The 20th Anniversary of AfricaCom held in Capetown, South Africa last week. Interesting key notes and discussions held around the theme of accelerating Africa’s Digital revolution and impact on socio-economic development in the Continent.
This writer took away the following key take-aways:
- Clear National Broadband Roadmaps: It continues to be evident that telcos remain challenged in managing the huge CAPEX and monetization burdens for data amidst increasing clamour for even lower data tariffs and public expectations of excellent National data coverage and speeds. At the same time, concerns were expressed about Governments investing in broadband networks like wholesale open access models as this was beginning to look like re-colonization by new-age State-owned telcos -a frightening reminder of the past. So between CAPEX-drained telco Operators and eager Governments, how can Africa achieve sustainable increased broadband penetration then?. A question that needs to be answered. New data from Ericsson suggests that 10% increase in broadband can have as high as 2.8% impact on GDP. If Africa is to actively play in this 4th Industrial revolution and contribute more than 5% to the global economy as discussed, then there needs to be a more ambitious plan to improve broadband across the Continent. Beyond lofty National broadband policy objectives, what appears to be missing is an inclusive holistic practicable plan between the Industry and Government on how specifically this broadband gap can be filled in the short, medium to long term. This will include investment commitments from the Industry against clear policy and regulatory commitments with trade-offs and accountability by both sides. Evidently, one common objective should be how to elevate the importance of ICT in our National economic dialogue. The point was strenuously made that Governments need to give as much focus to ICT as given to other sectors like roads and electricity because of the transformative impact ICT has on our National economies. Safaricom mentioned that a study by Massachusets Institute of Technology (MIT) on MPESA established that the service has lifted 2-3% of the populace (more women) out of extreme poverty.
- The landscape and language has changed: One of the key points made is that customers are not necessarily interested in broadband in itself, they are interested in what broadband can enable them do better in their everyday lives. What roles can broadband play to transform society. This puts ICT at the very centre of customers and socio-economic development. In a panel discussion with Executives from Vodacom, Orange, Safaricom and Telekom Malawi, it was interesting to listen to them candidly acknowledge the urgent need for change in engaging the market in this new data/digital era. They accepted that their roles should shift from tactical pricing to understanding how data is driving productivity, understanding customers aspirations/social mechanisms and how telcos can connect to these objectives with the right platforms and partnerships to create value for themselves, customers and society as a whole. They spoke about the shift from a walled garden to an open ecosystem mindset in the process of creating new relevant services for customers. Safaricom has an Innovation arm of the business focused on this (headed by an ex-IBM Chief). These were the realities of the NOW age: new World of customers thriving on digital connections and lifestyles challenging the leadership, cultural and organizational mindset in traditional Organizations. The language has changed. Thriving in this new Order will require single-minded customer focus and a more societally relevant role.
- New Interesting Solutions and business models: It was interesting to hear of Facebook’s Wifi Express service in Africa as an example of affordable internet business model. Also, there was a noticeable presence of Satellite companies in the exhibition stands. Apparently, the resurgence of Satellites will continue with increasing demands for National broadband coverage. For example, Yahclick offers a cost-effective reliable broadband satellite service to meet the demand for connectivity in remote and underserviced communities. It seems while we continue the debate on how to increase broadband penetration in the traditional sense, new models and interesting options are evolving. With 60% of the African population projected to be still unconnected by 2020, it is difficult not to expect interesting new business models, Mergers, Acquisitions and partnerships within and across the ICT value chain in the next few years to fill the gap for broadband access in Africa. Disruptions are now a reality with blurred lines across every Industry. Globally, we see that tech companies moving into the Infrastructure space and possibly last mile space in future. Google has invested in two cables that run from the United States to Japan, South America and other countries in Asia. Microsoft, Facebook and a telco, Telxius, have announced the planned completion of the highest capacity subsea cable across the Atlantic Ocean between Virginia beach and Bilabao in Spain. Google balloons have provided internet coverage for Puerto Rico during the recent hurricane disaster. Google has also been investing in fibre coverage in some African cities. It was also interesting to see at Africacom that Econet Global group is pushing forward with its Pan-African Integrated Digital Strategy. Liquid Telecom has built Africa’s largest independent fibre network spanning over 50,000km, operates data centres, providing cloud-based services with Microsoft and providing digital content through its Kwese TV, its subsidiary business. An integrated Communications and Digital services play as we are seeing globally with AT&T (in the process of acquiring Time Warner) and Verizon (acquiring Yahoo) may now be happening in Africa. And why not!. The obvious challenge will be how to ensure that Policy Makers and Regulators keep pace with these changes and support rather than inhibit Innovation within the larger context of promoting broadband growth in Africa.
The next few years will prove to be interesting especially with all the exciting opportunity areas like technology start-ups, TV and Internet of Things (IoT) taking shape. Conferences like AfricaCom will be even more interesting going forward beyond the great networking experience in Cape Town.