Free internet in Egypt? It’s an idea that has been circulating around for the past year, when Serag Meneassy, Taymour Sabry and Mahmoud El Said decided to launch Wasla – an app that aims to connect 500+ million people across Africa and the Middle East. It was only a matter of days after its official launch at the 2018 Rise Up Summit that the Cairo-based app managed to raise $210,000 in pre-seed funding.

The idea of free internet to the masses is not entirely original. In 2012, a Swedish tech start-up launched Instabridge, which allows users to find and share available Wi-Fi networks. Following its success in Stockholm, the app made inroads into Amsterdam last October, establishing a network of over 300 Wi-Fi hotspots in Amsterdam.

On the other side of the globe, the city of Detroit launched the Equitable Internet Initiative in a collaboration between the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP) and other community organizations. Launched in the summer of 2016, the initiative enables the 39.9% Detroiters, who lack access to internet, to establish their own high speed WiFi networks.

Around 4.2 billion individuals are active internet users in the world today, 3.9 billion of which are mobile users. But is access to internet a basic human right?

According to the 2012 Global Internet User Survey, yes. More than 10,000 internet users across 20 countries were asked about their attitudes and behavior towards using the internet. 96% said that they access the internet at least once a day, an average of 68.8% believed that internet can improve economic and societal issues, and 83% agreed that internet access should be a basic human right.

The situation in Egypt reflects these findings. According to Mahmoud Elsaid, co-founder of Wasla, 97% of households have access to mobile internet, 42% of which rely on ADSL, while the other 55% of households rely on mobile data.

In Egypt, which has seen rising inflation over the past two years, in addition to 10% unemployment, a vast sector of Egyptian society has been left without access to basic services like health and education.

“How do you expect people with no money to access online courses, when they can’t even afford the internet?” argues Serag Meneassy, Wasla’s co-founder. And thus was borne Wasla, and its vision to provide free internet to the masses.

Connected Communities. But….

“Buildings and cities are getting nervous systems,” argues architect and urban theorist William Mitchell, conveying his picture of the new age of connectedness and digitization. In many ways, free internet access is a catalyst for future smart cities – it is the core of a city’s nervous system.

An article published on Cisco Canada’s blog outlines how free internet can improve communication between citizens and their municipalities. According to them, free access to internet creates a channel for virtual conversations between city officials and the broader community.

In 2017, controversy surrounded Facebook’s initiative, questioning its core aim of bringing affordable internet access to the five billion people lacking it.

According to research conducted by Global Voices, instead of introducing people to new learning techniques, Facebook’s initiative is turning users into passive consumers of Western content. “That is digital colonialism,” argues Ellery Biddle, advocacy director of Global Voices.

Wasla’s initial target users are comprised of prepaid smartphone users aged 13-40, which account for 50 million Egyptians, but according to its founders, they have gotten many postpaid customers as well. This is largely because, while over 97% of Egyptian households have access to mobile internet, only 42% have access to ADSL, leaving almost 55% of households dependent on mobile internet.

But, as with every start-up with a unique idea, the same dual-question arises: Why and how?

Wasla’s aim of attracting “the masses” is no simple task. According to Sabry, they are currently closing in on approximately 12,000 users, reaching a sum of 15,500 downloads without advertising for the service at all. It’s most important achievement, however, is that it has demystified the perks of free internet in the Egyptian market.

Wasla basically works as a point-collecting method. After the users download the app and sign in, they receive 15,000 points to start. They have two options. Either they surf the Wasla browser and earn reward points in the process, for example, through reading articles or streaming videos, or surf the newsfeed on the homepage which displays content directly related to their interests and earn the same amount of points. These points are then redeemed via the Wasla Wallet in exchange for free internet access.

Envisioning a Future       

Sabry believes that Wasla can expand beyond just providing free internet. In the future, he hopes that the browser can enable users to use points for services other than just browser surfing, such as purchasing bus tickets, P2P money transfers, and so on.

He also thinks Wasla could also be used as a tool for brands to engage with users instead of just showing them digital ads. For instance, users can enter promo codes from Coca-Cola bottles during a campaign and enter that code on Wasla to get points; thus enabling brands to tie offline advertising with actual sales and metrics.

According to them, these features all align with their vision of bringing 500 million citizens online across Africa and the Middle East.

Co-founder Mahmoud Saeed notes that Wasla has been in talks with organizations in North and Central African countries to launch the browser there.

Internet users in Africa have increased to more than 20% in 2018, compared to 2.1% in 2005, making it the fastest growing market of internet users reported in the world. Arab states have witnessed 54.7% growth in Internet users within households between 2005 and 2018. On the other hand, within the same period, Europe and the Americas, did not show a similar rate of growth – with 79.6% and 69.6% internet users respectively.

Currently, 50.8% of the world population have access to internet. This figure is expected to rise to 53.7% in just a couple of years. And in less than a decade, the number may increase to 90%.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Wasla was co-founded by Serag Meneassy and Taymour Sabry. It was co-founded by Serag Meneassy, Taymour Sabry and Mahmoud El Said. It stated that they raised $18,000 in seed funding. They raised $210,000 in seed funding. The article stated that Wasla’s target market is smartphone users aged 13-50; their target market is smartphone users aged 13-40.