World Bank continues mission to make Africa more investable

The World Bank has selected Progressus to head-up the second phase of its ambitious African Regulatory Watch Initiative (RWI).

The African RWI is an interesting and unique project, aiming to tackle some of the more unique challenges faced across the African continent. Despite progress being made in the connectivity field, there are still some very difficult hurdles to overcome to close the digital divide on the continent, as well as place Africa on a level playing field with more developed regions.

The RWI will aim to tackle some of these challenges, such as licensing, spectrum allocation, taxation and tariffs, as well as appropriate regulatory oversight and accountability.

“This is an extremely exciting project,” said Olivier Jacquinot, who heads up RWI at Progressus. “RWI Phase 1 managed to identify some key regulatory levers that pushed forward the development of broadband in some countries. Phase two will deliver an even greater level of analysis – and help keep the African telecoms industry moving forward.”

Despite being managed by the World Bank, the financiers are staying pretty quiet regarding their own drivers and ambitions. That said, it might not be difficult to guess, these are moneymen after all and have some very obvious objectives.

One objective might simply be confidence. Bankers and venture capitalists are always looking for new investments, and the telecommunications industry is proving to be increasingly popular. An initiative which provides an improved and standardised regulatory environment across the continent might well be an important step to providing confidence to invest in the African telecoms and infrastructure industries.

Despite there being great potential for investors on the continent, Africa has several unique challenges. Accessibility, both financial and technological, is a significant one, though an incredibly fragmented and varied regulatory landscape across the continent is an issue.

At AfricaCom in November, MTN CEO Rob Schuter used the acronym CHASE to indicate the major challenges on the continent; Coverage, Handsets, Affordability, Service bundles and Education. Some of these challenges can be addressed through industry initiatives, such as the RWI, though others need much bigger thinking. Making the economics of network deployment or handset accessibility is a significant barrier.

On numerous occasions, more nefarious challenges such as government and regulatory corruption are raised as barriers also. Such rumours will always make investors nervous.

The first phase of the initiative was launched in 2017, and due to the success, the second phase will be launched imminently. 22 regulators have signed up so far, perhaps demonstrating how desperate some of these nations are for external investment; no-one likes being told how to govern or regulate their own sovereign nations after all.

In the second phase, Progressus will introduce the RWI Index. This ranking system will benchmark each of the nations involved in the RWI. The Index will be based on spectrum management, Universal Service Funds management and other Government support measures and regulatory governance.

Africa is a unique continent with some very unique challenges, and this initiative should provide a stable route forward. It isn’t the most revolutionary idea, but there is no need to reinvent the wheel sometimes.

Orange opens new Africa and Middle-East HQ in Casablanca

Orange has announced it has opened its new headquarters for the Africa and Middle-East region in Casablanca Finance City Tower in Morocco.

The Africa and Middle has been gradually offered more autonomy as a unit since 2015 and opening a headquarters on the continent is as much a symbolic gesture of this trend continuing. With 125 million customers across the region already, Orange is certainly making progress in an often challenging market.

“Orange is one of the rare international groups to have made the strategic choice, 20 years ago, to seek to develop in Africa and the Middle East,” said Group CEO Stephane Richard.

“We have always been convinced of the immense potential of this continent. In many ways, it can be seen as a model for digital transformation; mobile money is a great example of this.

“One of the key success factors behind new services is to develop them in Africa so that they are adapted to specific local requirements and so meet the needs of our customers. That is why we have decided to organise the management of our business in Africa and the Middle East from within the region directly from the African continent.”

While many telcos have desires to cash-in on the under-developed markets around the world, few have made as obvious a success of the ambition as Orange in Africa.

Looking at the most recent financial figures, revenues for the Africa and Middle-East business rose 7.6% for the third quarter of 2019, bringing in €1.447 billion. For the first nine months of 2019, revenues across the unit accounted for €4.185 billion. Orange now has 22.5 million 4G customers across the region, up 49% year-on-year, while a third of 44m Orange Money customers are active.

