Kenyans face digital setback as Opera’s free data cut bites

Opera has stopped its free data campaign in Kenya owing to BCLB's decision.

In Summary

•Since the year 2020, Opera has been giving free data to all its users including feature phone users.

•Opera currently has 13.5 million Kenyan users, and the company recently reported providing over four million gigabytes of free data in 2023 alone.

A person uses the Opera Mini app/LEAH MUKANGAI
A person uses the Opera Mini app/LEAH MUKANGAI

Peter Theuri, a matatu driver in Nairobi has been using the Opera Mini mobile web browser for the last three years.

Theuri used to be able to enjoy up to 50MBs of free data every day when browsing with OperaMini because of the company’s free data campaigns.

That is 1.5GB a month that he and other Kenyan Opera Mini users were able to access for free when browsing on supported telco networks Airtel and Safaricom.

“I have always depended on Opera for my browsing but things have changed now. I am rarely on the internet because data bundles are very expensive,” Theuri said as he lamented about the halting of free data by Norwegian web innovator -Opera.

For Martin Mwangi, who works with one of the leading media houses in Kenya, based in Nairobi, the free data campaigns were the best way for him to read the news.

These are among millions of Kenyans who have faced a digital setback after the decision by Opera to stop its free data campaign, which allowed users to enjoy free data bundles to access the internet.

Opera Mini is popular throughout Kenya in large part because it also offers a unique data compression technology that allows users to save up to 90 per cent of their data while browsing.

When put together with the company’s free data campaigns, Kenyan Opera Mini users have been able to browse 10 times longer than they would have been able to with any other major browser.

Opera currently has 13.5 million Kenyan users, and the company recently reported providing over four million gigabytes of free data in 2023 alone through its free data campaigns –amounting to approximately $11.81 million (Sh1.6 billion).

Expanded over the last four years, the company has enabled users to save 15M GB of data – the equivalent of $19 million (Sh2.5 billion) overall – helping Kenyan users save roughly 15M GB of data.

Taken together, the free data campaigns and Opera Mini’s data-saving technology have enabled Kenyan users to save nearly $60 million (Sh7.9 billion) worth of data over the last four years.

Opera says the decision to halt the free data campaigns was informed by developments in the Kenyan market, where local authorities, led by the Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB), stopped advertising on Speed Dials (bookmarks on the start page) within browsers.

Speed dials are visual versions of bookmarks – shortcuts that appear as a grid of tiles when you open a new tab in a browser.

They provide quick access to one's most visited websites without the need to type the name of the website in the search bar.

The decision, which the firm insists was forced by circumstances, has since hit about 13.5 million Kenyan users who have been benefitting every day from its 50MB daily free data campaign.

Owners of Feature Phones are now set to be among the most affected by the stoppage of Opera’s free data campaigns, curtailing the government’s push to drive economic growth through digitisation, where the internet penetration rate in the country stands at about 40.8 per cent of the total population, at the start of 2024.

Communication Authority's latest data (quarter two-October-December) shows there were at least 31.8 million feature phones in the market as of December, users who also benefited from the free data campaign that was being run in partnership with telcos.

The total mobile phone devices stood at 65.45 million as of December, translating to a penetration rate of 129.4 percent.

The penetration rate for feature phones and smartphones stood at 62.9 percent and 66.4 percent, respectively, meaning feature phones still serve a huge number of Kenyans, who have since been pushed out of internet access.

The issue is particularly acute in Kenya, as the cost of data remains high compared to other markets, with a gigabyte averaging $2.25 (about Sh300 at the current exchange rate).

This is close to ten times the $25 cents (Sh33) that developed countries are paying, despite Kenya having multiple subsea cable connections.

Opera had plans to invest significantly more in its free data campaigns in 2024, but the future of the initiative is now in question.

"The longer this situation goes on the more difficult it will be for Opera to invest in campaigns in Kenya, where it has one of the biggest customer bases," it said. 

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