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Africa Online was the first internet service provider in Kenya, also in Cote d'Ivoire starting operations in 1995 and 1996 respectively. It grew to span 8 countries across Africa before its sale in 2007 to Telkom South Africa. it remains an important internet service provider in several African markets.
The company was started in 1994 by Ayisi Makatiani, Karanja Gakio and Amolo Ng'weno, three Kenyans who met each other while students in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Makatiani and Gakio were at MIT while Ng'weno had studied at Harvard. The basic idea for an online news service for Kenyans developed from an online community hosted at MIT called KenyaNet. KenyaNet was one of several Africa-focused online communities (the others were Okyeame (Ghana), Naijanet (Nigeria), and Salonet (Sierra Leone) formed and run by MIT students and hosted on MIT servers.
These online communities were probably among the most fervent virtual communities in the early pre-web 1990s, unsurprising since Africans in the diaspora (and indeed Africans on the continent) had so few public spaces where ideas could be exchanged in real time. Indeed, these online communities were part of a continent-wide movement which in the 1990s also saw a mushrooming of private radio and television stations that had previously been restricted to a state monopoly.
With the commercialization of the internet, Africa Online moved its focus away from providing news to connecting Africans on the continent to the internet. In 1995, the company was bought by International Wireless of Boston, which ultimately became Prodigy. During this period, Africa Online expanded rapidly from its original operation in Kenya to Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland, with the three Kenyans continuing to manage the operation. Africa Online was the first commercial internet provider in Kenya and Cote d'Ivoire.
In 1998, Prodigy sold the company to the African Lakes Corporation plc. African Lakes had been listed on the London Stock Exchange since 1877 and was now moving away from its traditional background in agriculture and mining. For a while the company enjoyed favor from investors, listing on the Nairobi Stock Exchange in 2001, but its stock subsequently lost ground and it was delisted in both London and Nairobi in 2003. By this time, the 3 founders had departed Africa Online.
Despite the varied fortunes of African Lakes, Africa Online continued to operate in 8 countries and in 2007 was bought by Telkom South Africa.
Article on Africa Online buyout bids in the East African Standard newspaper, 2007:
Press release from Telkom SA buyout:
UNESCO on the liberalization of the airwaves and media in Africa: