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The Tribulations of Able Wireless: Nairobi Tech Startup Offering Unlimited Internet for Only Sh500

Photo – @Ablewireless

You might have heard about Able Wireless. It is a startup internet provider based out of Ruaraka.

The company started by techpreneur Kahenya Kamunyu provides unlimited internet to homes for a small fee of Sh500 a month.

The service is already active in Ngumba, Mbindah and Messo estates, but the plan was to have it in many more estates by now.

Kahenya planned for Able to be live by 2013, but so many things did not fall into place.

It was until May this year that Able started accepting customers.

However, in a lengthy post on Medium this week, Kahenya reveals the difficulties he has faced running the tech startup.

He reveals how Kenya Power has continued to be an impediment and how ex-Googler and current ICT Cabinet Minister Joe Mucheru has failed to be of any help.

His story shows how little the government values tech startups, and yet continues to gloat how Kenya is an ICT hub.

Read it below.


We, the minions

Its barely 10.00 AM. It feels like 4.00 PM. I’m not a morning person, but today at 5.00 AM, I woke up with a funny feeling. I checked to make sure that everything was OK, per my business, and it was. Sure, my business has its issues, but whose doesn’t. Seeing that everything was running, I drifted off, back to sleep. Come 7.30 AM, Armageddon came with his relatives. That usually means that even the backup measures that we have in place have failed. When I got to work, 15 minutes later, it caught me by surprise. No power, and not just that, the generator had failed to kick in. I expected the worst, and sure enough, it was Armageddon, again.

A power surge and fluctuating voltage had eaten through the automatic voltage controller designed to handle such problems, destroyed it, it had caught fire, but the suppressors had put it out, and the rest of the system realizing things were bad had decided to kill the entire network. Its supposed to do that, when the worst of the worst happens. This is the third time, the 3rd AVS gone. In 3 months. In the process, we lost one of those pricey UPS units, and we need to check on why one remote switch is non-responsive, but it too, probably succumbed to this mess. We have protected everything, with the best protectors we can afford, but Kenya Power’s network is so terrible, such measures don’t mean much.

I will write yet another letter to their Corporate Officer person, who again won’t receive it, despite there being evidence of delivery, and the obligatory 10 days of claiming equipment will be lost arguing about who should have done what. I will only do so, cause I am obligated to do so by my investors. I have lost hope in that system. So have they. They aren’t billionaires who drive fancy cars and fly First Class, nope, we all fly cattle and eat in a wooden shed.

It also doesn’t make sense that you get less power if you choose to buy more electricity in the middle of the month. We need to call it what it is, profiteering. Kenya Power is a racket. Now, with the last money I had, we are burning diesel. We have burnt all of this months expenses money and petty cash, some money I borrowed, and an income from a side hustle on diesel. Its only the 6th. We have another 24 days to go before the end of the month. I need to create more debt to fix a mess I did not create, but that’s not the worst.

Let me tell you another story. My business has faced every single version of red tape available in Kenya, and not just today. I first pitched this idea 15 years ago to three people, Michael Joseph, when we were sort of knew each other before all the muck, as well as Joe Mucheru and Njeri Rionge. Michael Joseph told me it wouldn’t work and that it needed scales of economy that nobody could raise at the time, Joe Mucheru quietly smiled and listened while Njeri Rionge straight laughed in my face, to which I lost all respect for her. We have not spoken ever since, have met only once when Aly Khan Satchu used to do his weekend thing at the movie hall at Westgate, and I retain an extremely poor perception of her as a person, though I let this story go.

After a couple of years of life, I came to realise that the plan was viable, and now more than ever feasible. That was four years ago. I faced every every single hurdle government had to throw and they threw many, and have turned this tiny business that had nearly no hopes of surviving to a less than smaller entity that has some hope of surviving. In the couple of months I have run Able, it has reduced me physically, having lost close to 15 kilos in a few months working every day from 9.00 AM to 1AM. I have slept on the floor of a data centre for four months straight, worried about Armageddon happening.