Looking forward, the prospects are looking very favourable for Orange. The team has launched 4G in 17 markets, while investing €1 billion in the networks across the year will certainly see some new developments. The team is also heavily targeting the agricultural industry with IOT services, hoping to increase revenues between 10-30% on average.

Looking at the Engage 2025 strategy, Africa and the Middle-East has been highlighted as the most significant growth engine for the business. This is potentially a very lucrative region for the telco which has laid the groundwork in recent years to realise its ambition of being the ‘reference digital operator’ in the region.

KaiOS shows why it is critical to Africa’s digital ambition

Working in tandem with Vodacom, KaiOS has brought another smart-feature phone to the market, this time in Tanzania for the remarkable price of $20.

With an install base of 80 million already, the alternative operating system is proving to be a very viable and attractive alternative for the development markets. The latest push forward is in Tanzania, with the $20 Smart Kitochi connected-feature phone, which has sold out already. Vodacom said 5,000 devices were sold in the first four days, while the team is waiting for another shipment to land next week.

The device is built on the MediaTek chipset and powered by the KaiOS operating system, enabling 3G and 4G connectivity, access to a new KaiOS app store and many slimmed-down features which we take as commonplace today.

The emergence of KaiOS, and the enthusiasm of the telcos to embrace a new dynamic, is helping the team tackle a major hurdle for shrinking the digital divide in Africa; affordability of internet connected devices.

When you consider the monthly take home salary of an individual in Africa could be as little as $100, the internet becomes an unachievable dream. Who can spare money to invest in a smartphone when you have to pay the rent and feed your family? This is where KaiOS fits into the equation; it has driven the creation of an ecosystem to manufacture feature phones with 3G and 4G connectivity features. It is a compromise. A no-frills device which allows some of the world’s poorest individuals to benefit from the digital economy.

What is worth noting is this is not a direct threat to the dominance of Android in the operating system segment. KaiOS should be seen as complementary to Google’s efforts.

Firstly, what is always worth bearing in mind is that Google is a KaiOS investor. It was one of the four companies which funnelled cash into the business to drive development in the early years.

Secondly, Google services will continue to run on KaiOS devices. The team has no intention to create alternative products in-house, such as mapping or messaging features. Although it is a different operating system, the more successful KaiOS is, the more exposure Google products get.

Finally, the monetization model at KaiOS is completely different to Android. Whereas the Google team drive revenues by placing products as default applications on Android devices, KaiOS generates cash through revenue sharing models and commission earned through in-app purchases.

Like Android, KaiOS is free of license fees for the telcos, an important aspect of the model. As soon as licensing fees are introduced, there is a risk of telcos charging more for the devices, which will lead to a smaller install base for KaiOS. Charging licensing fees would undermine the very concept of the business.

Google has once again invested very intelligently. To drive future revenues, Google needs to gain exposure to more individuals. Unfortunately, Android is a smartphone OS and not entirely applicable to the developing markets. It could be re-imagined, but then again it might be much more efficient to simply invest in a company which can specifically build an OS for smart feature phones. The slimmed down version of Android looks to be living on limited time and it would not be surprising to see the OS culled.

With more and more affordable devices flooding onto the market, more people are taking into the digital economy. If KaiOS continues to grow its user base, Google’s products such as Maps and YouTube, which are installed as default on the devices, are used by more people. By investing in KaiOS, Google has gained an extra 80 million customers, and these are still the early days.

KaiOS has already launched in several markets, though India is the most successful to date. In partnership with Reliance Jio, the Jio phone has proven to be very popular allowing KaiOS to surpass Apple iOS as the second most common OS in the market. There will be launches in the near future, but this all depends on the appetite of the telcos.

KaiOS highlighted during a press conference that it is the telcos who decide future launches, as they have the retail presence to push the smart-feature devices out to the market. Although handing over control to a third-party is not the most comfortable position to be in, there is drive from the telcos.

If the telcos are going to secure additional revenues, they will need more people to be connected. Device affordability is one of the biggest challenges to connect the unconnected, so expect to see some aggressive moves forward with new device launches. Vodacom is a very good partner for KaiOS, with the telco maintaining a presence in 32 African nations.

Connecting the unconnected is still a monumental challenge in African, though the creation and aggressive deployment of new ideas is generating momentum. Underpinning all of this success is the emergence of affordable, internet-connected devices, and an operating system which is perfectly designed for the unique connectivity landscape in Africa. KaiOS has a very bright future and the importance of this business should never be undervalued.

Pan-African initiatives are only way to solve its connectivity conundrum

Connecting the unconnected is an ongoing challenge for anyone in the African telecoms industry, but where do you find the $435 billion to plug the holes?

It might sound like an extraordinary number, but when you consider the size of Africa, 30,37 million km², and the population, 1,216 billion, it starts to look a bit more reasonable. This is a challenge which has been discussed extensively over the last few years, though a viable solution has not been tabled.

This is not to say there is no progress. This week, Liquid Telecom announced it had completed the construction of a new high-capacity fibre link running 2,600-kilometre (km) across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), while Orange is about to begin work on an international backbone network in West Africa, connecting eight countries. These are promising steps forward, but the monumental scale of the challenge suggests such projects are little more than a drop in the ocean.

With such a significant mountain to climb, new ideas and new approaches need to be considered. Speaking at AfricaCom, Carole Wamuyu Wainaina of Africa50 has called for greater harmonisation between the 54 nations across the continent.

One of the challenges with developing a communications infrastructure to take Africa into the digital era is the moving parts. 54 sovereign states, most of which are not the wealthiest, are moving forward with independent connectivity plans. There is nothing wrong with this, but a common strategy would be significantly more efficient, both in terms of time and money.

This is not necessarily a new idea, Europe relies on the power of many after all, and there are initiatives in place in Africa. Wainaina pointed to some small-scale joint-initiatives to deploy electricity infrastructure as an example, but these are limited in their nature. For success to accelerated, a genuine pan-African approach should be considered. Pooling resources, talent and ideas could realise significant efficiencies.

The last few years have seen an attempt to create some cohesion between the nations, meetings between the ICT Ministers are not uncommon, but this seems to be all they are at the moment; meetings. At some point, the talking will have to stop, and action will have to be taken. Few government officials like to do anything new or innovative, though big challenges require big actions.

The creation of a pan-African deployment plan might be the only way to deploy connectivity infrastructure which spans the width and breadth of the continent, but rhetoric will have to turn into action sooner or later. Politicians like to talk, promise and posture, but that achieves nothing.

Spectrum shortage is killing African digital ambitions

Telcos complaining about government regulation and policies is not unique to the African continent, though they never seem to get along here.

Through the years there have always been complaints from the telcos at AfricaCom. Whether it is import tax making devices unaffordable or policies which don’t attract international investment, the bureaucrats constantly seem to be on the backfoot. This year’s event saw a global pain-point hit the keynote conference agenda; spectrum availability.

This is of course a gripe of almost every telco around the world; there isn’t enough spectrum available to deliver the digital economy which politicians have promised voters. However, when you breakdown the numbers, there are some valid concerns. Looking at the South African landscape demonstrates the point.

  Telco holding
Spectrum band Vodacom MTN Cell C Telkom Rain
900 MHz 22 MHz 22 MHz 22 MHz
1800 MHz 24 MHz 24 MHz 24 MHz 24 MHz 34 MHz
2100 MHz 30 MHz 30 MHz 30 MHz 30 MHz
2300 MHz 68 MHz
2600 MHz 15 MHz
3500 MHz 28 MHz 142 MHz
Total 76 MHz 76 MHz 76 MHz 150 MHz 191 MHz

Speaking during the keynote sessions, MTN CEO Rob Shuter highlighted the South African Government is demanding more from the telcos, without offering more of this valuable asset to deliver. The MTN business has been working with the same spectrum allocation for decades, a situation which cannot continue. More spectrum is needed.

