Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are missing a “massive opportunity” to bridge the digital gap in Africa as the COVID-19 pandemic alters the telecoms landscape. That’s according to mobile technology company, Upstream, who spoke at the first exclusively virtual AfricaCom 2020.
During the three-day event, which ran from 9 – 12 November, Upstream’s Chief Commercial Officer, Raul Martinez, shared his thoughts on the future of African telecoms and the important role MNOs would need to play in shaping its future. Participating in the panel “Protecting profit in a landscape of changing operator models” on day two of the event, Martinez began by outlining the unique challenges faced by MNOs in Africa when it comes to growing and diversifying their revenue streams, but he also talked of great opportunities and the “untapped potential” in the region.
“It’s becoming increasingly relevant in these COVID times to look for additional revenue sources and capture opportunities that arise as a result of a dramatic shift in consumer behavior,” he commented. Martinez revealed that Upstream had carried out a joint worldwide survey of MNO executives in partnership with the Technology Innovation Council. The survey, due to be published in full soon, found that 75% of operators acknowledged that COVID-19 had in some way expedited or altered their digital transformation journey.
Martinez framed this as a positive opportunity for growth and diversification, before going on to outline the role Upstream is playing in helping MNOs seize those opportunities.
The company’s Zero-D platform, which enables MNOs to provide free, basic ad-funded internet access to millions of low-income consumers, is already live with operators in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Tunisia and The Democratic Republic of the Congo. The platform also has pending partnerships with three more operators in Nigeriaand Tunisia, and will soon hit a new milestone of 200 million mobile subscribers in the continent.
As the panel went on, Martinez shifted the discussion back to the MNOs themselves, highlighting the unique characteristics that work in their favor. He referenced long customer engagements, easy customer segmentation, the wealth of transactional data available, an evolving payments ecosystem, distribution, and of course, reach and coverage. All of these, he argued, uniquely position MNOs to capitalize on nationwide trends and shape their services to better match the needs of consumers.
What makes this difficult, according to Martinez, are the “gaps” in resources, focus and skills that leave MNOs unable to capitalize on the huge opportunities that lie in wait. “I remember having lengthy CAPEX approval discussions for building a self-care app but very few when it came to deploying 3G or 4G coverage,” he explained. “Even if resources can be made available, the focus is normally very much skewed towards the core business and in the constant competitive pricing battles.” Upstream’s CCO also outlined the need for a very specific set of skills that aren’t always available within each MNO, and are often scarce in the wider labor pool in emerging markets like those of the African continent.
The discussion then shifted toward disruptive technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence and IoT, and whether or not these should be a focus of MNOs in the region.
“The fact of the matter is that in Africa, only 9% of the subscriptions are 4G and less than 40% of subscribers even have a smartphone. To bridge this gap is the first disruption that is yet to materialize in the market and the opportunity for MNOs to drive this change is massive.”
AfricaCom is part of the Africa Tech Festival, the largest and most influential tech and telecoms event on the continent. Upstream also made an appearance at NigeriaCom in September, where Deputy CEO Kostas Kastanis discussed the future of Nigerian telecoms and how to stimulate digital growth in the region.