It only started happening after everything started working out, and it seems to be ever increasing. We manage close to 120 WiFi APs, and have interconnected enough buildings to bring FTTH to 3,000 homes. Which is why I am pissed. You see, today, we were meant to launch FTTH. WiFi is wonderful, but guys sometimes want more, and we were going to deliver as promised. Last week, we were meant to roll out FTTH again, but Kenya Power intervened. 3 times. I have complained. I have been told Kenya Power is facing teething problems. How? Kenya Power was distributing power long before I came to this world, and I’m in my mid-30s. The only teething problems there are how they tell those funny “stories”, lies if you must, and I think, to impress the President.

When I first spoke to guys in the Office of the President, and told them about our manufacturing plans, we were absolutely ignored. The only support we wanted from the government to help us start manufacturing our BlackBox device was not funding, not even a tender or contract, just tax relief, like all the multinationals got. Nobody said anything. Just after elections, I managed to talk to a random guy who had run for Nairobi Governor and failed and he had told me to forget Kenya and move to Rwanda, offering to smooth the way for me, finances included.

I turned it down, just like I had turned down an offer to go build a streaming system in Hong Kong that could be used in low income countries. What that actually meant was that some Hong Kong Investment firm had seen our CNN clip and decided this was a good tip to back, make me rich and in the process, own my idea. I turned that down too. Local money right?

Now, I feel cheated, but not defeated. Diesel will eventually run out, and I will try push the limit of the loan I owe to buy more diesel to keep people connected. Every effort to talk to my friend Joe has gone to naught. I think I’m the only one in that relationship who believes that it is a relationship. I’m not even in the friendzone. Seems when you become a government suit, you have to shed many. Its not even because I want a government tender or contract, its issues of policy, and every available mechanism to deliver your views goes into a big SPAM folder.

The one phone call and the couple of text messages between us has taught me that he isn’t one of us. And that’s OK. But one of us needs to stop pretending that we care for the other or we have each others interests at heart. We don’t. This business has cost me many friendships and relationships. I have seen them all, horrible messages, those secret conversations many guys have been having on their Telegram and WhatsApp groups, talking ill about me and my people, how broke I’ve become, how worn my work boots have become, how shoddily I now dress, guys have come round to the office, pretending to express interest, yet they have gone back and shared messages at how pathetic my setup is. That’s O.K. too. Guys from the Office of The President have told us that the President does not need need to hear about our issues. They are far too small to pique his interests and our work does not demonstrate any value to national interests. That’s O.K. too, since we weren’t seeking approval from him anyway.

We have lived on bread and coffee for weeks on end, and nobody has died, and today will not be any more different a day. I know the generator needs service, its making a funny sound, has a hard start, its probably dying, but since I can’t afford to do better, then it will have to do, so provided it keeps running, I am good. We are good. This business has taught me to swallow my pride and learn to do without many things, including people. Yes, the business is growing, doubling its income every 24 days, but still we are broke. If we run out of diesel over the next couple of hours, then we will have to shutdown the network for a few hours till electricity comes back, cause I have spent about three times the amount of money I spend on electricity on diesel, and it has hurt our liquidity.

That isn’t my fault. Yes, I will go home and make due with a couple of slices of bread and coffee without milk, and that’s O.K. It will not kill us to suffer. But we need a whole new system. Leadership has dropped the ball on so many levels its not funny. I won’t waste my time going to vote, or listening to politics, its just noise built on broken promises. I won’t listen to Dr. Chumo talking about how they are improving electricity delivery and reducing cost. Its just nonsense.

How do I know? I have to deal with this every single day. And I won’t listen to my friend Joe either, not because I expected anything from him after he became a suit, that’s not my style, I was happy for the guy when he made it, but disappointed, because he couldn’t keep his word at making time for a single meeting, not that he is obligated to, but I am a registered operator, invested in Kenya. If other network bosses can see him to address their issues, then I believe that regardless of how small my business is, that I should enjoy the privilege. Maybe I’m too needy. Who knows. Now let me go idle over my generator’s fuel gauge and try work out how long we have to go.

Source: Nairobi Wire