharing knowledge, and making content as accessible as possible, is his, and his company’s, credo. That’s why Able plans to provide free settop boxes to primary and secondary schools in Kenya. This will provide easy access to online education services such as Khan Academy. This plan effortlessly complements the government's pet project of providing free computers to primary schools in Kenya. Here is a reason why the government needs to create a better environment for youth driven Kenyan companies that promise to change the status quo. It is also part of the reason why we wait with anticipation for that Able Wireless launch as soon as the requisite things are in place, because, as the CEO says, when it does happen, it will be quick.