This is one example, though the story is pretty consistent across the continent. The issue is apparent when you compare it to the UK.

  Telco holding
Spectrum band EE Vodafone Three O2
800 MHz 10 MHz 20 MHz 10 MHz 20 MHz
900 MHz 34.8 MHz 34.8 MHz
1500 MHz 20 MHz 20 MHz
1800 MHz 90 MHz 11.6 MHz 30 MHz 11.6 MHz
1900 MHz 10 MHz   5.4 MHz 5 MHz
2100 MHz 40 MHz 29.6 MHz 29.2 MHz 20 MHz
2300 MHz 40 MHz
2600 MHz 70 MHz 45 MHz 55 MHz
3500 MHz 40 MHz 50 MHz 60 MHz 40 MHz
3700 MHz 80 MHz
Total 260 MHz 211 MHz 289.6 MHz 171.4 MHz

Not only is there more spectrum available, it is broadly spread across a range of spectrum bands to address different usecases and challenges. Soon enough another spectrum auction will take place in the 700 MHz and 3600-3800 MHz spectrum bands.

This is of course a very simplistic way to look at the landscape. South Africa is a very unique country, and spectrum is allocated with conditions, such as minority ownership of the telco. There is an on-going conflict between the major telcos and the government regarding the obligations placed on spectrum allocation, but the end result is still the same; a scarcity of an incredibly valuable resource.

There is perhaps a glimmer of hope however. In recent weeks, the government published an ‘Information Memorandum’ outlining plans for additional spectrum to bolster 4G connectivity and pave way for 5G in the future, though attendees at AfricaCom are not exactly enthralled by the situation. For some, this is just more talk in place of action. Confidence in the governments ability to sort out this mess in a timely manner is not particularly high.

This sceptical view is perhaps supported by the 800 MHz spectrum band. Currently being used by broadcasters, there have been promises to clean the airwaves for use in the mobile world, though little of this promise has translated into assistance for the telcos. The frustration continues.

South Africa seems to have an ‘us versus them’ situation currently. Governments and telcos are rarely best of friends elsewhere, but there is a collaborative environment to ensure an effective connectivity landscape. The Shared Rural Network proposal in the UK is an excellent example of bringing together various different parties with compromises being made to achieve a common goal. This collaborative environment does not seem to exist in South Africa.

If South Africa, and African nations in general, are to compete with other regions in the digital economy, or drive digital inclusion across society, the spectrum conundrum needs to be addressed. But looking at the bigger picture, telcos and governments need to reduce the friction and create a more collaborative environment. These are not parties who are ever likely to be the best of friends, but they should at least be able to tolerate each other in the pursuit of a common objective.

Attracting investment to Africa is not the issue, keeping the value is

Europe has been rubbing the White House up the wrong way with the diabolical intention of reforming regulation, and now it appears Africa might be heading the same direction.

Digital regulation and policy are turning into sticky topics nowadays. With the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook generating almost thinkable profits, while playing hide-and-seek with the taxman, numerous nations are hitting back. New regulatory regimes are being created, much to the irritation of the US, to ensure value is retained in the country it is created and this trend is making its way across to Africa.

“We need to dictate the rules to the technology giants if they want to apply their technology,” said Nanjira Sambuli, Senior Policy Manager at The Web Foundation, at AfricaCom.

Founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, The Web Foundation has tasked itself with creating a more evenly distributed digital economy, ensuring the benefits and value of the internet are fairly shared across the world. In turn, Sambuli leads the Web Foundation’s policy advocacy to promote digital equality in access to and use of the web.

Herein lies the issue which is challenging regulators and policy makers in Africa currently; attracting foreign investment dollars to African start-ups and incubators is not necessarily an issue, but retaining the value created certainly is.

