When the Democratic Republic of Congo shut down the internet during political protests last year, Ebele Okobi flew to Kinshasa to persuade the authorities of the importance of internet access. Also, she showed them how to use Facebook.
Some describe Okobi, 42, as “the secretary of state of Facebook” for the African continent. (Her official title: public policy director for Africa.) Though based in London, Okobi spends most of her time on the road — meeting with the minister for information technology in Kigali, for instance, or showing Lesotho’s leader how to create a public Facebook page. Overall, the Nigerian-American is trying to advance her megalith company’s mission of connectedness while also, of course, gaining it more users and markets. She flies under the radar for the most part, but when Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited Africa for the first time last year, it was Okobi, dressed in Nigerian-made fashion, who stood next to him and Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari.
Internet access is crucial to Facebook’s growth, but according to Internet World Stats, just under 30 percent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people use the internet. That’s why the company has invested in various schemes to boost internet penetration across the continent — among them the Amos-6 satellite, intended to serve Africa’s rural areas from space. It exploded. But tech limitations are only one part of the story. Last year, at least 11 African governments shut down the internet for various, temporary reasons, according to Access Now, a public policy and advocacy group for internet users around the world. In Gabon, the government switched off access when the election became too close to call. In Algeria, leaders blocked the web to prevent students from cheating on exams, they claimed. In Cameroon, restrictions on the internet were enacted across the country’s English-speaking areas.
Where there are shutdowns, there is Okobi. Many Africans are living in a strange moment, in which corporate interest overlaps with the public interest and, to some extent, local economic interests. Government internet shutdowns cost some $2.4 billion in 2016, according to a report by the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. The Congolese government, for example, shut down the internet for a total of 15 days in 2016, costing over $7 million. In Uganda, five days cost over $2 million. Internet freedom is “one of the major tools for economic development,” says Darrell M. West, the author of the study. “When countries shut down the internet, they are hurting their own local businesses,” he says.
Okobi’s spent her career fighting for internet freedom and online privacy. The San Francisco native spent six years at Yahoo! as head of global human rights — at a time when few businesses connected human rights and technology, according to Michael Samway, VP at Yahoo! during Okobi’s time there. The issues she deals with today are similar — helping Facebook balance privacy, opennness and government concens about security — but abroad and with twists. Sometimes a government’s resistance to social media comes from a lack of familiarity, she says. And cozy relationships between telecos and governments can complicate the issue. In “the developing world, you often have to go through government officials to do business,” says West.
The fact that I’m Nigerian is a core part of me.
Okobi’s parents left Nigeria for college in the U.K. and the U.S. in the 1970s, but were unable to return home because of the Biafran war, a time of particular strife for Nigeria’s Igbo people. As a child, Okobi visited Nigeria only a handful of times but still learned to understand Igbo. “The fact that I’m Nigerian is a core part of me,” she says. Right down to her career path. The mostly serious joke in Nigerian diasporic circles is that medicine, law and engineering are the only proper professions. At 8, Okobi shadowed a doctor for a day; it didn’t take long for her to figure out blood wasn’t for her. By 11, she decided to become a lawyer.
After graduating from Columbia Law School, Okobi went to work at a white-shoe law firm in Manhattan, doing M&A and securities law. But she felt unsettled. She moved to London to work on the firm’s deals in Paris and Amsterdam, but still couldn’t shake the feeling that she wanted to do less finance and more social good. So in early 2001, she took time off to travel and work at a human rights clinic in Senegal. At summer’s end she returned to New York, and soon after, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center. Okobi’s best friend — also her first boyfriend — was killed. “It was very real, visceral,” she says. “I decided then I was never going back [to the law firm].” She kicked it into a different gear, eventually heading to business school. A stint doing corporate social responsibility at Nike undoubtedly laid the groundwork for her time at Yahoo! and Facebook.
The most controversial aspect of her work, perhaps, is Free Basics. The Facebook-driven platform provides a free version of the internet, including Wikipedia, a lighter-weight Facebook and some third-party apps. Telecos in 22 African countries provide it. Facebook can control what is provided for free and what is more accessible, the argument goes, and many have criticized it for creating different classes of internet access. (India, for instance, has banned the product altogether.) For its part, Facebook says half of all Free Basics users convert into paying internet customers within a month.
Okobi’s work, though, suggests that issues of internet access go well beyond the Free Basics brouhaha. She advocates especially for women’s access to the internet, hoping one day internet cafes across the continent will be filled with more than just men. She’s a “warrior for human rights and women’s rights … and for women in tech, of course,” says Christina Sass of African coding academy Andela, which has funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
The voracious reader and mother of three is known to her friends for her passionate stances on women’s rights and reclaiming African narratives through her emotive Facebook posts. “There’s something magical about being able to connect across barriers of time and space,” she tells me.