First 25 000 links in Knott-Craig’s dream of connecting every African to the Internet, no matter how humble their station

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. It’s part of the growth process. Call it character building. But it’s not being knocked down that’s important. It’s how you come back. A year ago Alan Knott-Craig Jnr was flying high. Very publicly. His book, Mobinomics, offered a full frontal on his adventure at Mxit, a business he was running after an acquisition funded by FirstRand co-founder Paul Harris. But in October last year that partnership ended. Abruptly. The Knott-Craig who came to the CNBC studios today was a quieter, humble, almost chastened man. Major setbacks tend to do that. But they also open new doors and encourage us to adjust priorities. Sometimes with amazing consequences. I’m proud of the way my friend has bounced back. Few people have the vision and persistence to do what he has accomplished with an idea to make the internet accessible to every African, no matter how humble their station. The dream has started and will soon bring the world wide web to 25 000 people at the bottom of the income pyramid. And as the interview below shows, he’s only just begun.  – AH

To watch the video of my interview, click here. 

ALEC HOGG: … Entrepreneurs like to do good. Usually they like to do good after they’ve made an enormous amount of money and they’re a lot older than Alan Knott-Craig Jnr

Alan Knott-Craig: Has cleared his head and ready for the next adventure
Alan Knott-Craig: A dream to give every African access to the internet, no matter how humble their station may be right now

who’s an entrepreneur but he’s doing good as well. Alan, before we go into this amazing project that you’re busy with at the moment – last time we saw each other was in the Cape Town Departure lounge where both of us had just recently left our jobs, yours of course being much more high-profile. You had even written a book about Mxit. Anything more about what went on there or how you’re feeling about it?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: It still feels pretty sore but I must say time heals all wounds and I took a hell of a roll with the dice with that whole thing, took some risks. There was a lot of upside for me, but in the end I guess I just didn’t deliver the goods and I had to take a big setback. So it’s taken a while to come to terms with all of that and start rebuilding,

ALEC HOGG: You’re an entrepreneur. How many businesses have you started?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: I’ve been involved in the starting of over 20 businesses in the last ten years but me personally, I’d probably say I’d only done two or three myself.

ALEC HOGG: And this one that you’re in now: Project Isizwe, which is a hugely ambitious project to get free Wi-Fi presumably to everyone in Africa.

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: Ja, the idea is not impossible and it doesn’t seem that anyone is really driving it, so since I’ve got a bit of time on my hands I’d see what I could do to roll out free Wi-Fi.

ALEC HOGG: Why?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: Well, I think access to information makes for a better world. I’ve got kids so don’t just think for myself anymore. If I can do my little bit to make the country and the continent a better place in the next few years – well, this is my little bit.

ALEC HOGG: Alan, you’re also one of the Young Global Leaders at the World Economic Forum. There’s a lot of people there who also want to do good. Have you pulled any of your network in?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: Definitely. Not just that network, other guys too. At the end of the day everybody kind of wants to get off the side-lines and do something. They’re just trying to look for something where they can make a difference. This is one of those particular things I can drive, but I’ve got lots of guys helping me in the background.

ALEC HOGG: Have you pulled in people from abroad?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: I’ve got one or two. I’ve got a friend out from London and I’ve got some more friends in America tying in. For now it’s just African. I think you’ve got to do it locally otherwise you’re really missing the point.

ALEC HOGG: And it’s one thing to talk about it and another thing to actually make it happen. You’ve started the ball rolling.

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: It actually all started when I was at Mxit where we did a deal with the Council at Stellenbosch. There really was no trick to it other than you basically had to get the Council working together with the private sector. In the City of Tshwane, we’ve actually announced a couple of weeks ago that we’re going to try and do the whole of Tshwane in the next few years. Basic free Wi-Fi for low-income communities – focused on schools. And when you look at the pieces you’ve got to put together, its not like billions of Rand and lots of infrastructure and execution risk. This is really just putting together parts that are already there.

ALEC HOGG: If it’s not billions of Rand, how much is it?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: To start with we’re going to do five sites in Tshwane. It’s about one million rand fully funded for five years. Fully funded, so that’s basic free Wi-Fi for about 25,000 people. And the reason it works is because, working with the Council, they give you sites. So they’ve got lots of buildings which they don’t charge rent for. The equipment itself is becoming incredibly cheap, mostly thanks to Motorola going bankrupt. As you know, it was the world’s leading radio technology for a long time with all of those skills sitting there. When it disintegrated, those teams went off and started their own businesses and are now manufacturing the best Wi-Fi equipment in the world at a fraction of the price that it used to be five years ago. And lastly, because we are non-profit we provide a vehicle where guys can contribute bandwidth. So whether you’re a Mxit or a Telkom or anybody with excess bandwidth you can throw it into the pot. It’s sub-cost. And throwing that into the pot reduces the big bandwidth cost of offering free Wi-Fi.

