Why the entrepreneur is resolutely focused on delivering free Internet to every South African


There is a reason Alan Knott-Craig Jr has named his Wi-Fi business HeroTel. Without any irony, he wants to be a hero. In a tech world saturated with a sense of inward focus, this sense of purpose is refreshing.

“We started in 2014 and our mission is to be the lowest cost data network in South Africa. We are still insignificant in the big scheme of things, but we have great partners and are growing fast. Growing fast is a privilege and fun,” he enthuses.

HeroTel views its mission primarily as a social cause. Free and fast Internet is the prerequisite for a growing and civilised modern nation—an essential to saving our economy from its current low growth trap.

Don’t Panic

In that regard, Knott-Craig remains ever hopeful. In fact, he has written the book on South African optimism, a few of them in fact, with titles such as Don’t Panic; Really, Don’t Panic; and Moenie Stres Nie.

He maintains that South Africa, with its burgeoning first world infrastructure and its third world sense of frontier and opportunity, remains a value proposition for those willing to take risks and profit out of chaos.

This, ultimately, is the impetus behind his big push to provide Wi-Fi to every South African.

Perhaps best known for taking the helm at Mxit, by means of his investment house, World of Avatar, and then being edged out by his partners as the start-up failed to make the leap to smartphones, Knott-Craig has since been focused on wireless broadband.

Initially, after the scars of the Mxit saga, he moved into the non-profit sector in an intriguing collaboration with the Tshwane municipality. Entitled Project Isizwe, the venture aims to provide free Wi-Fi to citizens of the nation’s capital.

The project has since provided over a thousand free Internet zones, allowing over three million users to connect to the Internet. Expansion is underway, replicating the model in the Western Cape and throughout the country.

Knott-Craig felt it safer to leave Project Isizwe to his more risk-averse partners as he looks to make a play for shaking up the profit sector of broadband data. Thus, he now devotes his time to a second project, which aims to consolidate Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) in alliances as partners or franchisees in order to create a major national broadband provider.

HeroTel focuses on the large sector of the market operating outside the realm of 3G or LTE and fibre data.

The aim is to bridge the proverbial last mile between households and small businesses and big infrastructure by means of broadband, through utilising the existing WISPs in a collaboration, which would allow smaller service providers all the advantages of both the consolidated economy of scale, as well as the decentralisation of a local, hands-on service provider.

Being a hero

The “hero” branding relates back to that original impulse behind Project Isizwe: Knott-Craig wants to “save” the small Internet user from our current “suppression of connectivity”.

“In my opinion, Internet access is akin to water and electricity. You simply can’t call yourself a civilised society unless you strive to give all your citizens water and electricity. One day, people will look back with incredulity that the Internet was not freely available,” he says.

Although South Africa continues a massive roll-out of data infrastructure daily, Knott-Craig believes that the data demand will only ever increase.

“Every day brings more fibre and more Wi-Fi, but we still have enormous growth potential. I would estimate fibre market penetration at less than 20%. Even once we reach 100% there will be growth. People can never have enough data. The only constraints are speed and cost. The hero strategy is to maximise speed and minimise cost so that we can profitably satisfy the infinite demand for data,” he explains.

The imminent Internet of things

One of the reasons for the endless increases in data consumption is a global movement toward an Internet of things (IoT) as opposed to the current, simpler model of an Internet of people. However, simply put, South African data is currently far too expensive to make this step.

“Today, we have the Internet of people. Everyone in the world is connected. Tomorrow, we will have the Internet of things. Everything in the world will be connected. Cars, tractors, dogs, cameras, batteries, solar panels, clothes, everything.

“So, the average businessperson needs to ask himself, ‘How will I conduct my business if every asset and person were connected in real time?’ But it’s not something to stress about. IoT is many years away because the cost of data is too expensive. Hopefully, HeroTel can one day provide a network for this type of thing that makes applications affordable,” Knott-Craig says.

But it is this kind of aspirational thinking that may provide the economy with the energy required to unleash a new wave of smart green industrialisation based on the digital economy.

“Once we have a critical mass of South Africans online, we will unlock the enormous entrepreneurial and educational potential of the Internet, and our economy will receive a significant growth boost. That day will not arrive until the majority of South Africans have free Internet access. Cheap is not good enough. It must be free and fast,” he explains.

And not being good enough in this regard is simply unacceptable in Knott-Craig’s purview. Without a new wave of connectivity, the economy simply won’t grow fast enough for South Africa to maintain or rejuvenate its coherence as a stable nation-state.

Knott-Craig wants to pull this lever: “The economy needs to grow faster. The single biggest untapped lever for South Africa is Internet access. Less than 30% of South Africans truly have access to the Internet because the vast majority simply can’t afford 3G or LTE at R1 per megabyte.

“The World Bank estimates that for every 10% of broadband penetration, you have a 1.28% GDP growth. If we provide free Internet to the 70% unconnected South Africans, that equates to a 10% GDP growth. That’s big.

“The answer is not to further regulate telecommunication companies. It’s much simpler. Government-funded public Wi-Fi within walking distance of every South African...”

And with HeroTel to fill in the gaps of the public provision, needless to say.

In short, the connectivity of things and people provided by Wi-Fi can help spark a culture of enterprise, which will allow for things like non-delivery of school textbooks to become a business prospect rather than a crippling failure.

At the heart of such a hope is the belief that entrepreneurs can make a profit while providing game-changing services to the societies in which they operate. Heroes can make a profit.

Really, Don’t Panic—rather stay focused

Such an ideal requires a certain kind of work ethic. After the lessons of Mxit and some of the baggage of entering the business and telecommunications world just as your father was remaking it, Knott-Craig carries some of the scars of being an entrepreneur.

The Mxit affair had the potential to define his career. After taking time out in the United States, however, he came back determined to maximise South Africa’s opportunities.

He has also had to fight against the perception of being a so-called “trust-fund kid”.

It is true that his father and namesake is one of the most successful businesspeople of our country’s current era, responsible for Vodacom’s meteoric rise upon the wave of a mobile revolution.

What is less known is that before Vodacom, Knott-Craig Senior worked for the Post Office and Telkom, and his family grew up in a non-descript home in a non-descript Pretoria suburb, where Knott-Craig Junior went to a government school with a very low profile.

He acknowledges that he has been ambivalent about being the son of his father in a business sense, but has found peace in treating it as a kind of advantageous externality.

“My dad is a business legend and I am privileged to have his name and to have learnt at his knee over the years. There have been many benefits and I am very grateful for all of them. There is some downside too, mostly in my own head. Over the years, I have realised that being born to successful parents is akin to being born with an IQ of 150 or being able to run 100 metres in less than 10 seconds. It’s a lucky break. Don’t shy away from it. Make the most of it,” he says.

The chief lessons he says he has learnt from his life thus far is the deep and abiding importance of being focused. In that regard, he offers some advice, which is deeply counter-cultural to his industry and generation.

“The way to focus is to remove distractions. Stay in a quiet town. Get married (escape the distractions of constantly searching for love). Live simply. No fancy cars or houses. Keep your personal overheads low. An expensive lifestyle is a distraction,” he says.

This, in turn, fuels and is fuelled by an overarching sense of purpose.

“I have a purpose. My purpose is to make the Internet free and to somehow make a profit at the same time. It’s not easy but it’s worthwhile and it gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s also great to have partners I trust and like. Life is too short to hang out with folks you don’t like,” he says.

Purpose and focus. In entrepreneurs like Knott-Craig, these virtues may be the catalysts for a fresh wave of innovation and growth in the South African economy. 

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