Key takeaways from Africa Tech Festival: Mobile money, fibre, submarine cables

African nations, operators and private companies were all in agreement that Africa continues to hold so much potential, with much progress being made, but how much longer are we going to hear this instead of seeing it being fully realized?

A lot of progress was showcased by companies at the Africa Tech Festival in Cape Town, South Africa, which hosted two anchor events: Africa Com and Africa Tech.

Both events were attended by senior executives from heavyweight firms from across the world with 12,000 attendees.

Google is no stranger to any part of the world as the company presented to attendees its plan to deliver cheaper and more widespread connectivity in Africa.

Google sub-Saharan Africa managing director Nitin Gajria (pictured) said Africa is still on the “ground floor” in terms of connectivity with plenty of room to elevate, as there are over one billion people living in sub-Saharan Africa, of which only 300 million are connected.

He highlighted three key challenges for connectivity on the continent and that is less developed infrastructure, the ubiquity of cheap and reliable data, and the availability of affordable handsets.

Google is aiming to tackle all three by bringing online its subsea cable Equiano in December which delivers 20 times more capacity than the cable it replaces, to the west coast of Africa between Lisbon, Portugal and Cape Town, South Africa.

But Gajria pointed out that collaboration with ISPs and infrastructure players is needed to maximize the capacity Equiano brings in. He also said there are currently no plans to construct a submarine cable in the east.

Developing Telecoms asked Gajria why the billion-dollar tech giant is investing so much in Africa, and what return it was expecting from its investment. To which Gajira replied with the strategy mentioned above and concluded with “we’re gunning for a more vibrant and healthier internet ecosystem in Africa”.

Mobile money

Elsewhere, Orange Money Mali CEO Aicha Toure (pictured above) took part in a discussion to highlight the growth of mobile money.

In Africa, there were around 300 million mobile money users at the end of 2021, a figure that is expected to rise to half a billion in the next five years. The chief executive also added that less than 22% of Africans use traditional banking services while 59% use electric money services. Mobile money has become such a trusted technology that Orange Money was used as the platform to distribute government aid in the Ivory Coast, noted Toure.

In Mali, there is a 90% penetration rate in connectivity with one in two citizens having a mobile money account, however, Toure pointed out there is still the hurdle of device affordability.

“Even in rural areas we have internet coverage, but the challenge is that smartphones are not accessible to everyone. We’re currently subsidizing devices so that people can afford their own, but we need government collaboration to really expand this,” said Toure.

Toure also added education is another challenge for financial inclusion, particularly in rural areas and this also requires government collaboration to tackle.

With the massive takeup of mobile money, the space is ready for an upgrade. The Orange executive called for better government regulation to evolve the mobile money space, which is currently being constrained by red tape to prevent it from expanding services with features such as interoperability with other platforms, insurance and loans.

Not every African nation is fortunate enough to have such a high rate of connectivity as seen in Mali, we only have to look as far as landlocked South Sudan to see the polar opposite, which had been ravaged by a civil war which ended only in 2020 .

Call for fiber

The call for more fiber deployment was echoed throughout the conference, as the reliability and speed of the cables can push Africa to participate in the upcoming fourth industrial revolution.

African Telecommunication Union secretary-general John Amo highlighted the urgent need for more fiber deployment in African nations, stating this will be a driver for economic growth and related African nations in catching up to western counterparts on the world stage.

According to a World Bank study, for every 10% boost to connectivity in a low to middle-income nation, it experiences on average a 1.38% boost to GDP.

“Limited broadband, inevitably leads to limited industrial progress, inefficient trade and information sharing. That leads directly to a disadvantageous place for Africa on the global trade, political and other fabric of the ecosystem – whether it be political, economic or social,” said Amo.

Amo urged more collaboration between public and private sectors, to encourage the latter to invest more in infrastructure and pave the way forward for connectivity, as governments have often not been good investors in connectivity infrastructure.

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