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The African telecoms industry lacks a cunning plan

AfricaCom

After several presentations, discussions and lectures at AfricaCom 2017 I’m still not too sure what the plan is in the African telecoms markets.

Maybe I’ve been spoilt by the boresome Brussels bureaucrats who have spent years developing a single market which offers some idea of what the digital economy looks like. They might be getting there very slowly, but the European Commission has an objective for the digital economy in Europe, and a roadmap to get there. The same can be said of North America. There is a vision which people understand. We left AfricaCom today confused over what the objective is for Africa, and whether there is a plan to get there.

Europe and North America are what some would consider single markets, so perhaps it is unfair to judge Africa under the same criteria, but it’s nonetheless a confusing, chaotic and contradictory place at first glance. Once upon a time in years gone by your correspondent’s father once said ‘if you can’t explain a plan to someone in simple language, it isn’t a very good one’. Perhaps that says it all, and perhaps it is more than some wanted to hear.

What we did see were fingers being pointed by telcos and vendors at governments, governments doing the same in the opposite direction, telcos outlining a road to 5G, while simultaneously figuring out how to connect those who struggle for 2G, under-developed regulatory systems which are very fragmented, and some of the most advanced mobile money and smart city markets in the world.

There were also discussions about LTE even though the vast majority of the devices on the market are still feature phones, and half of those who have smartphones don’t use data. Plans to train the masses on digital to take advantage of the connected economy, but no concrete evidence on how the infrastructure is going to be extended or funded. It’s all very confusing.

I also witnessed Europeans trying to sell European products, Americans their own vision of connectivity and Asians trying to integrate their own strategies. It was a mismatch of ideas and conversations all mixed together. Perhaps someone thought taking the best bits of each area and combing them all would be the perfect solution. No-one seems to have taken into consideration the uniqueness of Africa and started from the bottom up.

What seems to have been created is a jumble of objectives with no cohesion and dozens of regulatory frameworks which don’t really allow for cross-border initiatives. As mentioned before, your correspondent is a newcomer to Africa, so maybe something has been missed. Or perhaps we are simply stating the obvious, although we certainly hope not.

Africa is behind the rest of the world when it comes to digital, and it looks to be falling further behind as well. A lack of clear-cut objectives or a grand plan is certainly a worrying sign. Maybe I have missed it though. If I have, email or hunt down Jamie Davies at AfricaCom for a coffee/beer and a conversation; I’d love to be proved wrong.

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