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MNOs missing massive opportunity to bridge Africa’s digital gap

By , ITWeb
Africa , 12 Nov 2020

Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are missing a massive opportunity to bridge the digital gap in Africa as the COVID-19 pandemic alters the telecommunications landscape. That’s according to mobile technology company, Upstream, who spoke at the first exclusively virtual AfricaCom 2020.

Participating in the panel Protecting profit in a landscape of changing operator models on day two of the event, Upstream’s Chief Commercial Officer, Raul Martinez began by outlining the unique challenges faced by MNOs in Africa when it comes to growing and diversifying their revenue streams, but he also talked of great opportunities and the “untapped potential” in the region.

“It’s becoming increasingly relevant in these COVID times to look for additional revenue sources and capture opportunities that arise as a result of a dramatic shift in consumer behaviour,” he commented.

Martinez revealed that Upstream had carried out a joint worldwide survey of MNO executives in partnership with the Technology Innovation Council. The survey, due to be published in full soon, found that 75% of operators acknowledged that COVID-19 had in some way expedited or altered their digital transformation journey.

Martinez referenced long customer engagements, easy customer segmentation, the wealth of transactional data available, an evolving payments ecosystem, distribution, as well as reach and coverage. All of these, he argued, uniquely position MNOs to capitalise on nationwide trends and shape their services to better match the needs of consumers.

What makes this difficult, according to Martinez, are the “gaps” in resources, focus and skills that leave MNOs unable to capitalise on the huge opportunities that lie in wait. “I remember having lengthy CAPEX approval discussions for building a self-care app but very few when it came to deploying 3G or 4G coverage,” he explained. “Even if resources can be made available, the focus is normally very much skewed towards the core business and in the constant competitive pricing battles.”

Upstream’s CCO also outlined the need for a very specific set of skills that aren’t always available within each MNO, and are often scarce in the wider labour pool in emerging markets like those of Africa.

The discussion then shifted toward disruptive technologies like 5G, Artificial Intelligence and IOT, and whether or not these should be a focus of MNOs in the region.

“The fact of the matter is that in Africa, only 9% of the subscriptions are 4G and less than 40% of subscribers even have a smartphone. To bridge this gap is the first disruption that is yet to materialise in the market and the opportunity for MNOs to drive this change is massive.”

Whilst COVID-19 permeated conversations – the need for a virtual festival for example, but also the accelerated adoption of technology across the continent - it was the keynote presentations and weighty discussions exploring the events key theme of ‘resilience and growth: uniting tech and talent for socio-economic impact,’ that attracted a global audience and set the scene for Africa’s connected future.


The move to multi-platforms was also covered in discussion. Also underlining the move to online for all businesses, including media and content (explored through Video Exchange Africa), is the need to address declining revenue streams and replace them with new ways to generate revenue, as well as how going digital, has reduced reliance on labour but highlighted the need to upskill existing manpower.

Chen Kuan-Hong, Chief Consultant, National Broadband and full-fibre, Analysis office at Huawei, who chaired Next-Gen ICT Infrastructure Brings Connectivity for All Africa, remarked how important it is for African governments to not only focus on access to energy and other utilities rollout but to include broadband as a first line item, otherwise the continent will be stuck in a perpetual legacy situation.

Investing in next generation ICT infrastructure will unlock greater opportunities way beyond just being a means to providing entertainment. Significant to unlocking tax contributions and sustaining future growth, across Africa, is investment into ICT infrastructure, which various studies conducted in developed countries have shown how full fibre and 5G roll-out are strategic markers for governments to stimulate economic growth.

Partnership, sharing and collaboration remain strong themes. Africa’s largest sub-sea cable, 2Africa is a case in point, a consortium of China Mobile International, Facebook, MTN Global Connect, Orange, stc, Telecom Egypt, Vodafone and WIOCC.

ICT business leaders and experts believe much deliberation has been levied at encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship in the region, particularly throughout 2020. However, while there is clearly a desire, the ability to make it a reality is severely limited across a continent that still needs to connect people to basic amenities, before they can develop their ideas.

Consequently, serious investment and co-investment – not just in infrastructure but in the technologies and talent that is going to drive it forward – is required.

Reimagining Africa: the importance of tech innovation in a post-COVID-19 world, presented by Lilian Barnard, Managing Director at Microsoft South Africa, touched on this.

Highlighting the role that women are playing in innovation across the technology ecosystem in Africa, Juliet Ehimuan, Director leading Google’s business in West Africa remarked: “The next Bill gates is female and African.”

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