Two Kenyan start-ups with big plans

Internet access is fast becoming an essential basic service in Kenya. It is needed to access vital information such as job opportunities and education resources, while many administrative procedures are now online. However, access to the internet is a challenge in remote or informal settlements without the option of cost-effective broadband, leaving only mobile internet services that can be prohibitively expensive. poa! is a start-up in Kenya, aiming to bring affordable internet via Wi-Fi to underserved areas such as the huge informal settlement of Kibera in Nairobi.

poa!, an investee company of Novastar Ventures East Africa I, an equity fund supported by the EIB under the Impact Financing Envelope in 2014, is using Wi-Fi technology to change this situation. Some customers sign up for poa!’s low-cost home Wi-Fi service, while others pay for access to “public” Wi-Fi, available within a certain radius of the community buildings which host poa!’s Wi-Fi equipment. Others are able to access the internet through these schools, cybercafes or youth centres.

One feature of impact financing at the EIB is that the Bank has an additional capacity under the ReM+ framework to track the progress of investments on an annual basis, including that of funds such as Novastar. It is also an opportunity to dive deeper to understand the impact of EIB lending. The Bank is currently working with the Global Development Network (GDN) to enable young researchers from the ACP region to study these impacts through the EIB-GDN programme in Applied Development Finance. One of these researchers will be working with poa! to look at how better internet access is improving lives in low-income communities. The findings will also help poa! as they start to roll out services to other low-income areas of Kenya.

Another company that Novastar has invested in is Hivisasa, an alternative mobile news platform. Three national newspapers dominate the media landscape in Kenya, but these tend to focus on national-level current affairs. For local news, people often have to rely on word of mouth, local radio (which is transmitted for only a couple of hours per day), visits by government officials to schools or community centres, or by “town criers” physically visiting villages. A lot of important information falls through the cracks, resulting in “information poverty”.

Hivisasa aims to provide a more diverse set of news stories, and more local perspectives, with over 1 400 writers contributing from around the country. In 2017, Hivisasa recorded up to 38 million monthly page views and the platform has over 1 million Facebook followers. The company is working towards financial sustainability through advertising, while also aiming to have a big impact in terms of fostering civic engagement, political participation and social capital.