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2019 East Africa Com

The East Africa Com conference took place in Nairobi, Kenya during the days 14 and 15 May 2019. The overarching theme of the conference was new technologies enabling the emerging digital world and digital transformation. The specific focus of the conference was also on how these developments will unfold in East Africa and the impact they are likely to have across economic, social and government environments in the region.

The eco-system was well-represented at the conference, with organisations from the ICT industry, financial institutions, parastatal utilities, government entities and academia inter alia. Theoretical discussions were supported by ample examples of current uses cases for new technologies in East Africa.

The topics at the conference dealt with a wide range of subjects, tackling issues such as:

  • Quality broadband connectivity and “affordable” access to ensure maximum socio-economic inclusivity in Africa (this continues to be a pertinent topic despite years of private sector and government initiatives);
  • Adoption and application of new technologies (such as Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning) in various vertical industries and government agencies to deliver new and improved services to customers;
  • Democratisation of data to make it more readily available for analysis to solve socio-economic problems through development of correct policies, yet remaining mindful of the requirement for data anonymity;
  • Digital transformation among organisations in East Africa to become more efficient and globally competitive, and positioning for the 4th Industrial Revolution;
  • Mobile money and financial inclusion; and
  • Growing women leaders in ICT and business in general.

On the last point, the East Africa Com conference has developed a partnership with ITC SheTrades, an initiative of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations. The SheTrades initiative aims to connect three million women to market by 2021, facilitating opportunities for women entrepreneurs, supported by a web and mobile digital platform. At the conference, the emphasis was placed on bringing women into the tech sector and using technology to enable women to participate in economic activities to a greater extent. This would unlock a lot of additional value and grow the global economy, especially in developing markets.

Connecting ICT stakeholders

The AHUB again proved to be a very useful medium of connecting local technology start-ups with investors, operators and large corporates to foment collaboration on new projects and (hopefully) mutually beneficial partnerships. The discussion panel on “Realising synergies between MNOs and African tech start-ups” illustrated initiatives already in place aimed at creating an environment conducive to start-up development and success, although still only 1 in 10 start-ups achieve some form of success (including survival beyond the short term). Revenue splits from commercial products (such as apps) continue to be skewed in favour of large mobile operators who claim they provider greater inputs into the partnership. This can stymie the growth of start-ups into sustainable companies.

Building a successful digital economy

To build a successful digital economy in East Africa a number of more basic building blocks still need to be put in place. For instance, liberalisation of immigration laws to attract foreign skills and direct investment, or creation of incentive schemes to experiment with new technologies through pilots (“sand boxes”) free from bureaucratic constraints. Availability of requisite spectrum for new access technologies (such as 5G) timeously is also critical.

Regulating new technology

One of the recurring discussion points at the conference revolved around regulating the new technologies and services in the digital world. One first needs to understand what it is that one tries to regulate, which is what the governments and regulatory authorities in many markets are currently trying to achieve. Unfortunately, the consensus was that we are likely to see more rather than less regulation, which is also bound to become more complex with increasing complexity of the digital environment around us. This is at a time when most stakeholders hope to see less, not more, regulation to allow for freer development of the digital future. It is critical for governments and regulatory authorities to embrace new technologies, rather than stifle them with over-regulation, lest we miss out on opportunities the new technologies offer.

4th Industrial Revolution

In a sense, Africa is already well suited to the 4th Industrial Revolution. Out of necessity, and limited formal jobs, the gig economy is alive and well. New technologies such as AI, ML and mixed reality innovation will drive these opportunities and create more formal job. An example is the recent launch of the Africa Development Centre by Microsoft in Nairobi, Kenya and Lago, Nigeria which will bring USD100 million of investment and 500 engineering jobs over the next five years. Africa can take advantage of its young population to drive this growth but it first needs to create capacity.

This report was compiled by Dobek Pater who attended and participated in the 2019  East Africa Com.

2017 AfricaCom Conference Review

About the event

The annual AfricaCom event was held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) from 7-9 November 2017, with a line-up of global thought leaders who provided interesting insights on future technology trends and market developments in Africa. The event also offered a good networking platform for industry players and essential learning opportunities. The event also marked 20 years of AfricaCom, which has become the largest ICT event on the continent.

A summary of key discussion points and take-ways from the conference is provided below.

New trends

M-commerce was notably among the disruptive technologies that were under the spotlight at the event and is expected to be far more “disruptive” than PC-based e-commerce ever was. In the next 6 years Africa is expected to lead digital solutions, with companies with clear digital strategy expected to lead the market. Among the key messages delivered at the event was the need to encourage local manufacturing companies to take a leadership position in the region. Other notable topics that were discussed included Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Smart Cities, Digital Health, SDN & VFN, and Blockchain.

A growing trend is that of governments trying to recreate monopolies in the market, instead of creating an enabling environment for competition to thrive and intervene in markets such as rural areas, where it often does not make economic sense for private sector companies to invest. This is coupled with a growing practice by governments of treating telecoms sector businesses as cash cows. Some of the operators claim that as much as 60% of their revenues are taken by governments. The key message from the operators on this issue was that ICT should not cross-subsidise other industries, so that revenues generated in the ICT sector can be reinvested to further sector development and innovation.

