Telecommunications companies have a significant role to play in Africa as growth accelerators, as countries look to narrow the digital divide and to build a resilient post-pandemic economy.
The best strategies for achieving this are still being identified, but it is clear that the solution will be a combination of financial investment, infrastructure, expanded high speed broadband connectivity and deploying the innovation for which the telecoms industry is so well known.
At Delta Partners recently conducted research and produced a report on the post-pandemic outlook for telco operators, where they consolidated the expert opinions of around 100 senior telco executives from around the world.
At the Africa regional level, the lockdown saw a significant surge in data connectivity.
This was due to a clear increase in consumer uptake in applications such as video conferencing, video streaming, social networking and gaming.
Similar growth in data consumption was experienced on the enterprise side, as businesses rapidly pivoted to work-from-home models.
Also significant was that, on the enterprise side, clear evidence emerged of pent-up demand for Cloud-based solutions.
In the short-to-medium term, one can safely assume there will be a need to build and expand reliable, secure, low-latency networks.
On the question of capital expenditure, whilst leaders in Europe perceived a slowdown in spend post the pandemic, the situation was quite different in Africa.
Some 58% of the leaders operating in African countries saw the pandemic as an industry accelerator.
Drilling down further into the results of the survey, on the question of network models and infrastructure investment, Africa emerged as highest scoring region with 83% of respondents expecting an increased shift towards passive infrastructure sharing models and 75% of the respondents saw an increase towards adoption of RAN sharing.
On the impact of the pandemic on their brands, 67% of respondents in Africa believed there had been an overall positive impact on their brand due to quick responses they had been able to demonstrate to reduce anxiety and uncertainty during the outbreak and where they had shown their ability to cope with higher network traffic.
Smart infrastructure spend outlook
At a high level, the telco sector has shown good resilience across most African countries and the survey findings point to good prospects for the telco sector in Africa.
However, there is one proviso. The success of telecommunications expansion will depend on the industry taking the right approach to investment, as well as to partnerships.
This includes the pace at which they build – or repurpose – large-scale infrastructure for increased data connectivity.
There needs to be increased focus on the investment and operational aspects of the infrastructure contracting (infraco) parts of the telco business.
With its large youth demographic, Africa will continue to experience high levels of rural-to-urban migration, and will need to diversify economies to create growth and to provide growth stimulus across other industries.
The most effective way to do this is to encourage a shift away from commodity-based sectors towards the ICT industry.
This, too, will require an expansion of telecommunications networks.
At a first take, telecommunications infrastructure investment may seem like a daunting prospect, and given the relative underinvestment into infrastructure in most African countries, partnership models may be a way to derisk investments and achieve a higher level of success.
For instance, Africa’s 6.5 million km of roads can be used to carry telecommunications cables.
Likewise, her electricity networks, complete with cable-carrying pylons. Even water pipes can carry telecoms cables, while street poles can double up as 5G base stations.
Teamwork makes the African dream work
Digital inclusion is vital to all African economies. It provides opportunities as a sector in its own right, while also providing the connectivity that can transform legacy industries and equip them for the future.
However, building the telecoms infrastructure to enable it can be costly.
Africa will have to invest smart. Smart investing means working with what we have, and building partnerships.
Public-private, corporate-SME, corporate-community and government–community partnerships will become important as Africa looks to gear herself – and its people – for the digital future.
Fortunately, working together is a strongly African mind set.
If Africa can successfully translate this propensity to collaborate into the telecoms space, using infrastructure-sharing and cross-sector partnerships, the digital empowerment of the people could well be the salvation of the continent.
Sharoda Rapeti is a non-executive partner at Delta Partners consulting firm. This opinion piece is adapted from her presentation at AfricaCom 2020.