December 10, 2020
Despite the apparent pervasiveness of technology and social media in the West and much of the developed world, three billion people remain without internet access. This digital divide not only mirrors a global economic disparity between rich and poor countries; it also disenfranchises billions of people in the global South, at a time when Internet access is critical to almost all aspects of modern life.
There have been several notable efforts to address the digital divide. Elon Musk’s Starlink is a prominent example of a moonshot attempt by technologists to connect the world, but large-scale terrestrial efforts by other longstanding tech firms have been underway for years.
With 2.7 billion users, Facebook needs no introduction. It’s a global power in its own right, spanning multiple social networks, hundreds of jurisdictions, and wields an enormous amount of power over everything from advertising to politics. For some years, Facebook has been focused on connecting ‘the next billion’ to its network. This has not only seen it expand in rapidly developing economies such as India, but also roll out its own network infrastructure to get people connected.
This has not been without controversy, most prominently in Myanmar, where the use of Facebook - which for 23 million users *is* the internet - has been linked to widespread misinformation amid ethnic cleansing of the country’s Rohingya minority.
But there have been some major success stories as well, notably in Africa, APAC countries, and Latin America, where Facebook has led the way in connecting people in remote, rural, and underdeveloped areas.
At this year’s Black Tech Fest, Colorintech’s Ashley Ainsley interviewed Alex Aimé, Facebook’s Director for Network Investments in Emerging Markets, for a wide-reaching fireside chat. Alex shared stories about Facebook’s latest projects connecting Africa, discussed the limitations of philanthropy, the firm’s new office in Nigeria, and the importance of local partnerships in delivering new technology infrastructure.
Q: Facebook’s one of the biggest organisations in the world. How big is big? What’s the scale of the work you do?
AA: The digital divide is real. More than three billion people remain unconnected, especially in emerging markets like Africa, Asia, and in rural communities across the world. 800 million people across Sub-Saharan Africa are not Internet users due to various connectivity challenges, and in more than 100 countries, less than 50 percent of the population have regular access to the Internet. So it’s a big problem and we really are looking to connect those three billion users who are not connected today.
In Uganda we were able to work with local companies to deploy terrestrial fibre internet. In doing so, we were able to impact not only rural Uganda, but actually three million people across South Sudan and the DRC as well. In Indonesia we’ve also made deployments that touch over twenty cities and impact more than ten million people.
So when we talk about our projects, we’re not just talking about small investments - we’re really talking about investments that have the power to transform lives. In June we announced the 2Africa subsea cable. It’s 37,000km - that’s the circumference of the Earth - and it’s going to take several years to build. When it’s done, it’s going to create triple the sub-sea capacity than exists in Africa today and connect more than sixteen countries.
Q: I hate to be cynical but isn’t this just about getting more people on Facebook? A big corporate company coming along and trying to push its products on these markets?
AA: I think that’s exactly what it is! We are trying to bring more people online - but that’s not a bad thing. People who’ve been working in emerging markets know that philanthropy is not enough. The reason you want private companies involved is that it means they are putting their money where their mouth is.
Facebook is demonstrating it believes in the economic potential of emerging markets. It believes that users across emerging markets want the same internet experience as exists in more developed connected areas. So we are demonstrating through our investments that we believe in the economic potential of these regions and that’s a wonderful thing.
Relying on philanthropy or relying on something that isn’t economically sustainable means that when someone’s interest changes that investment will not be there. Through our investments we’re ensuring that the business model makes sense and will be sustainable over the long time.
Q: How involved are local communities? There’s a lot of conversations about neo-colonialism and big companies coming in from the West and doing things without really involving people on the ground.
AA: I think that’s a really important point and it’s something we have to consider. Partnerships are fundamental to everything we do at Facebook and everything I do in my role.
For our Uganda project, we partnered with local companies that are active across Africa. BCS built the fibre and rolled out the connectivity and deployed the network. What we actually did was support a local company in executing.
Q: Tell us a little bit more about your work from a global perspective and from a Nigeria office point of view. What are some of your thoughts on Facebook investing in the local economy by being there?
AA: We are super excited about the Nigeria office that will be opened in Lagos in 2021. We already have an office in Africa in Johannesburg and I'm very proud to have several members of my team based there, but nobody can really operate in Africa just from Joburg.
In order to address many of the opportunities that exist, we know we have to expand in Africa. From an infrastructure perspective, we recognise the need for additional infrastructure in areas outside of Lagos, especially in the South and Northeast of Nigeria. The nigeria office is going to be a really good opportunity for us to focus on doing that.
In addition to Africa, my team also sits in Singapore, London, across the US, and we do have investments in Latin America with a team in Rio as well and we plan to expand further there.
I think having a global team is vital if you’re going to be a global company. Not everything can happen in Menlo Park. If you want to understand the issues and opportunities and really work with local partners you have to have a local presence and be on the ground. You have to be close to the issues, you have to be close to the problems, and you have to be close to the people who are going to find the solutions.
Q: Facebook has been massively influential in society and successful in its user growth. What happens if you reach three billion?
AA: We have a really long way to go. I think that would be a very interesting challenge. But unfortunately bridging the digital divide and providing high speed internet is just not as easy as building a bunch of towers and flipping a switch. There are multiple barriers including access, affordability, relevancy, skills… you need to build infrastructure but you also need power for infrastructure and the users, you need affordable devices, you need affordable services and ultimately you need culturally relevant content.
At Facebook we have a lot of challenges we see ahead to bringing more people online and connecting people and communities. It’s a challenge that’s going to take us many years.
Q: What are some of the opportunities you really want to explore from an innovation point of view?
AA: There are many of them that we are tackling at Facebook.
I’m especially excited to see how Africans and how local communities really engage with some of these technologies. What we’re experiencing today given COVID-19 and the nature of remote work and remote connection means there’s going to be really innovative opportunities around things like Oculus and Portal and VR.
COVID-19 has really brought forth the importance of internet connectivity for everything - not just the economy, not just commerce, but education and healthcare too. In order for us to be able access these things we need internet connectivity and we need that infrastructure, so I’m excited to see what happens when we are able to deliver that infrastructure.
What new innovations are going to come out of Nigeria? What exciting new images are going to come out of Kenya or elsewhere on the continent? When you give people that infrastructure you give them the power to bridge to connect and innovate. So I’m actually more excited to see what people are going to do once they have internet infrastructure and connectivity. What are the tools they will develop?
Q: How does someone get to do what you do?
AA: This was a very interesting pivot of my own. I have been a partner at a private equity firm buying, investing and selling businesses across the African continent and I saw this opportunity as a unique one to play at a global scale - and ultimately to take my private equity to help scale these deployments.
I think the wonderful thing about big tech and working at a place lik facebook is that it’s not just technology that’s required to scale to have the impact we want to have on these communities. We need people who are policy wonks, who are financial engineers and wizards, we need people who are deep technologists, we need people who are innovating in labs with software and hardware and thinking creatively about strategy and how to bring communities together. Tech has a place for all of us and I think one of the things that my story says is that there are many different ways for you to engage with tech and impact this industry.
This interview was edited for brevity & clarity
To catch up with Alex’s full fireside chat as well as 20+ hours of other incredible content, catch-up here