A single national network model, such as the WOAN proposed by the South African government, also came under scrutiny, with operators sharing a common view that this model could be harmful for the telecoms sector. Furthermore, market regulators need to be educated on a continuous basis, in order to be able to regulate very dynamic markets effectively.

IoT and high data costs

The issue of data costs was very topical. From an operator point of view, the cost of operating a telecommunications network remains very high in many markets across Africa. Lack of proper utility infrastructure negatively impacts the operational efficiencies of telecoms operators, which in turn results in higher retail prices of data than the public and the state would like to see. Moreover, there is also the question of economic principle, with operators in most markets opting to charge for data what they can, if not constrained by regulation. More can be done in terms of trying to reduce the retail price of data to benefit users. Operators such as Safaricom (Kenya) are reviewing their data charge models to see how prices could be reduced further.

However, other operators are of the view that MNOs no longer generate large profits as they had done in the past, largely due to competition from the OTTs who have negatively impacted the price of voice services. Decreasing voice revenues do not leave the operators with much room to move when it comes to lowering prices of other products (such as data).

A panel discussion on IoT resulted in a call to use IoT to transform the telecoms industry. IoT will also help businesses to be more efficient. Africa is expected to benefit considerably from IoT, particularly in sectors such as mining, transport, tourism, health and energy. As such, security around IoT platforms needs to become a priority.

The journey to 5G

3G is expected to continue carrying most of the traffic in Africa as the technology lifespan is usually 20 years. Most operators in Africa began 3G deployment 5 to 10 years ago. However, operators should not be rolling out 2G and 3G networks in isolation. As we enter the new era of high speed connectivity, when 5G eventually arrives, the technology is expected to drive real convergence. It is believed that in the next six years, the world will be ready for 5G, with the first subscriptions expected to start early in 2022. Africa is expected to reach 2 million 5G subscriptions by the end of 2023. However, the predicted commercial launch of 5G services could be brought forward, given that by the end of 2017 the first phase of 5G standard will be completed. This will allow early adopters to launch commercial offerings, particularly in the developed markets.

Some of the speakers at the event believe that Wireless-to-the-Home technology will drive connectivity globally and not fibre, as many anticipate. Nonetheless, the deployment of fibre will continue to be essential, as it does serve specific needs in the market more effectively than wireless technologies.

Bridging the digital divide

On the need to connect Africa’s next billion, a study revealed that of the 240 countries that were part of the study, some 104 do not have broadband strategy. For African countries to grow their GDPs, they need to prioritise broadband rollout. The example of Singapore was given, which came from a historically low ICT ranking to become one of the leading countries globally by prioritising broadband rollout. Currently, Africa contributes less than 5% of the global GDP and 75% of the people on the continent do not have smartphones. Moreover, 50% of the people in Africa are still serviced exclusively by 2G networks. Several initiatives are being undertaken by various companies to bridge the digital divide in Africa. These include:

  • SmartWIFI – The hotspot service is intended to bring WiFi to rural areas, enabling retailers, hospitality establishments, petrol stations, as well as healthcare centres or schools to become a connectivity point and a digital gateway to opportunity for the surrounding population. Access can be extended to several kilometres through off-the-shelf Wi-Fi repeaters.

Project Loon – A network of balloons located at the edge of space is designed to extend Internet connectivity to people in rural and remote areas worldwide at an affordable cost. If successfully rolled out across the African continent, Project Loon has the potential to assist countries with low Internet population coverage to achieve nation-wide coverage. Connection signal is transmitted up to the nearest balloon from  a telecommunications partner on the ground, relayed across the balloon network, and then back down to users on the ground. The demonstrated data transmission speed between balloons over 100 km apart in the stratosphere and back to earth (directly to LTE devices) is up to 10Mbps.

  • The Express Wi-Fi initiative will be expanded through a partnership with Facebook in Nigeria, with the goal of connecting more people to the Internet in a cost-efficient way. Express Wi-Fi in Nigeria is focused in areas where people gather and work, including markets, cafés and public outdoor spaces.

Creating an enabling environment

African countries are encouraged to start educating rural communities, empowering them to use devices to enable growth. However, lack of access to the Internet, lack of local content, lack of spectrum, lack of affordability (costly devices) and a poor demand side (due to lack of proper education, particularly in rural areas) are some of the key issues that are contributing to the current digital divide in many parts of Africa.

Furthermore, governments are urged by the operators to create enabling environments to support innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa. For their part, some of the state governments in Africa are already taking steps to improve ICT penetration and use it as a socio-economic enabler. Examples include:

  • Namibia – Currently, Internet penetration is around 50% of the population but the country has declared access to the Internet a basic human right and wants to achieve 100% population coverage in the next two years. New investment initiatives should be announced soon.
  • South Africa – The Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services is urging operators to consider bridging the digital divide through the greater use of satellite broadband services, with satellite technology offering far wider coverage than terrestrial networks. It is disappointing that of the 100 satellites to have been launched globally in 2017, only five will have been launched by African states. There needs to be greater focus on the use of satellite technology in Africa.
  • Zimbabwe – The government is the biggest spender on ICT in the country and intends to accelerate mobile network deployment. The government has interest in 2 out of the 3 MNOs operating in the country. New policies have been introduced, which will encourage infrastructure sharing between the operators.

To reduce the cost of communication, initiatives such as uniform roaming charges between operators in an economic community such as SADC and joint infrastructure investment by operators should be encouraged.