Andy Halsall has been involved in the ICT industry from early 1990’s, first working at IBM as a Telecom Analyst before later moving to Orange and Fon. In 2014 however, Mr Halsall decided to focus on new horizons as far as his career is concerned and together with colleagues and venture capital firms founded Poa! Internet, a connectivity provider focussed on under-served areas of Kenya. Over 2 years since the Poa! Internet brand launched operations in Kibera and Kawangware in Nairobi, Halsall (pictured above) shares the key milestones and lessons learnt along the way in this interview. Read on…
QUESTION: Who is Andy Halsall? Give us a background introduction about yourself
Andy Halsall (AH): I was born in the UK. From a young age, I was fascinated by computers and technology and that led me to study Computer Science at university. Once I graduated, I focussed on the telecoms industry, originally working in engineering roles but over time becoming involved in the business side of things. Overtime, the technologies have changed, but I am still passionate about tech and I have spent most of my professional career either managing or investing in telecom businesses.
I love travel and have been fortunate that my choice of career has given me the opportunity to live in and visit many countries. Outside of work, I love listening to music, watching sports and being really bad a golf!
Q: You have previously worked in Europe and Middle East. What attracted you to Africa and specifically, to Kenya’s ICT industry?
AH: There is huge opportunity in Kenya. Less than 26% of Kenyans regularly use the Internet – over 36 million people are unconnected. Getting Kenyans online has huge commercial potential and also creates massive social impact through education, employment and social inclusion that the Internet enables.
Kenya has all the right ingredients to be one of the market leaders in the African Internet sector. If we can solve the digital divide here, then we can replicate the solution across the continent to connect the 820 million African’s without Internet.
Q: Who are the key investors in poa! Internet and why did they choose Kenya to launch the low-cost internet connectivity brand? Did you as an individual also invest your resources in poa! Internet before (or during) it’s launched or you only came on board to provide management expertise?
AH: Our lead investor is Novastar Ventures, a Nairobi-based venture capital fund focussed on investing in businesses that create social impact. Our other investors include Biscayne Americas and several angel investors from around the world.
The other founders and I all made significant capital and time investments in the business. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into founding the company and getting it this far. As entrepreneurs, we are all really committed to the mission of the business and aren’t just managers brought in to run it for someone else.
Q: Over 2 years since you launched your services here, the poa! Internet coverage is still limited to areas within Nairobi and Kiambu Counties. When will you expand your services beyond the two counties?
AH: We have purposefully limited our geographic expansion. We wanted to focus on getting our business model and operations right before we scale. Whilst it is great to grow rapidly, everything becomes massively magnified when you do – both good and bad. If you haven’t got a solid base, it can lead to a lot of challenges, poor quality and unhappy customers. We are now comfortable that our service is working well and are planning to expand into several new areas next year.
Poa! Internet sales agents registering new customers in Ting’anga, Kiambu County
Q: While pitching to potential subscribers, what are some of the features that you highlight as being unique to the poa! Internet brand and which make it stand out from the competition?
AH: The most important difference is that our service is truly unlimited. The other telcos offer bundles with a fixed number of megabytes, which are designed to restrict customers’ use. Whereas our customers get an amount of time during which they can use as much data as they want with no catches or restrictions. This enables people to fully engage with the Internet without being concerned about how much data they are using.
The second big difference is price. Our services are incredibly good value. poa WiFi starts at just Kshs 10 and poa Home is just Kshs 1,500 shillings per month. For just Kshs 10, our customers can watch an hour of YouTube, which would cost hundreds of shillings with our competitors.
Q: What kind of partnership (or relationship) does poa! Internet have with Liquid Telecom Kenya?
AH: We have been working with Liquid since we started the business. They provide us with several services. We host our servers and other equipment in their data centre, they also provide us with Internet bandwidth and fibre connections to distribute this bandwidth to near where we operate
Q: Currently, mobile network operators (MNOs) have also developed and unveiled cheaper mobile data packages for their subscribers and to the market at large. Do you believe your services will still have remain attractive should the MNOs decide to further reduce their data prices and launch even cheaper mobile data packages?
AH: Our aim is to offer the best value Internet in Kenya. We are constantly checking the market to ensure we remain competitive. Our combination of low prices and unlimited data with no need to count MBs is very compelling. We don’t see the mobile operators offering anything close to our proposition particularly for those who want to do data-rich activities such as watching videos, streaming music, posting videos or downloading.
AH: Both services have proven really popular and attracted lots of customers, but they are aimed at different uses.
The poa WiFi package is designed to get as lots of people online at the lowest possible price and as a result is has gained more customers. poa Home is for those who want to consume a lot of data in their house and also get totally unlimited access to poa WiFi, it attracts a smaller number of customers, but they engage with the Internet far more.
Q: Since you launched here, which has been your major milestones in terms of both subscriptions and partnerships?
AH: There have been many. Just launching the service in Kibera at the very beginning was a challenge and very rewarding. It’s also been great to start the service in Kawangware and Kiambu.
Whilst it’s good to count customer numbers and sales, it’s far more rewarding to speak to customers, get feedback from them and see the impact we have on their lives.
A poa! Internet truck during a roadshow
Q: Are we likely to see the poa! Internet brand expand beyond Kenya and to which countries? If yes, what are the timelines?
AH: Eventually, but we want to connect a lot more Kenyans first. It’s a little early to be specific about dates.
Q: Where (or from whom) do you draw your inspiration as a person?
AH: When I was growing up, the big players in Silicon Valley such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were very inspiring and certainly pointed me towards a career in technology.
As I have grown older I have become more interested in understanding great leaders and motivators and have drawn inspiration from people such as Obama and Thatcher.