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The East African tech ecosystem documented - East Africa Com 2016

This year’s East Africa Com attracted a diverse array and cross-section of the continent’s most prominent movers and shakers in the areas of technology and telecommunications. From government leaders, key policy advisers, research analysts and engineers to directors, chairpersons and CEOs – East Africa Com welcomed them all and served as a platform for them to present, engage and debate. 

"It was a varied and extensive two days"

It was a varied and extensive two days which sought to bring the region’s most pressing tech and connectivity topics and issues into the spotlight, showcasing the latest solutions and best practice, as well as tracking what is up-and-coming on the East African tech horizon.

East Africa Com served to bring the public and private sectors together, in order to facilitate effective discussions and further collaboration. Government leaders and advisers presented a number of keynote addresses and sat side-by-side with company decision-makers and industry experts on numerous panel discussions, spanning a variety of tech and connectivity topics. 

"Without a doubt the words ‘collaboration’ and ‘partnership’ were used to underpin discussions on nearly every single one of the event’s sessions"

The overriding theme of these two days was undoubtedly the notion of collaboration - the co-operation within the public sector, the collaboration within the private sector, and the overall synergy between both parties. Andile Ngcaba, Chairperson of Convergence Partners, summed this up in one when he said that: “The African model is a collaborative one”.

Without a doubt the words ‘collaboration’ and ‘partnership’ were used to underpin discussions on nearly every single one of the event’s sessions, whether it be on developing local, digital broadcasting content, the roll out of the National Broadband Network, leveraging 4G infrastructure, IT security, data roaming or mobile financial services – all speakers and panelists expressed the need for strong working relationships traversing sectors and industries. 

Many attendees were encouraged by the positive conversations and alliances that are currently taking place. Kenyan ICT Secretary Dr. Katherine Getao also noted that Kenya was on the right track in this regard, with “the private sector [being]…integrally involved and are well informed about what the government is doing, and they are also able to have a voice about their concerns and about the opportunities that they are looking for in the region.” 

In Rwanda too, Tigo’s Regional Government Relations Manager Pierre Kayitana noted that Tigo has “regular meetings with the Rwandan government, the ministry of ICT, the Rwandan regulator...[and] we have an open dialogue on all the issues.” 

"It's a matter of everyone aligning themselves to the same goal and then putting their foot on the gas"

There was a definite sense of positivity and enthusiasm which pervaded these two days, with not only the conference auditoriums, but also the break-out areas and exhibitions, being abuzz with conversation between all factions, discussing the possibilities of partnerships and projects.

Nigel Bruin, Principal Consultant at Huawei, noted the importance for translating “the interest and rhetoric into action… [and] it's a matter of everyone aligning themselves to the same goal and then putting their foot on the gas.”

"I am very confident that there is going to be traction and a lot of collaboration from the government, the public and the private sector"

Delegates and speakers also expressed the hope that forums and events such as East Africa Com would lay the foundations for further partnerships to be formed between the private and public sector, with Ibrahim Empamba of Orange Kenya Telkom stating that: “I am very confident that there is going to be traction and a lot of collaboration from the government, the public and the private sector…I am very sure that conferences such as these will push people to come around the table, we hope to see more of the same.” 

"East Africa Com tackled some of the region’s, and indeed the continent’s, most deeply entrenched challenges in terms of tech and connectivity"

The thread which bound most of East Africa Com’s discussions and sessions together was the socio-economic considerations of the region. This was true in both the way socio-economic challenges are seen as blockers to connectivity and the growth of ICT, most specifically in rural areas, but also in how partnerships and innovations are able to bring about the upliftment of historically underserved communities.

East Africa Com tackled some of the region’s, and indeed the continent’s, most deeply entrenched challenges in terms of tech and connectivity. One of the biggest drawbacks of connecting those in East Africa, particularly in rural areas, is cost. 

Kenyan ICT Secretary Katherine Getao expressed this very fact in her interview with us when she said that: “I think cost is still a challenge, especially the cost of broadband. We need to look at that and see how it can become far more accessible for serious applications and using it for work.”

This issue was tackled head on in a number of the panel discussions, most notably in the talks around leveraging 4G infrastructure and the use of satellite technology and other alternatives to bring more affordable capacity to rural locales. 

It was not only the cost of deploying new networks and infrastructure that is considered expensive but also the cost of “getting the end customer connected, [as] the challenge remains in getting access to smartphones. The cost is still very high for the market, which we need to address”, said Tigo’s Pierre Kayitana.

As a smartphone manufacturer with 50% market share in Kenya, Huawei seems to be leading the way in this regard, with Kenyans being able to get their hands on unlocked IDEOS smartphones for under $50 US. So as connectivity initiatives continue to be rolled out there is now starting to be an affordable provision of smartphones for the public at large.

But once the infrastructure is in place and the public have smartphones in their hands, what will their monthly costs be - will data be affordable for the masses?

Historically, data roaming has been incredibly expensive on the continent, but once again, partnerships have stepped in, traversed geographical boarders, in order to bring about a more affordable alternative. This is no more apparent than in the creation of the One Network Initiative which was the focus of the closing keynote panel on day one. The One Network Initiative has been able to bring affordable voice and SMS tariffs to the Northern Corridor countries. This ensures that individuals traveling between these countries enjoy the same local rate as being in their home country.

