[New Audio Podcast] Chopping It Up With Africa Online’s ‘OGs’ of Kenya’s & Africa’s Early Internet Going Back 25+ Years Ago!
Yesterday evening, we had something of a very special meet-up or reunion with the pioneers of Kenya’s Internet sector going back over 25 years ago at Africa Online. Africa Online was one of Kenya’s original Internet Service Providers or ISPs of what started off as the dial-up modem via copper-based analogue landline and rain-prone variety around 1995. Africa Online was originally known as Karisi Communications and was founded by the iconic startup team of Ayisi Makatiani, Amolo Ngweno, and Karanja Gakio.
The backstory goes that Ayisi, Amolo, and Karanja were all in the US having completed their education there at the prestigious Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT when they decided to start a business to bring the Internet to Kenya and the rest of Africa. This was extremely prescient given that most of Africa was not even connected to the Internet on a real-time or ‘live’ basis and even email required using an archaic store-and-forward method via long-distance analogue modem dial-up connections several times a day between the US and Kenya!
They also built AfricaOnline.com which became for Africa what Yahoo! had been for the early Internet globally as a content and news platform, also known as a portal in later years. Africa Online would receive what were then massive funding rounds in the millions of dollars to open up Africa to the Internet from early Internet companies based in the US like Prodigy. The founding team at Africa Online are arguably the very ones that ignited the spark behind what we now call the ‘silicon savannah’, right here in Kenya. They are Internet royalty in the context of Kenya and Africa. The ‘OOGs’ if such a thing exists and we should be grateful for their foresight and resilience to create the embers that became the Internet fire that we now sit warmly embraced around.
I had the privilege of joining Africa Online after a short stint at Form-Net Africa which was also one of the first ISPs in Kenya back in 1997, working at their Mombasa office at the time. I was at Africa Online at a time when the Internet was so nascent in Kenya that our primary mission was to connect home and business users to analogue connections using slow modems and copper-based phone lines. Back then, fax machines and old-fashioned postal mail were the backbone of communications in Kenya, and mobile phones as we know them today simply didn’t exist but the world and Kenya were on the cusp of a massive digital transformation as the Internet took hold of millions and eventually billions of users at scale.
In our Africa Online reunion yesterday, which I saw as a great opportunity to do an impromptu podcast on my phone, or what I like to call a ‘gangster’ podcast, I managed to capture almost one hour of great memories and recollections from some of my former Africa Online colleagues and Kenya’s ‘OG’ Internet pioneers. In attendance, and captured on this podcast, were Geoffrey Shimanyula who was one of the Sales Managers back then for corporate Internet solutions, Martin Wahogo who was one of Kenya’s very first website developers, Kelly Kabiru who worked in sales like myself at both Africa Online and later 3mice Interactive Media for website services under the Internet Business Solutions or IBS Division, David Ochanda who was also a Sales Manager for corporate Internet solutions, and Patrick Malungu who was the overall Sales Director at Africa Online in Kenya and across six other markets in Africa. Patrick, in particular, honed my sales skills with intense professional training into a highly sharpened and effective instrument together with the majority of sales professionals who ever worked at Africa Online.
In this podcast, you will hear amazing stories of what the Internet looked like over 25 years ago in Kenya. From the fact that an entire ISP in Kenya ran on a 64Kbps Internet connection from the now defunct Kenya Post and Telecommunications or KPTC, now known as Telkom Kenya, using the KENSTREAM data service to how a person called Randy Bush controlled the majority of the country code top-level domain names (CCTLDs) in Africa including Kenya’s .KE and you sent him a text-based email template to get domain names registered that often took one or two weeks to get done since he was named in the US. You will hear about how in order to demonstrate how a website worked a whole web server was picked from Africa Online’s server room in Nairobi so that a demo could be made to a large prospective corporate client at their offices and at the same time this took down the majority of websites in Kenya to do so!
These were easily the Wild Wild West days of Kenya’s now thriving and ubiquitous Internet sector and I am sure that for many of the young(er) listeners who hear this podcast, there will be many humorous and eye-popping moments. The Internet did not simply arrive in Kenya in its current form after more than 25 years, it took vision, hard work, and consistent evolution to morph into what we take for granted today. This is the story of the early days of Kenya’s Internet and as we like to say here, tumetoka mbali! (we have come from far). Sit back, relax, and enjoy a nostalgic trip down memory lane to the early days of Kenya’s Internet revolution from none other than the Africa Online ‘OGs’ that made it happen!
Listen To The Audio Podcast Below: