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07 July 2017
| Alan Burkitt-Gray
Funke Opeke started by creating a company to build a new subsea cable. Then she realised that the west African market needs infrastructure and services, she tells Alan Burkitt-Gray
Opeke is 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 mobile operator MTN.
She then found local funding for MainOne to build a broadband
cable from Seixal in Portugal to Accra in Ghana and onwards to
Lagos in Nigeria.
Back in 2010 her plan was to continue driving the cable from
Lagos as far as South Africa, but there are rival cables that
do that now, and MainOne has shifted its focus to become a data
centre operator and cloud services company – focusing,
at least for now, on Nigeria.
"We realised we had to invest in the ecosystem to support
better adoption and that has meant a variety of things," she
says. "It’s meant investing in terrestrial fibre
and points of presence across the country so we can get our
services closer to some of the smaller internet service
providers and businesses."
Second data centre
The company already runs a data centre in Lagos,
Nigeria’s commercial centre, with 600 racks, and
now it’s planning a second in Nigeria, and is
looking at other countries in west Africa.
"We’re looking at a plan for a second data
centre in Lagos now," says Opeke. "We own the land and
we’re doing the conceptual design.
I’d like to see it in service in 2019." The new
site is at Sagamu, a city about 75km north-east of Lagos,
Nigeria's commercial centre.
"That gives us access for people but also gives geographical
diversity." The plan is to use a modular approach, is stages of
200 racks, to install 600-800 in all.
But then she’s looking at opportunities in two
Francophone countries, Côte d’Ivoire, just
to the west of Ghana, and Senegal, further along the
So far MainOne doesn’t have subsea cable
connections to either Abidjan in Côte
d’Ivoire or Dakar in Senegal, but the company is
discussing licences with the authorities in both countries, she
Then she’ll start looking at data centre
opportunities in both, as well as in Accra, the capital of
Anglophone Ghana, where the cable already lands.
Landing the cable in these two extra places will "give us
more opportunity to put in data centres in Abidjan and Accra,
though I’m not sure about Dakar – even
though Dakar is claiming the role as the capital of Francophone
An Accra data centre will be smaller than the facility
MainOne already has in Nigeria, "but multinationals have
established a presence in Ghana", so it seems a serious
And at the same time Opeke is looking east to Kribi in
Cameroon, where MainOne established a link at the start of 2016
via the 1,100km Nigeria-Cameroon Submarine Cable System, which
runs from Lagos. In Cameroon "there’s interest in
data centres too", she says.
Kribi, incidentially, is the landing point for the planned
6,000km South Atlantic Inter Link cable from Fortaleza, Brazil.
And Fortaleza is also the planned landing station for a number
of cables to the US and Angola – giving MainOne
valuable international links, particularly across the Atlantic
Ocean to the Americas.
A significant step forward in MainOne’s pursuit
of the enterprise business came earlier in 2017 when it
partnered with the operator-neutral Internet Exchange Point of
Nigeria to expand the peering of internet transit traffic
At the same time it expanded its enterprise offerings by
launching cloud-based Microsoft services. The product, called
SME-in-a-Box Pro, is designed to bring to small and medium
enterprises in Nigeria tools such as Office 365 and Exchange
Online, packaged along with broadband communications from
Opeke described it at the time as "a welcome product for
small businesses who require tools that enable their ability to
scale up". She said that SMEs will be able to subscribe to the
online products in local currency rather than US dollars, with
support from MainOne staff in Nigeria.
Today, asked whether MainOne has developed as she had hoped
back in 2010, she is frank: "Yes and no. We have established a
strong presence in the market but it’s not gone as
fast as we would have liked."
She blames "the macroeconomic situation across the
continent" and the need for "a mixture of regulations and
incentives to stimulate growth of the internet".
Opeke points out: "In advanced markets you have programmes
to bring broadband to homes. We don’t have this.
That makes it more of a challenge. We need more collaboration
and governments need to do more to create a more enabling