Changes in African market over the last seventeen years – Interview with industry pioneer Yossi Barkan on what has and hasn’t changed for the better

15 September 2017

Top Story

Sometimes there are people whose involvement in Africa captures and distills all the changes that have happened in the telecoms and Internet industry. Yossi Barkan is one of those people and this week Russell Southwood talks to him about what has changed since he started work in the industry seventeen years ago.

Q: How did you start working in Africa?

A: My family came to Africa when I was sixteen. My Father was nominated by the Israeli Government to teach agriculture in the Central African Republic. I went to school there before going home again. I moved to Cameroon with him in 1976 and managed a local company there.

In 2000 I joined IP Planet which was providing Internet by satellite in Africa and in 2005 Gilat Satcom merged with IP Planet. At which point, I left to go and work for PCCW and its associated companies.

Q: You’ve worked in Africa for 17 years now. What are the big changes you’ve seen in the industry in that time?

A: Mobile telephony has changed everything from A-Z. The international fibre cables were built up the east and the west coasts of the continent. These are the biggest changes. There are now billions of mobiles and cables not only into the continent but all over it.

Q: What hasn’t changed that ought to have changed?

A: Some countries didn’t really open up the market in the way the freeing of the Internet around the world made possible. Not opening up the market in this way is holding these countries prisoner and they need to get out of the prison that these monopolies create. Their politicians did not understand the message of not keeping the monopoly.

Q: Will those countries get out this prison?

A: One day it will happen. I’ve spent time trying to convince regulators and the CEOs of incumbent telcos. One day they will understand. You can point to other African companies that have good prices (for consumers) and are successful in the market.

Q: Why have Governments and regulators not made these changes?

A: It’s hard to say. I think there is a fear of (incumbents) losing their markets and the job losses this might entail. But most of all it’s a fear of loss of control. But look what happened to Nitel in Nigeria, it wasn’t privatized and it went bankrupt. By contrast, Ghana Telecom was sold and is now very successful as Vodafone Ghana. Look at what happened to Telkom Kenya.

Q: Your work has been in selling wholesale capacity to and from the continent, both fibre and satellite. What’s happened to prices over the last 17 years?

When the East African fibre cables arrived, wholesale capacity was US$100 per mbps and it’s now US$5 per mbps. The price has gone down 20 times. Several years ago an STM1 in Nigeria would have cost US$240,000, it now sells for between US$5-7,000.

Q: What about satellite prices?

A: Prices per mbps on satellite have gone from US$1,000 to US$300. It’s not as dramatic as going down 20 times but it’s a good reduction. 03B helped to shake up the market and Intelsat’s High Frequency Satellite will do the same. It’s the same sort of competition that helped reduce fibre prices.

Q: What are the issues faced at a national level delivering this cheaper bandwidth?

A: In many countries, domestic backhaul is still problematic. It’s because of the vast distances, lack of electricity and accessibility. Maintenance is a huge task. These networks are not yet meeting Western standards. For example, if you take the recent Sudan to Ndjamena fibre route, it may take a whole day or more just to get to the point where a repair needs to be made. And of course, some countries still have a monopoly backhaul and this needs to go through some kind of revolution.

Almost all African capital cities are connected to fibre. The only exception is Asmara in Eritrea and that’s mostly because of the political situation. But even Mogadishu and Hargesa in Somalia are connected.

Q: Do you think being Israeli has helped you do what did in Africa?

A: Being Israeli might have played some kind of role. We continue until we find a solution. Like for example, opening a link from Zambia to Lubumbashi. Also I enjoyed opening business in new places and being the first to do it.

Q: What would you like to do next?

A: Pretty much the same as I have been doing: helping African and non-African companies with anything to do with connectivity. Indeed anything where I can use my knowledge and passion for the continent to help develop the success of African countries.

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