Africa is as big as a widely-disseminated infographic shows. Europe, the US, Canada, China and India would fit comfortably inside, with square kilometres to spare. It also has a billion people. How can it fulfill its potential? One of the promises of ICT is that it lets disadvantaged societies leapfrog the more gradual pace of development and get the modern stuff in without legacy. This phenomenon can be seen in the Kenyan mobile market and the world-class connectivity available in Rwanda, for example. However, challenges remain and they're more mundane than putting in more cellular towers.
"The World Bank reported recently that Africa has advanced in leaps and bounds in terms of information technology adoption and use," says Cuan Kloppers, executive director and Group CIO at Vumbiwa LoC Holdings. "Mobile devices especially have grown exponentially in Africa. A few years ago, the primary problem was bandwidth and connectivity. Nowadays we have a lot more cables such as Seacom, but now we need to overcome the bureaucracy and get that fibre further inland."
Chris Ross, head of enterprise product and innovation, Vodacom Business, says partnering is another challenge.
"At the Govtech conference recently, we were discussing Mazlow's hierarchy of needs and how it applies to Africa: power, water, sanitation and, now, connectivity. Those are the essential elements that a country needs to focus on to be effective. But the technology costs money so it's about how we partner and find a way of funding it. The latest technology is available to us, but we need to be able to fund it to unleash the benefit."
And we still overestimate what is really required, says Thagaran Govender, head: Support Services, Mercantile Bank.
"In 1992, there was a study that said 42% of African households had basic assets: a mud floor, maybe a TV and a radio. In the late 2000s, that had dropped to 25%. That means as a continent, we've gotten poorer as a whole. What that means is that although we talk about value added services and broadband, people are still struggling with basic needs in their households."
Assets require maintenance, especially in the light of population growth, notes Chandima Miyanadeniya, CIO at AON SA.
"In Sub-Saharan Africa, there was infrastructure that was working once – energy, transportation, utilities – but the maintenance has not been up to the level that you would want. As the population has grown, you find the amount of investments required has not kept pace. That's just the base infrastructure. Local experts are very few and they are not able to capitalise on the raw materials available in those countries."
On the other hand, the challenges do provide extraordinary opportunity, says Kevin Govender, GM: IT Strategy & Enterprise Architecture, Transnet.
"Within Africa, there are challenges in the political, economic, social, environmental and legal environments. But at the same time, there is also huge opportunity. In Africa, you need to find solutions that are different from those in the First World. Rwanda, for example, is a world leader in the use of drones to deliver medical technology to remote areas."
The missing ingredient
There is no doubt that connectivity is an essential first step, says Deshan Govender, managing executive, Vodacom Business.
"We've been talking to a lot of educational institutions and a lot of the discussions have been about zero-rating websites so that people can access education. But it's beyond that. We believe and the country believes that education will take us forward. How do we make education available to everybody? We're not just talking about kids going through primary and high school, but everybody that needs access to it now. But, unfortunately, you have to be able to connect people before you can get technology to people. And there's a cost associated with that. Businesses are struggling, government is struggling – it's a high cost. Most of our efforts have been around getting parties into a room to find common ground."
Modibedi Oliphant, CIO at the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, says the key is leadership.
"We know what the problem is as a continent. The biggest thing I've picked up, without even delving into specific areas, is the imbalance between technology supply and demand. On the demand side, we know what we need, we know the end-to-end context, the budgets and everything else. But leadership is a problem. We've spoken to officials in Rwanda and the biggest factor that came out was that the leadership took decisions. They don't discuss with anyone anymore: they decide where they are going and then let all energies get channeled into the route chosen. So we could start there and follow the Rwandan example. They've bypassed us even though we have serious budgets and serious brains. What they have is a Ferrari and we're still pushing a clunker. Everywhere, there is WiFi, for free, at incredible speeds."
Transnet's Kevin Govender agrees. "What the president did was to research what was best for his country. He then found the leading nation that was implementing what he wanted and he started. No debates, no tender processes – just implementation. We procrastinate and debate about what would be best. The Rwandan attitude is what we need in South Africa."
Says Vumbiwa's Kloppers: "The ingredients that a company or country needs is called a 'six pack.' The first one is savings and investment, the second is demography, the third policy and institutions, the fourth is education, the fifth is health and the sixth is connectivity. But I think we need two more: transformational leadership and collaboration. We need visionary leadership that is concerned about what is best for the citizens of the country and we need to start collaborating like the EU. I can see IT companies that are very reluctant to collaborate or to partner because of IP or something else. If we could start colaborating in Africa, we could become the next offshoring destination."
Professor Helena Barnard, director of Research at GIBS, says focusing on ICT only is missing the point.
"Relatively speaking, ICT is so new that we're in the process of it unfolding. One hundred years ago, we could have had a similar discussion about railroads. And we would have been asking what would it be that is enabled by railroads? It's the notion of connecting parties that want to be connected, moving people or goods from one point to another. That assumes that those parties want to be connected; I think we can see from the AU that it is very hard to cross boundaries. It's not IT or railroads per se that will trigger development, but the associated activities that are made possible. In order for those to take place, you do need to have all the components in place, but what we really need is for people to have the will to sit down and discuss solving our problems."
The magic formula is to provide both an enabler and a vision, says Vodacom's Ross.
"I can give everyone an iPhone and free data, but then what? What is the vision? Does it have things they can actually use? Can they trade with it? Or is it just technology for technology's sake? That won't solve the problem – there has to be a vision. The needs are similar no matter what country you're talking about – education, health, agriculture. But one country imposes tax on operators to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The other country says it will let the goose lay lots of eggs.
"We will get the benefit from lots of eggs," he concludes.