Russian technology company Fairwaves was one of 40 companies that launched at last week’s Demo Africa conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Venture capitalists, angel investors, investment fund managers, entrepreneurs and technology experts attended the two-day conference billed as Africa’s premier launch pad for emerging technologies.
Founded in 2011, Fairwaves sells equipment and provides hosted services for mobile operators. The Moscow-based company launched a low cost field-deployable GSM base station at last week’s conference.
Fairwaves CEO Alexander Chemeris told How we made it in Africa that the company is seeking to solve the “huge problem of connectivity” in most of Africa’s rural areas.
“We are specifically targeting the African market. There are so many people here who are still not connected to mobile networks. We are designing in Moscow, manufacturing in Europe but our market is here. This is the biggest market for us. There are 600m people in Africa who still have no access to mobile networks.”
The small base station made by Fairwaves enables mobile phone users in unconnected regions to make calls within a 10km radius. The base station currently sells for US$5,000.
“We may work with traditional mobile operators helping them expand their networks. But the most interesting thing we are trying to push is a model where a village or a county buys their own mobile network,” says Chemeris.
“We are working with Mexico installing networks in villages. We also have some base stations in Russia and the Netherlands. We are doing trials in different other countries. There are people in Somalia ready to buy.”
Spectrum regulation and working with traditional mobile operators, said Chemeris, are the biggest hurdles Fairwaves faces in Africa.
“Technology here works; it’s not a problem. Building partnerships is not a big deal, but changing the policy [to allow villages to own their networks] is a challenge.”
However, Chemeris is optimistic.
Russian investment in Africa
He noted that while there is significant Russian investment in Africa, most investors are unaware of the opportunities on the continent.
“There are investors who are interested in Africa, but it is not mainstream yet. They [investors] need to see some success stories,” said Chemeris. “Russia is a fast growing country itself and there is a lot of business to do there. Russian investors are more focused on Europe and US as more stable markets and more predictable markets. Most of them are slightly afraid of less stable economies.”
Andrey Bakhmat, chief operating officer at Fairwaves, said there is a need for more education among Russians about Africa and its changing business environment.
“It is difficult to find potential of Africa when you are sitting in Moscow in comfortable apartments. It is simply difficult to understand that potential here is huge,” said Bakhmat.
Chemeris agreed, adding: “Very few people in Moscow travel to Africa expect [to] Egypt and [even there] they just go to resorts. [Russian] people just don’t know about Africa.”
He advised Russian investors coming to Africa to seek partnerships with local companies and people.
“They should understand that Africa is not a country, it’s a continent. [You need] to find people. People are the key everywhere. If you have good partners, it’s a good deal.”