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Digital Inclusion

AfricaCom Day Two: The Technology Paradox

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On the second day at this year's AfricaCom, the conversation continued to explore ways for digital connectivity to be the engine for development and social empowerment -- connecting the next billion. Several keynotes and panel discussions tackled the issue of how this can be achieved, with the consensus that although Africa currently lags other markets, the impetus, will and skills are already on the ground to propel the continent forward.

The beauty of digital is that there are no 'one size fits all' solutions. However, that is also the challenge: There are almost too many options, which can be overwhelming to a populace more used to solving how they are going to get water from the river than connect with an online platform or participate in a virtual reality classroom.

Dr Kamal Bhattacharya, Chief Innovation Officer at Safaricom, agrees, stating that "Africa needs to find a way to convert data into capital that can then enable people to develop and grow more businesses that contribute to the local and a greater economy."

Dr Kamal Bhattacharya, Chief Innovation Officer at Safaricom: 'Africa needs to find a way to convert data into capital that can then enable people to develop and grow more businesses that contribute to the local and a greater economy.'
Dr Kamal Bhattacharya, Chief Innovation Officer at Safaricom: "Africa needs to find a way to convert data into capital that can then enable people to develop and grow more businesses that contribute to the local and a greater economy."

While this topic rages and continues to help the continent develop the strategies it needs to get connected, on the other end of the scale there is already the debate around Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning and how this will affect the continent. Here, panellists and audience members were prompted to consider -- What makes us human? The answer, reassuringly, is that we exceed limits and we have the ability to collaborate and have aspirations -- qualities that machines don't have -- and this is what needs to be tapped into to develop the skills we as a human race, not just as Africans, need to thrive.

With the right thinking, structure and mechanisms we will be able to support future generations, and that's something that the organizers of AfricaCom are already embracing, aware that a much overdue discussion around ethics is required.

A main take-away from day two was that while generational problems could not be solved immediately, they are too big to ignore and need to be confronted to stop them becoming long-term problems.

One way to overcome this is to empower women, enabling them to become part of the connected economy. With Africa still a predominantly patriarchal society, connecting African women to the economy has incredible potential, as witnessed by the impact of SafariCom's M-Pesa in Kenya. The well-known service has afforded Kenyan women the opportunity to go into different industries (not just agriculture). This is supporting financial resilience and has lifted 2–3% of the Kenyan population out of poverty. Technology, of course, has the ability to unlock even more potential but it is up to the individual to want to do that. So does this once again boil down to the question of education as well as connectivity?

Indranil Das, Vice-President and Head of Digital Services, Middle East at Ericsson, encapsulated Africa's current dichotomy.

Addressing AfricaCom attendees on Succeeding at the Digital Frontier of Africa,' he remarked that connected communication is a basic need and the essential bridge to economic exchange. For example, in Dubai on a Friday market day, it would take a typical three to four hours to collect something as simple as a SIM card from a store, whereas, the same SIM card provider could partner with a transport or 'driving' company and the product can be delivered to the door in less than 10 minutes, enabling the customer to go online far sooner.

Indranil Das, Vice-President and Head of Digital Services, Middle East at Ericsson.
Indranil Das, Vice-President and Head of Digital Services, Middle East at Ericsson.

This simple example, brought home the difference between businesses that are born digital and those that are traditional and still need to adopt a digital strategy. The former is agile and can adapt to market conditions with confidence – and have a higher market valuation and produce more revenue – than those that are still trying to stop the juggernaut and adjust course.

So where do governments and policy fit in? At a panel discussion looking at affordable Internet access for all, a lively debate ensued with several differences of opinion. Nic Rudnick, CEO of Liquid Telecom, believes governments should invest in building schools, roads and hospitals and should not be vested in telecoms, and should only be involved if the private sector cannot accomplish what it sets out to do.

On the other side of the coin, Uche Ofodile, Regional Head Africa, Express Wi-Fi at Facebook, and Anikó Szigetvári, Global head of TMT at International Finance Corporation, both emphasized the importance of governments in coming to the party with workable regulations and policy frameworks that encourage open working relationships and transparencies between everyone. Mobile taxation is punitive -- why is it so cost prohibitive for fiber to be rolled out so there can be greater connectivity when government should be encouraging the deployment of ways and means to bring citizens online? The same query was levelled at the network operators, which need to become more vested in reaching the masses than switching on the fastest connection speeds currently afforded by only the few.

Data should be in the hands of the people -- they should have the choice to select how much data they want and when, not be dictated to by network operators with exorbitant and restrictive packages. The MNOs also need to consider localized content for their subscribers -- it is a total waste of everyone's effort and money if the content available to mobile users is not relevant or of any use to them, or in a foreign language they will never understand. Mostly, it's the waste of a good opportunity.

Delegates were urged to teach people to be profitable by using the Internet and by creating an environment in which they can at least try. "We can't wait for our children to get connected and then teach us. We need to be doing it for ourselves, in the now," commented Ofodile.

South Africa could learn best practices from other developing countries who have faced similar problems. Look at parts of South America where the majority of citizens are well connected, which is starting to have a positive impact on growth. We don't need to reinvent the wheel in Africa.

Demonstrating creative thinking and proving it works, Alistair Westgarth, Head of Project Loon at X (formerly Google [x]), shared a real-life story around hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, where the organization launched its 'communication balloons' to get the city connected. Just one balloon has the capacity to bring a city twice the size of Cape Town online. Acting like a mobile phone tower, the balloon is self-sufficient, being battery- and solar-operated, and is remotely controlled, so it can be moved to where it is needed or avoid hectic weather patterns -- it is a workable and practical resolution for the African continent.

Alistair Westgarth, Head of Project Loon at X.
Alistair Westgarth, Head of Project Loon at X.

Exploring the boundaries of digital Inclusivity
Much has been 'spoken' about digital inclusion at AfricaCom during the past few years, but what does this 'inclusion' actually entail? Yes, it's about 'connecting' people, but it is also, importantly, about 'how' that connection takes effect. On a panel amplifying the impact of ICT4D, Karen Smit, Principal Specialist: Specific Needs at Vodacom, led the conversation on how the disabled and the elderly, often overlooked, should be included and how this could materialise.

Karen Smit, Principal Specialist: Specific Needs at Vodacom (right), addresses fellow panellists and AfricaCom attendees during a panel debate.
Karen Smit, Principal Specialist: Specific Needs at Vodacom (right), addresses fellow panellists and AfricaCom attendees during a panel debate.

As an example, of what Smit and her team are researching and championing, she explained that charging a deaf person for phone calls when they will rely on text-based communication, or charging a person who could not use their hands but relied on voice activation the same as an able-bodied user, needed to be urgently addressed. Once more, the importance of sound working relationships with regulators was mooted, along with the inclusion of disabled organisations, which can together work with handset manufacturers and MNOs to ensure there is true inclusivity -- look at advances that have been made with Siri, for example.

Over the years, AfricaCom has seen the conversation wax and wane around the deployment of satellites as a means to connect the continent. 2017, however, seemed to be the year that satellite has firmly entered the orbit of telcos and governments, with several exhibitors demonstrating their capabilities and satellite being the focus of a number of discussions, including a keynote presentation by South Africa's Deputy Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Ms Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams. (See Connecting Africa Through Satellite Communications.)

South Africa's Deputy Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Ms Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams (center).
South Africa's Deputy Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Ms Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams (center).

AfricaCom day two rounded out with several business agreements being concluded. Among those engaging in such activities was first time visitor to AfricaCom, New Link (a division of the Bahrain-based Al Hagbani Group), which struck a lucrative co-operation agreement with technology company Hongdian.

Shape digital Africa and be a part of AfricaCom 2018. Pre-registration has now opened for the 21st anniversary event -- register your interest here.

— The staff, Connecting Africa

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