Originally created 12/29/96

Ivory Coast leader's son trying to build on-line service



ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - Being the president's son may give you a leg up in the business world, but it means little if you can't easily snag potential overseas clients.

So Jean-Luc Bedie, co-founder of the financial consulting firm Hudson Finance, was keen to flash his fledgling services across the Internet.

"In terms of financial services, I think that our country is a bit shy about communicating with the world," said Bedie, President Henri Konan Bedie's son who started the brokerage firm with two associates in 1995.

Communicating from this West African country via the Internet has not only been a question of timidity, but cost. Until now, the most popular of only two Internet access services in town cost $28 an hour - in a country where the annual per capita income is only about $500.

But competition has arrived in the form of a high-speed satellite hookup, and prices are dropping. Africa Online, an Internet access service started by three Kenyan computer wizards with Ivy League educations, began service in Ivory Coast in October.

A subsidiary of U.S.-based Prodigy Inc., Africa Online has been operating in the East African nation of Kenya for a year, with some 2,000 customers. It hopes to expand to Ivory Coast's neighbor Ghana soon and is studying further expansion in French-speaking parts of West Africa.

"It's a big, untapped potential here," said Amolo Ng'weno, a co-founder of Africa Online. "It's like the telephone or roads or infrastructure - it makes a lot of things easier and cheaper, faster and more efficient."

Africa Online is now offering unlimited e-mail and Internet access for the equivalent of $150, plus a $20 sign-up fee, a service aimed primarily at businesses.

As it did in Kenya, the venture also hopes to open a "cyber cafe" in Abidjan by the end of the year to offer Internet service to the majority of residents who don't own computers or have access to one.

Africa Online estimates there are 50,000 computers in Ivory Coast, most of which belong to some 3,000 registered companies. It offered 100 of the companies free service for several months, generating word-of-mouth publicity.

One of those companies was Hudson Finance. Bedie hopes to be a major brokerage firm when the Abidjan Stock Exchange goes regional in 1997, listing stocks from companies in the seven nations of the West African Economic Monetary Union.

"The daunting task is really going to be the computers and the flow of information between all the brokers," said Bedie. "It's going to be a key tool to the integration process in our region. We travel a lot in each other's countries, but we don't have any communication."