Connecting the Unconnected: Akinwale Goodluck on supporting Africa’s Mobile Revolution

There is a mobile revolution unfolding in Africa - a revolution not only in how people communicate – but how they do business. Throwing off long-held assumptions about Africa’s technological development, the Continent’s populations are taking up the mobile phone – and its access to the internet – in their droves.

Indeed, Africa has embraced mobile uptake on an overwhelming scale. The World Bank reported in 2014 that 12% of those in Sub-Saharan Africa had a mobile money account, compared with a global average of 2% - and the disparity is likely to be even more significant today. Sub-Saharan Africa’s compound annual growth rate for mobile subscribers is 50% higher than the global average – estimated to hit a billion subscribers by 2020. 

It’s estimated every 10% of mobile broadband penetration adds 0.1 to 0.2% to an African nation’s economic growth.
— Akinwale Goodluck, Head of Africa, GSMA

The economic implications of this growth are already very visible; with mobile technologies generating 7.7% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP in 2016. Such opportunity needs to be nurtured however, ensuring that connectivity is inclusive, innovative and designed to bring together both public and private sector interests. These are the goals which GSMA, who represent mobile operators internationally, are committed to pursuing in Africa – and to great success. Incubating African technology start-ups and working with mobile operators to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals through digital innovation, as well as providing comprehensive industry research - GSMA are a vital voice in a rapidly expanding sector.

We spoke to Akinwale Goodluck, Head of Africa at GSMA, on the challenges facing Africa’s connectivity, the company’s work with Africa tech start-ups – and of course, who he’s looking forward to hearing from at The Annual Debate 2018.

Akinwale Goodluck, Head of Africa at GSMA

Akinwale Goodluck, Head of Africa at GSMA

You're speaking on our panel The Digital Dividend: Leveraging the Power of ICT. What do you believe is the greatest challenge facing Africa's expansion of digital connectivity?

I believe the greatest challenge to the expansion of digital connectivity in Africa is the affordability paradigm. Affordability is crucial if we must connect everyone and everything ultimately in Africa. Low purchasing power coupled with high total cost of mobile ownership presents a challenge for all players and an opportunity for innovation, a paradigm shift by all stakeholders and a commitment to universal access and mobile broadband services.

There is a need for governments in Africa to make spectrum but most importantly, the lower bands (700Mz and 800MHz), available to MNOs at a fair cost and with less restrictions regarding how or what technology it employs. This is the trade-off between treasury receivables / budget deficits and the overarching objective to connect everyone.

MNOs must also look at new innovative ways to connect the unconnected and they must embrace practices that promote network and infrastructure sharing, lower power cost, reduced roll out cost and address local markets.

Government and industry must work together to remove or reduce punitive sector specific taxes - in some countries the compounded tax burden on mobile operators exceeds 50%. This is something which must be reduced when considering that it’s estimated every 10% of mobile broadband penetration adds 0.1 to 0.2% to an African nation’s economic growth.

GSMA's Mobile Development Programme is helping to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Where has the programme had an impact so far?

Mobile is the single technology which cuts across geographies, cultures and income levels in bringing the Sustainable Development Goals to life.  The GSMA has a collaborative approach between two programmes: our donor funded initiatives through the Mobile for Development programme delivers innovations with socio-economic impact in financial services, health, agriculture, water and energy amongst others, across our footprint in the sub-Saharan Africa region. Globally in emerging markets, our work has impacted 30 million lives across 49 countries. On the other hand, the Industry purpose programme highlights our commitment to playing a leading role in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Ours is the first large industry to align itself to the SDGs; stating a clear intention to contribute and advance the societies in which we operate i.e. connecting everyone and everything to a better future. Through our initiatives such as the Case for Change and Big Data for Social Good the mobile industry is building a better future for people and communities everywhere through innovation and partnerships conducive to meaningful impact. Real Stories by millennials from different countries in the world, including Kenya and Tanzania, have brought to life the impact of mobile in access to affordable health care and information, particularly for our vulnerable citizens such as Mothers and their young children.

We’ve noticed more start-ups are leveraging mobile technology to scale their innovation.
— Akinwale Goodluck, Head of Region, Africa GSMA

According to GSMA's research, 270 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa now access the internet through mobile devices. What actions do you see as vital in continuing to improve connectivity across the continent?

Digital literacy is a vital tool for increasing and improving adoption of connectivity in Africa. The promotion of basic digital education & skills and the creation of tool kits like the GSMA Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit (MISTT) makes available, a set of resources for organisations (including mobile operators) interested in promoting the fundamental skills via the most commonly used internet services (WhatsApp, Facebook, Google, YouTube and Wikipedia).

The availability of local relevant content will be critical and vital for bridging the digital divide. More work and investment are required to stimulate the demand side. Most Africans particularly in the rural areas see no connection or value in the internet as its content remains largely alien in form and substance.

GSMA are working with multiple mobile tech start-ups in Africa through your Ecosystem Accelerator - what do you believe is currently the most exciting technological prospect coming out of Africa?

The GSMA Mobile for Development’s Ecosystem Accelerator Programme currently has a portfolio of 15 startups spread across multiple markets in Africa. Our portfolio of startups represent mobile-led innovations in multiple sectors including agriculture, education, financial inclusion, health and transportation. Most of our startups in Africa leverage mobile money to both pay suppliers and collect payments from customers. Additionally, startups leverage mobile platforms, both on apps and USSD, to deliver products and services fast, cheaply and efficiently.

Over the last 3 years the programme has been in existence, we’ve noticed more start-ups are leveraging mobile technology to scale their innovation. Innovation is sprouting from several industries. With agriculture being a pillar of most African countries, AgriTech is emerging as one of the leading innovation verticals. Our recent calls for the innovation fund applications, EdTech has been one vertical that’s attracts a host of applications. We have 2 EdTechs in our current portfolio. InsureTech is also coming up strongly as insurance companies try to adopt technology and more of the African population take up more insurance products.

Which of our speakers at The Annual Debate 2018 are you looking forward to hearing from? 

This is a very difficult question to answer but if I had to answer my bucket list will include Atiku Abubakar and Ana Hadjuka–Shields.

Hear more from Akinwale Goodluck, join us at The Annual Debate 2018, where Akinwale will be speaking on our panel The Digital Dividend: Leveraging the Power of ICT.