"The socio-economic impact is that you have a lot of intra-regional business being very successful"

Panelist Pierre Kayitana noted that: “The socio-economic impact is that you have a lot of intra-regional business being very successful because people are able to use the same line while they are traveling in the region, so we have seen tremendous growth in terms of traffic in between the countries - we did not expect this.”

Furthermore, this initiative is to shortly be extended to include mobile browsing data, with the panelists being confident that the infrastructure in place would be more than up to the challenge of the added traffic which will result, as undoubtedly voice and SMS is still the most commonly used of mobile services, in this region. 

If there is one takeaway for individuals not working in the African telcos industry is that this sector has an incredibly strong socio-economic impetus - it is all about connecting the last mile, through any number of technologies and innovations. Serving the underserved is the top priority. 

"We have a social responsibility to connect rural communities” 

This theme was the backdrop to many of the sessions, with Intelsat’s Brian Jakins stating during a panel discussion on the provision of broadband: "We have a social responsibility to connect rural communities.”

ICT4D expert and member of the Universal Service Access Fund Nixon Mageka Gecheo declared in his Government Keynote Address that: “Every Kenyan has the right to information” before detailing the progress and achievements of the Universal Service Access Fund. The main objective of this fund is to support the provision of affordable and reliable ICT in Kenya. One its most recent achievements has been the provision of KES 500m, which will be spent on broadband connectivity in secondary schools across the country. 

East Africa is leading the way where a number of ICT developments and innovations are concerned, and this is no less apparent than in the area of mobile financial services, where the adoption of services such as M-PESA has been tremendous.

"Mobile financial services has become a way of life for a great deal of East Africans"

One only need to look at the fact that Safaricom are currently processing 1 KCB partnered loan every second, to see that mobile financial services has become a way of life for a great deal of East Africans.

Financial services came under the spotlight in a number of East Africa Com sessions, such as the Finance Leader Roundtable and the CIO Roundtable. One of the most pertinent topics was the importance of furthering financial inclusion, with Equity Bank’s GM of Technology Jack Ngare, stating during the MVNO panel that: "With 40% of Kenyans living on less than $1 a day it was important for us to make mobile banking more reasonable." 

"Banks need to work with M-PESA to drive financial inclusion"

Working together, uniting efforts and infrastructure was also a hot topic of conversation in the financial services sessions, with Kenya Commercial Bank CIO Avi Mitra stating that rather than seeing M-PESA as the competition, commercial banks should forge partnerships with mobile money firms, as they "are no longer operating in an isolated ecosystem - banks need to work with M-PESA to drive financial inclusion." 

The region’s leading banks were all in attendance during the Finance Leaders Roundtable, such as the National Bank of Kenya, I&M Bank and the Kenya Commercial Bank, where discussions centred around the importance of robust cyber security but also the need to educate customers on their role in safeguarding their accounts. The challenge for banks is to provide an easy and convenient service for banking customers that continues to be underpinned by complex and robust security.

A first for East Africa Com this year, was the introduction of the brand new ‘Broadcasting in the Digital Era’ sessions, which proved to be extremely popular with delegates. From discussions ranging from how to launch a TV channel in the digital age and the technologies that can drive access to digital television regardless of location, one of the most central issues was the provision of high quality, local content to service these digital channels.

"Live content is important, it connects – we need to bring local sports into the spotlight"

Panelists from the region’s leading media, telecoms and broadcasting companies noted that “operators have to be creative, have good content and even better connectivity and packages to bring it home.” Using the genre of live sports as an example Moses Kemibaro, Commercial Manager at Perform Group in East Africa, noted that: “Live content is important, it connects – we need to bring local sports into the spotlight [using digital television], which has been neglected.” 

This year’s East Africa Com was the scene of overwhelmingly spirited and lively debate, incorporating a multitude of novel ideas and topics, spanning the entirety of the East African digital landscape.

There are still a number of incredibly pertinent challenges that are being tackled on a daily basis but as Andile Ngcaba highlights: “There is huge change in this industry, sometimes when we look at today’s challenges, we talk about them as if we have not made a lot of improvement in the last 18 years or so in this industry, which could not be further from the truth.”

Through the numerous networking sessions, workshops, panel discussions and exclusive after party, there is a definite sense of optimism which is currently purveying the sector, conversations are being had and business is being done, which will undoubtedly result in marked growth in the near future.

“It is going to be a revolution in the next few years when all these countries come together to join the international digital community.” - Nigel Bruin, Huawei

We would like to take this opportunity to thank all delegates, speakers, partners and exhibitors for making East Africa Com 2016 the most successful to date. We look forward to meeting up with you all again next year and down in Cape Town in November for AfricaCom.

Keep up to date with all Com World Series news and take part in the conversation over on our social media channels, or comment below:

Website: AfricaCom
Twitter: @AllAboutCom
LinkedIn: East Africa Com: Telecoms, ICT & Digital Media Group
Facebook: Com World Series
Instagram: @ComWorldSeries

If you would like to submit a round-up, article or interview covering East Africa Com or any other Com World Series event, please get in contact here.

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