Although Africa might not be the most attractive of regions to some multi-national corporations, there is certainly plenty of opportunity. With only a third of the continent connected to the internet, there are some 800 million individuals who are sitting outside the digital society. And with 60% of the population under the age of 24, there are profits to be made once the digital revolution generates more momentum.

During the opening keynote sessions at AfricaCom, MTN Rob Shuter highlighted the next three years could see a surge in the adoption internet adoption across the continent, and in turn, profits will be generated as these new users get sucked into the same digital rabbit holes.

But like Europe, Sambuli highlighted the African governments and regulators are keen to see the value, both societal and financial, retained in the economies which create it. Silicon Valley might dictate the speed of the revolution, but it seems it will not wield the financial freedoms of yesteryear.

That is worth noting, is this is not just a Non-profit organisation posturing for attention. Sitting alongside Sambuli on the panel was Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams, the Communications Minister for South Africa. Echoing the statement, Ndabeni-Abrahams suggested new policies were on the horizon to ensure South Africa’s entry role in the global digital economy is on South Africa’s terms.

For the moment, this is nothing more than rhetoric. Bureaucrats around the world have found it is incredibly difficult to hold Big Tech accountable, and the Silicon Valley lawyers are as slippery as ever. This is a bold statement though. Ndabeni-Abrahams and Sambuli both highlighted investments to create immediate value will no-longer appease rule makers. The free-wheeling residents of Silicon Valley might have more regulatory headaches to account for.

Handsets are now the biggest hurdle to adoption in Africa – MTN CEO

Connecting the African continent is always going to be a complicated job, but the availability of handsets is now the biggest challenge according to MTN CEO Rob Schuter.

When most people visit the continent of Africa, they are likely drawn to touristic countries such as Morocco, South Africa or Tunisia, and while some scenes might jar, the picture is misleading. These countries might not be as advanced as those in Europe or North America, but they are not a fair representation of the wider continent either, as Schuter highlighted at AfricaCom 2019.

MTN has roughly 220 million subscribers across the region, though only 87 million are mobile broadband customers. Like traditional banking, only a third of the African continent is connected to the internet. Deployment of connectivity infrastructure might be motoring along, but adoption of these services is not.

There is of course a myriad of reasons for this, but according to Shuter, the affordability of handsets is at the top of the list.

Average monthly earnings in Africa are as little as $100 a month. ARPU is $4, which is perhaps on the steep side, though most entry level smart-feature phones cost $40. This is where it becomes difficult for an individual to take the step into the digital economy; how many individuals can justify 40% of their monthly income to purchase a device?

That said, the situation is not as dire as it used to be. MTN has launched the Smart S device, a hybrid device with the appearance of a feature phone but with some internet services capabilities, Vodacom has launched a number of different alternatives such as the Vibe 4G or the Smart Kicka 3, while Nokia and Alcatel have debuted their own devices as well. But despite the efforts to decrease price, more work needs to be done.

During one of the keynote panel sessions, Shuter’s point was echoed by Schalk Visser, CTO of Cell C, a challenger MNO in South Africa. Visser said there as still a remarkable number of unconnected individuals in the connected areas. Infrastructure has been deployed, addressing one of the key barriers to digital inclusion, though it is clear only a fraction of the problems are being addressed.

But while this is a significant challenge, it should also be noted the African connectivity conundrum is a tapestry of complication.

CHASE is a useful acronym to bear in mind here. Coverage, Handsets, Affordability, Service bundles and Education. The mobile ecosystem cannot exist with infrastructure to provide the coverage, handsets to act as the interface, affordable tariffs, and ecosystem of services and individuals who are educated in the ways and means of the internet economy.

Digital inclusion is of course a significant challenge for anyone based on the African continent, but affordable and reliable handsets are now the top challenge.

Vodafone searches for supply chain rejig through OpenRAN

Vodafone has announced it will introduce OpenRAN technology in various parts of its UK network, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique.

