Funke Okpeke: The founder and visionary behind West Africa’s internet backbone, MainOne

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Funke Opeke was named one of the World’s Top 50 Women in Tech in 2018 by Forbes, an attestation of her efforts in sparking the internet revolution that finally put Nigeria on the internet with the rest of the world. This week’s profile looks at how Opeke started from a foreign career experience and broke into the Nigerian IT space where she made major entrepreneurial moves that have accelerated internet usage in Africa.

Olufunke Olayemi Opeke was born in Ibadan, Oyo state, Nigeria, though her parents hail from Ile- Oluji in Ile Oluji/Okeigbo Local Government Area of Ondo State.

She is one of 9 children, born into a large family, to parents who set high standards for their children, encouraging them to pursue their dreams and explore their talents. Funke attended Queens School, an all-girls school in Ibadan, before going to the (now) Obafemi Awolowo University, where she bagged her first degree in Electrical Engineering.

Shortly after the compulsory one year National Youth Service, Funke relocated to the United States to further her education. “At the time I was leaving, Nigeria was going through some structural adjustment. It was in the early 80s, the opportunities were few and far between,” she said in her address at Techpoint Inspired in 2017.

After her Masters in Engineering program at Columbia University, she decided to remain in the US to pursue her career, because it did not seem like there was much to return to in Nigeria at the time. She had decided to pursue a career in ICT and Nigeria was way behind in this regard. Opeke started as a systems engineer before joining PA Consulting and later Sendmail. She worked as an executive director with the wholesale division of Verizon Communications in New York City from 2001 to 2005.

After more than two decades in the US, opportunities in the Telecoms sector started opening up in Nigeria and Opeke was interviewed and brought to Nigeria as the Chief Technical Officer of MTN. She served as adviser at Transcorp, and had a brief stint as chief operating officer of NITEL.

For someone that had been out of the country for more than 20 years and never worked in Nigeria since her Masters program, Funke had a difficult time adjusting to the terrain and environment. Coming from a place where internet connectivity was advanced, Funke could not deal with the lack of reliable internet infrastructure in Nigeria.

While discussing with Fola Adeola, whom she had met in the course of the NITEL privatisation, he suggested she start a business that would reflect the values she wanted to see in the space.

“I thought we needed more infrastructures. And I knew some of the critical infrastructure that was missing, so I had met Mr Fola Adeola where we were trying to privatise NITEL and he said, ‘oh well, I will help you to start a business, you have to do something that reflects your values; why don’t you go out and try to do that?’”

I came back and said, “I really think we need a submarine cable, a private submarine cable so we could connect Nigeria and West Africa better with the rest of the world. And he said, ‘you’ve got to be crazy, how much is that?’ I said $300 million and he said ‘What? No that’s what government does or big companies like MTN,’” she recounted.

While it is possible that others had conceived similar ideas to aid the internet connectivity in Nigeria, the enormity of the sum involved was sufficient to discourage anyone from treading further.

“Raising money is the most difficult thing I ever did as an entrepreneur. In advance markets, you want to start a small business, you write the business plan you go to the bank. In Nigeria, you write the business plan, you start doing your business you show some real commitment, passion, the ability to execute and then you go to parents and family and try to raise your capital.

For me at MainOne, the first money we raised was $3.2 million and we raised it from friends and family. We were doing a project that ultimately was $240 million. But that $3.2 million was some of the most difficult money I raised, which was just over 1.5% of what we required” she recounted.

They were able to raise $240 million and this marked the start of Mainstreet Technologies and Main One Cable Company in 2008. The company landed the first private submarine cable in Africa and started providing services for some of the major Telcos, as well as the smaller Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

The open access 7,000-kilometer undersea high capacity cable submarine stretching from Portugal to South Africa with landings along the route in Accra, Ghana and Lagos, Nigeria marked the start of the data revolution. In the years that followed, Mainone expanded into several other countries in West Africa.

Opeke still sits as the Chief Executive at Main One Cable Company, and does not mind being in an industry that was considered to be male-dominated at the turn of the century. It is an experience she started getting used to as the only female in her undergraduate engineering class.

“I am not overly sensitive, I just do what needs to get done… I cannot apologize for being a woman, it is who I am” she said.

She became Independent Non-Executive Director of Atlas Mara Limited (Atlas Mara Co-Nvest Limited) in January 2015. She has also held Non-Executive Directorships at Main One Cable Company, Main Street Technologies, Main One Service Company, MainData, Main One Cable Company Ghana, Main One Cable Company Nigeria, Main One Cable Company Portugal.

Opeke is an advocate of entrepreneurship to solve problems in the country. “If I stayed in the United States, I would never have had the opportunity to build a submarine cable, to bring wholesale internet to all these people, to build the premiere data centre. There are so many big, better capitalised companies which are in a much better position to do that and build this kind of fundamental infrastructure,” she once said.

Rebroadcasted:Okwosi Esther

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