When Funke Opeke returned to Nigeria in 2005 after years of a successful career in telecoms in the United States, she was shocked to find the low level of internet connectivity in the West African country. The average young person did not know what the internet was, after all, most of the online communication in the country at the time ran through satellite networks.
What was lacking was a stable physical connection to the internet, and to help find a solution, the trained electrical engineer joined the Nigerian public telecoms company, NITEL. She was with MTN Nigeria as a chief technical officer when she decided to move to NITEL, thinking that she could help bring change to an almost broken government institution to better the lives of all while providing proper access to the internet.
But unable to fit in due to some reported corrupt practices that derailed her dreams, she left to start Main One Cable Company in 2008. The company went ahead to lay a 7,000km fiber optic cable across the bottom of the ocean, from Portugal to Nigeria. With entrepreneur and philanthropist Fola Adeola, who is now the chairman of the company, Opeke raised $240 million to start the project.
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And though it wasn’t easy raising such an amount, the project did pay off. Essentially, Main One provided the broadband connection that providers could not live without. Soon, Nigeria’s city, Lagos, witnessed a boost to internet speeds, and with this came the rise of startups as well as mail order companies like Jumia and Konga, and then Uber, a report by Aljazeera said.
Soon, Google started getting in touch with Opeke. Her company also began holding talks with campuses in Nigeria that needed a broadband network. In 2012, Opeke received the CNBC All Africa Businesswoman of the Year award. Recently invited to chair the Nigerian National Broadband Plan 2020 – 2025, the electrical engineer has also been to the White House to hold talks about internet connectivity for all, including unserved populations in Africa.
What is more, Opeke’s Main One has entered some great partnerships with the Orange Group in its entry into Ivory Coast and Senegal, and Vertiv for the expansion of its data center services. “We’ll continue to expand our data centre footprint. Within Nigeria, we’ll expand to places like Lekki, Sagamu, and several others. Across the region, we are also looking to enter other West African states,” Opeke told Tech Point Africa in an interview this July when the company celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Indeed, Main One, throughout the ten years, has helped build internet capacity for various companies but it hasn’t been all smooth. For Opeke, one of the biggest challenges has been raising capital, and the fact that the company’s distributed operations still face power challenges.
Even when her team first laid the cable in 2010, the idea of private submarine cables was still very new to many regulators, hence, she found it difficult to secure the permits to connect the countries along the way, between Nigeria and Europe.
“To solve this, we put up branching units which are just connectors so the cable can extend to those markets,” she said in the interview.
“As we continued exploring opportunities, a fabulous one came up with Orange. They were already present in two markets, and it made sense, commercially, to partner with them considering their status as a major provider and the compelling technical solution we provided for them.”
By November 2019, Main One expanded its submarine cable to Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal in partnership with the Orange Group. It also recently signed an agreement to extend services to Burkina Faso, with the company CEO hoping to expand more into Africa.
The amazing tech entrepreneur, whose leadership has earned a lot of praise, grew up in Ibadan, a city north of Lagos, with so much interest in maths and physics that even when her father suggested that she should be a doctor, she opted for electrical engineering instead. A bright student from an all-girls school in Ibadan, Opeke headed to what is now called the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife where she excelled as always.
After her bachelor’s degree, Opeke went to Columbia University for her master’s, and then her professional career in the tech world began with internet company Sendmail in 1998. But with the company later struggling, Opeke decided that it was time to return to her home country. And she has since not regretted taking that action even though she would have wished that by now every school in Nigeria had access to the internet.