In what appears to be an effort to break down barriers to work with new vendors, Vodafone will seek to empower the ecosystem through the introduction of commoditised hardware. This is the first trial of the technology in a ‘developed’ market, leaning on trials which have taken place in Turkey and South Africa.

“We are pleased with trials of OpenRAN and are ready to fast track it into Europe as we seek to actively expand our vendor ecosystem,” said Vodafone CEO Nick Read.

“OpenRAN improves the network economics enabling us to reach more people in rural communities and that supports our goal to build digital societies in which no-one is left behind.”

Launched through the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), the OpenRAN initiative aims to build 2G, 3G and 4G RAN solutions based on a general-purpose vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology. With vendor-neutral hardware hitting the networks, the aim is to reduce reliance on a small number of vendors, de-couple the hardware and software components of the network more stringently and reduce the vast expenditure made on network infrastructure.

The UK trial will focus on rural locations, perhaps to reduce the exposure of failure. These are also the cell sites which will cost the most and offer the smallest profits. There is a lot to gain here, while the consequence of failure will be limited.

“Encouraging the emergence of new suppliers would give operators greater choice in a far healthier ecosystem,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight. “Disrupting the status quo could, in particular, make the economics of network deployment stack up in rural areas or hard-to-reach locations, for which roll-out may not currently be viable or cost effective.

“Improving network economics and better monetising infrastructure assets is an important focus of Vodafone CEO Nick Read as the company seeks to achieve ambitious cost-saving targets.”

Like many of the worlds’ telcos, Vodafone is slowing stumbling towards a tricky situation with its supply chain, though many of the issues are outside the control of the company. With Huawei under increasing pressure, the future does look glum for a segment of the ecosystem which is already under-populated.

However, the telcos are not completely blameless in this situation. Investments have been concentrated with the three major vendors in this space (Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia). Through prioritising these companies as primary vendors, challengers have not been given the opportunity to scale and compete. Another complaint levelled at the telcos has been a comprehensive and convoluted procurement process, which has inhibited the ability of smaller players to compete against the status quo.

When the industry is running smoothly, few would have complained with the concentration of investment to a small number of vendors, but there are wrenches being thrown into the works all over the place.

With Huawei potentially facing bans in numerous countries and its supply chain being compromised thanks to the entry onto the US Entity List, a major vendor is under threat. Although Huawei has confirmed it is producing products free of US components, the performance of this equipment is unknown for the moment. Worst-case scenario, the vendor community could become a lot smaller.

Vodafone is one company which does look to be exposed to the Huawei conundrum. UK CTO Scott Petty has said banning Huawei would set the company back two years in its quest for 5G, costing millions as the company would be forced to strip the vendors equipment out of its network. Huawei equipment currently accounts for 32% of the 18,000 base stations around the country, though it has plans to strip Nokia equipment out, with Ericsson taking the rest.

Only working with two suppliers is a precarious situation, though this is compounded when you look at the difficulties Huawei is facing. The introduction of OpenRAN might be considered a bold move, but it is starting to look very necessary to enable access to more vendors.

The trials in the UK, DRC and Mozambique will focus on mobile calls and data services across 2G, 3G and 4G, with 5G possible over OpenRAN in the future. OpenRAN could be debuted elsewhere across Europe dependent on the success of the trials in the UK.

The team have currently identified 100+ rural locations to trial the technology, though this could be expanded in the future. Vodafone has said OpenRAN could reduce network hardware costs by up to a third, but this is dependent on how the technology and supplier ecosystem develops over time. Mavenir, Parallell Wireless and Lime Microsystems are three new suppliers enabled by the trials, though there are a huge number of start-ups who are connected to TIP.

Although this is a small trial for the moment, it is certainly one worth keeping an eye on. Vodafone is in a slightly tricky position when it comes to its supply chain, though should OpenRAN prove to be successful, numerous options could be opened-up. It is a low risk gamble, though the gains of a new supply chain certainly outweigh the consequence of failure.