The Wullf of Mombasa Road

The family and many friends and former colleagues and partners in the tech industry in Kenya received the news of the demise of Kai-Uwe Wullf, the founding CEO of Kenya Data Networks (KDN) with shock and sadness. The company was the first private company to provide communication infrastructure in direct competition to the then Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation KP&TC in 2003. At that time, the few upcoming ISPs such as Africaonoline, Form-net, SwiftGlobal, Net2000, UUNET, and Wananchi depended on KP&TC copper leased lines to provide internet services. These could either be digital leased line (Kenstream) at 64Kbps per copper pair or an analog 9.6Kbps dialp-up connection that could be turbocharged to 14.4Kbps. These lines were fraught with downtimes and poor service delivery on the part of KP&TC and this frustrated the nascent ISP sector.

As one of the first users of the internet for email communication in the early 2000’s, The Africa Safari Club in Mombasa was a frustrated customer, frequent downtimes and missed bookings meant that the quality of service that the club was know for was suffering. In one of his visits to one of the clubs premises, the Sameer Group chairman Mr. Naushad Merali happened to meet the MD of the Africa Safari Club ASC and a discussion about the poor state of email services came up, in no time, Naushad the then ASC MD Mr Kai-Uwe Wulf would strike a plan to establish a private solution to the poor connectivity. With Kai’s previous background in ICT back in Germany, and together with Richard Bell who was already running Merali’s ISP Swiftglobal, formed what would be later known as The Kenya Data Networks Company.

KDN provided digital leased lines via wireless WiMAX technology. They also provided frame relay services that enabled ISP to provide connectivity and email to their customers in a more reliable way and and much higher capacity than was previously possible on copper lines. This as you would imagine led to the explosion of the use of internet and email services in the country as the wireless technology made the service available across large areas of the city and large towns in Kenya.

Starting service in late 2002 and getting a license to officially commence operations in January 2003, KDN was a public data network operator and later got a license to operate an internet gateway. This was also historic as in the early days of the internet in Kenya, only the government had the monopoly to connect the country to international voice and data networks via the Longonot earth station. This service was slow and congested as it was only 7Mbps in 2002 having grown from 32Kbps in 1995 when the first ISP in Kenya was formed. By the time KDN was a year old at the end of 2003, Kenya was doing 64Mbps to the Internet, a 900% increase in bandwidth consumption.

In 1995, the African Regional Center for Computing ARCC launched a full Internet system with financial support from the British Government’s Overseas Development Agency to pay for an international leased line. They became the first organization in Kenya to offer email addresses under the ARCC domain to customers who were mostly international NGOs. The first email address in Kenya belonged to the ARCC chairman Dr. Shem Ochuodho. With the increasing popularity of the service, ARCC leased copper telephone lines and connected analog modems that dialed to their email server to send and receive email. When KP&TC realized that their voice leased lines were being used to send emails and connect to the Internet, they declared the use of their lines for email access or the use of international leased lines directly as illegal stopping ARCC on their tracks. With time, KP&TC created data communication products out of the copper lines by offering dial-up lines and ‘always-ON’ copper digital leased lines branded as Kenstream. Sadly, KP&TC could not keep up with the demand for email and internet services and within no time, they were struggling to upgrade their exchanges fast enough. The lack of reliable last mile and a congested international gateway meant that the various ISPs came together and formed the Telecommunication Providers Association of Kenya (TESPOK) to present a single front on the fight to liberalize the telecommunications sector and allow them to provide some of these services in direct competition with KP&TC which later in 1999 broke into several bodies; Telkom Kenya, Posta Kenya, and Communication Commission of Kenya CCK, the sector regulator.

After much lobbying by the industry players, CCK granted KDN the first public Data License and Kai went on to turn Merali’s $4Million KDN investment into $236Million in less than 5 years. Thanks to Kai’s leadership at KDN, Kenya had some of the most reliable internet in the region and its International gateway at some point carried close to 70% of Kenya’s traffic to the Internet. KDN’s game changing network very early on in the country’s adoption of the Internet ushered in the technology boom we enjoy today. From their Mombasa road office, KDN rolled out wireless networks and was the pioneer of metro networks in Kenya by laying the first Nairobi fiber metro network in May 2005. KDN would also be the first entity to lay an underground fiber-optic cable linking Nairobi and the coastal town of Mombasa and therefore availing the first undersea cable internet to Kenya’s interior with low latency and high bandwidth.

KDN is the grandfather to today’s Liquid Telecom, East Africa’s largest data and internet traffic carrier handling more than half of the regions internet and business communication traffic. Kai’s foundational leadership at KDN enabled this country become an early adopter of the Internet to great benefit to the socioeconomic well-being of all citizens.

Kai’s contribution to the growth of internet and ICT in general did not end with KDN, he went on to later take on leadership roles in Google, Nashua and recently was an advisor at Volt AI. May he RIP.

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