ALEC HOGG: We come from a country here in South African where we’ve paid through our noses for bandwidth for so long. It seems almost impossible that this can be available to poor people for free.

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: Well, it’s not impossible. It’s really not impossible. We’re doing it. The timing’s right. Five years ago people didn’t really have Wi-Fi and mobile phones in those communities. Nowadays there are enough second-hand routers, Smart phones or semi-Smart phones in the market so I think the timing’s quite good for this whole thing. And the truth is: 20 years from now we’ll look back and say: How on earth was it not free? It’s going to be like water and electricity. Everyone and every country in the world should have a basic cap if you want to call it that – of data – because it’s such an enabler.

ALEC HOGG: But what about people surfing porn sites? What about downloads of huge files that might clog up the system?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: We’ve got a product, essentially for the user is no more than 250mb per day. We put some security measures in place to stop torrenting, because students and youngsters could eat up your whole network downloading movies. We don’t let guys do more than 1MB per second, so it’s pretty fair. We focus on content that’s educational and gender-related. Also games – funnily enough. Games are just another version of sports and kids playing sports are out of the courts. Especially in the low-income areas where you’re getting guys that are doing something less dangerous or destructive with their time. It’s a good thing. How we do it is by putting actual content on the network itself close to the community. So we’ll have the Khan Academy. We’ll have Siyavula. We’ll have Wikipedia all sitting right there. They can break out to the rest of the Web quite easily, but it’s slow, whereas the stuff we want them to get onto is really fast.

ALEC HOGG: Democratising education. It could change this country’s trajectory.

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: Well, I think it already has. The mobile operators have shown that already. It’s not going to be the way it happened in Western Europe or in the USA where there’s cable and fibre and copper. It’s going to be wireless. Whether you like it or not, 3G is mostly for profit so those guys are always going to try to make a profit. It’s never going to be free. Wi-Fi for me seems the most logical access medium for the bottom of the pyramid. If we can just rely on a couple of actors for the continent, then I don’t see any reason why we can’t do it.

ALEC HOGG: Alan, what about you? You have been involved in 20 businesses that you’ve started. It has always been a profit kind of approach. Now this is clearly on the other end of the spectrum.

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to make “loot” again. In the meantime, whilst I’m not necessarily chasing something with a big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, this is a nice way to feel like I’m making a difference, and of course, it’s a rising tide effect. It has a multiplier effect. The more people that get onto the Internet – GDP grows – more money for everybody. It probably makes it a bit easier to start a little business. So I’m pretty sure I’ll figure something out. It will probably be back in the broadband space, but for now this is my focus.

ALEC HOGG: Have you pulled others into supporting you in Isizwe?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: Ja, absolutely. We’ve got a couple of great guys, like-minded. One of the nice things about not having any money as opposed to my last venture, is that I can’t pay people. So I’ve got people coming on board for the right reasons. They’re not coming on for a salary. These guys are rock stars. Everyone is in it for the right reasons and I think we can build something quite sustainable.

ALEC HOGG: Full-time?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: For now.

ALEC HOGG: So you’re doing it full-time and these guys who are with you are doing it full-time as well?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: Full-time. The guys are all full-time.

ALEC HOGG: How do you eat?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: Well, eat into your savings. The way the model works: once the money goes into Project Isizwe, it finds and pays the local installers. For instance in Tshwane we found a local installer and they get 90% of the money and the rest remains as administrative fees. So there’s some token salaries and things like that. I’m pretty sure that we’re going to find some for-profit stuff down the line that’s going to consume the guys’ time and this will be their kind of side duty, but for now guys aren’t eating, to be quite honest.

ALEC HOGG: Well, you started with Tshwane and it is ambitious to have everybody in that city or in the metropol to have Wi-Fi available to them by 2016. What about other parts of the country?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: Well, it’s also a bit of a political move. Once you’ve got the major political decision-makers on board you get going. I was very impressed by the City of Tshwane. The mayor, Mayor Ramokgopa, is actually a visionary. Every politician wants to leave something really meaningful and he can see the impact the Internet has on the low-income communities. So whilst it’s not something for everyone…it’s not going to cover Waterkloof…the idea is it’s for low-income communities. It’s public spaces and it’s education-related. If you nail that stuff it’s quite a good example. I’m pretty sure we’ll have some other municipalities and hopefully some provinces on board. But in the meantime I’ve got my hands full.

ALEC HOGG: Is he well-connected – the mayor of Tshwane? Can he introduce you perhaps to the guy in Johannesburg or even your own Stellenbosch?

ALAN KNOTT-CRAIG JR: I’m sure. When you start a relationship with a girl you want to keep it monogamous for as long as possible. I’m really trying to do this. I’m trying to live by my promises to him and he needs to see that we can deliver. We’ve done it before already. This is going to be on a bigger scale. As far as I’m concerned he’s a great guy and it doesn’t matter whether he knows people or not. Anybody seeing the success of a project like this would be hard-pressed to find a reason not to do it.

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