It was a case of Groundhog Day. Here we were gathered for another conference to hear about the “success story” that is the African telecommunications industry. The message is consistent: The growth in consumer use of mobile telephony has been rapid, there is potential for more, and increased competition has provided the backdrop for this growth. And yet, we still listened to the frequently repeated discussions about whether regulators should encourage tower sharing, the state of play of universal-service funds and complaints centered on heavy tax burdens on carriers.

The stage was the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organization’s 5th Connecting Rural Communities Africa forum in Accra, Ghana. Credit must go to the organizers for preparing an excellent agenda packed with interesting speakers, and yet the discussion points remained much the same. And most depressing of all was that, on the whole, administrators of universal-service funds could not point to KPIs showing the successful delivery of their universal-service targets, and although strides have been made in connecting rural and remote communities, little progress has been made on converting those connections into healthy adoption rates. Be it mobile telephony or broadband, the customer’s experience is still often poor, and the relevance and value of local content does not encourage mass usage.

And then from the wilderness came a presentation that enlivened the conference and for me changed the occasion. We were listening to something genuinely exciting: the story of the Esoko concept and how it has been able to help local farmers transform their businesses. The conference had finally come alive.

Funded partly by private entrepreneurs and partly by public money, the Esoko model is simple: It provides market-commodity information by SMS to users in Ghana, Nigeria, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ivory Coast, Madagascar and Sudan. The product empowers individuals to make better decisions on when and where to sell their goods. This empowerment means that a yam-tuber farmer in Salaga, northern Ghana, was able to use Esoko to compare prices offered in Accra with that of a local buyer. Using Esoko, the farmer discovered that, even after transportation costs, he could make a greater profit from his goods by selling them in the capital city, rather than the local town. This is a service that offers real value to remote communities.

There were other exciting stories to hear. Phase3 Telecom plans to use its fiber-optic backbone infrastructure to benefit the backhaul requirements of Nigerians and others in West Africa. The links between a higher bandwidth per capita and GDP improvement is clear, with recent studies from the World Bank suggesting that a ten-percentage-point increase in broadband penetration can equate to a 1.3 per cent rise in economic growth. Phase3 plans to link its fiber-optic network in Nigeria to Benin, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal, cutting down the cost of connectivity and making capacity available at more affordable pricing.

The innovation does not have to come from Africa to affect Africa. Another of the more enlightening solutions to meeting the challenges of connecting rural communities came from Sweden’s Flexenclosure and its E-site platform, which is already available in Kenya. A real barrier for operators in reaching out to rural areas is the scarcity of power, and E-site is a turnkey platform that is power efficient and designed to generate energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar radiation. In addition to helping carriers make savings in opex, the platform also provides the opportunity for carriers to diversify revenues by actually distributing power to local communities.

Examples such as these demonstrate that progress is being made in the drive to reach out to the more remote communities in Africa. And even though governments have set universal-service targets, the targets haven’t played much of a role in the progress that has been made. It is innovation and investment (albeit sometimes with the help of public funding) that will ensure a greater customer experience, which will, in turn, lead to the more rapid adoption of telecommunications services in rural areas.

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