13 July 2018

West Africa Com 2018 - the End of the Beginning for Operator Digital Transformation and So Much More

London — This year's West Africa Com was better attended and the low hum of networking hung over the event. In his report below Russell Southwood picks out some of the highlights from the event below.

Overall I had a sense that operators have now got on board for what is now described as digital transformation. There was less complaining about OTTs and more practical discussions about how to make things happen. Several sessions identified pain points in doing business with operators and getting things done but interestingly, there was very little pushback from operators on these points.

In the welcoming address, the stand-in for the Senegalese Minister of Communications Abdoulaye Bibi Balde told delegates that the Government wanted a digital services sector that would reach all citizens by 2020. Planned investment to achieve this was going to be 2.3 billion euros, 75% of which would come from the private sector. It had also issued two new Internet licenses that would deliver 4G data services. The Government also plans to update the communications law and provide CFA1 billion of funding to start-ups.

The first session of the day after the opening speeches was the "hot button" issue of diversity. The moderator for the session made the point that ICT could be used to boost a lot of sectors through innovation and the reduction of gender inequality. But she highlighted that:"You can see more gender inequality in this sector in terms of access and use."

Ali Drissa Badiel, the Area Representative for West Africa for the ITU emphasized that this was not a topic that could be dodged:"Women make up nearly half the population and therefore have to be involved in ICT."

A great deal of the discussion was focused on ensuring that girls at school had access to a scientific curriculum and were aware of the career opportunities in ICT. Bitilokho Ndiaye, Technical Advisor to the Senegalese Ministry of Communications highlighted a study done by Deloitte in Senegal that found that 30% of girls wanted to work in ICT compared with 25% globally. She also said that the Government had a programme to support 25,000 women entrepreneurs and 100 start-ups led by women.

Solange Ndir, Sonatel said that an internal survey of the company's gender breakdown found that 38% of the workforce were women:"We also have a Network Director who is a women." In response to the discussion a representative of industry training organization ESMT said that 40% of its students were female.

In a keynote address, Yannick Kashila, Country Manager, Africa, Yahsat that it would be offering its satellite coverage in 5 new countries: in Senegal and Gambia through Arc Telecoms, in Cote d'Ivoire through CEE-NET, in Benin through Iscocel and in Ghana through Comsys and Teledata.

In a session on Expanding Broadband Connectivity Across West Africa, Mademba Diouf, Chief Corporate and Customer Care Officer, Expresso Telecom said that there were some West African countries where it was not present and with the expansion policy of the company, it might seek a presence in them. He gave the example of Gambia and Senegal which are neighbors so calling should be simple but that things were "more complex in practice". There was a discussion of low-cost roaming in the ECOWAS region but that there was a need for co-operation among operators to foster this process. He also complained that Senegal's universal service organization was using existing infrastructure to provide coverage rather than expanding the coverage area.

Lare Atcha-Oubou, Regional Director, North and West Africa, Intelsat said it wanted to manage infrastructure so that operators can get on with providing services and said:"In some instances, Intelsat can invest." He talked about the need for satellite operators to innovate both with the land segment and the satellite itself.

Jim Teicher, CEO, CyberSmart Education said the primary challenge was affordability. Prices could be one fifth of existing through innovative models serving small markets. Lara Atcha-Oubou, Intelsat pointed to examples in the DRC and Mali where Intelsat had invested to allow operators to deliver 3G and 4G.

In his keynote address, Arie Ben Shabat, VP Sales, Amos Spacecom picked up the theme of satellite operators needing to innovate and reduce costs. He said there was a surplus of satellite capacity in Africa and globally which had led to falling prices. He said Amos Spacecom was willing to adopt a pricing model to share risks on going into new areas and if revenues were strong, both operator and Amos Spacecom would benefit.

Coura Fall, Sontatel sought to answer the US$60 million question: how to make money from media as an operator? She highlighted the impact of low-cost smartphones which she said were now costing as little as 10 euros. And the answer to the question? 1. Mobile centric apps in partnership with operators; 2. Produce good content (eg iRoko TV) and 3. Monetization and the creation of value through carrier billing. She also said people in Senegal want content in Wolof. With successful local stories, it was possible to get a TV audience of 1 million and You Tube views of 100,000-300,000.

On carrier billing, one content aggregator told me the percentage charged for using carrier billing and it is still too high to make a proper content ecosystem work. So there is still more work to be done. Also in East Africa people are talking of going straight to mobile wallets rather than carrier billing.

Maxime Bayen, Insights Director - Ecosystem Accelerator, GSMA gave some fascinating start-up stats for West Africa. I will write a separate report in our sister e-letter Innovation in Africa (if you're interested in that area, click here) Funded by DFID and Australian Aid, the GSMA has itself invested 8 million euros in 36 start-ups and was saying that it had two start-ups in Senegal it was looking.

In the mobile money session, both the start-up speakers - Omar Cisse, InTouch and Samba Sow, Sudapay - said that arranging deals with operators was often difficult (especially the larger operators) but that the GSMA had been very helpful in overcoming the hurdles. Samba Sow, CEO, Sudpay observed:"The telcos can't do it because you have to be flexible. But they have the networks and infrastructure so it's a win-win situation."

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