Africa Tech Festival/AfricaCom 2022 - Those not busy being reborn are busy dying

11 November 2022

Top Story

Understandably this year’s Africa Tech Festival/AfricaCom 2022 was smaller than the last time it happened. But there was a visible sense of relief at being able to meet face-to-face again which bodes well for next time. Russell Southwood looks at how the industry is seeking to reinvent itself.

Africa Tech Festival/AfricaCom 2022 was a consolidated version of itself. The main hall was full of the same mixture of things. There were big companies houses in ‘showboating’ mini villas with upstairs rooms, the big vendors with special rooms or areas (Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson) and the usual fringe of Chinese and other vendors selling the nuts and bolts of networks. Google and Meta (who were one of the sponsors) were not absent but didn’t seem to grab people’s attention as they had at previous events. Perhaps a question of familiarity breeds….now what does it breed? (In the interests of fairness, Paratus Zambia announced a fibre partnership with Meta). Likewise, 5G as a topic seemed assumed rather than needing explanation.

There were also country stands – for example, India, Ireland and the USA – promoting their tech wares. The hall across the road was full of a mixture of ‘other things’ and start-up related contributors. With a small number of exceptions, broadcast and content players were absent. I was talking to a big African sports player and we were lamenting the fact that there was no easy marketplace for meeting the now more digitally inclined mobile players. Neither were companies like Amazon Prime, Netflix and Showmax visibly present.

The MNOs finally received the memo about how the world in general and Africa in particular is moving towards a digital future that will fundamentally reshape how business is done. The African Covid-19 lockdowns (which affected some more than others) with doing work and schooling from home were almost a test drill.

The strategy phrase for both MTN and Vodacom was how to move from being a telco to being a techco. MTN’s Ayoba platform (more of which in a subsequent issue) is a central element of it engaging with its consumers. The interesting thing is that while it has been designed to engage MTN’s users if it gains ‘critical mass’ other company’s customers may start using it. As Facebook battles multiple regulatory and commercial fires, is there a regional social platform out there?

But this is not just telcos getting to grips with digital content and services but things like chat and messaging apps that will put a dent in continuing SMS revenues. Also existing apps like WhatsApp must already be lowering a range of voice revenues. The key question is whether these new services can deliver replacement revenues for MNOs fast enough. An old broadcasting colleague was noting that while there was no end of video streaming launches on the continent, few seemed to appreciate the need for the right content and subsequently failed. That said, things like StarNews Mobile are the ones to watch.

Finally also digital is re-inventing the telecoms back-room. Data centre, cloud services and wholesale are reshaping how enterprise customers will get both bandwidth and services. Enterprise bandwidth which always came at a premium is on its way to becoming a commodity. In the past, ordering connectivity in countries and across countries was a slow moving process that often could take months. Data centres and front-ends like Console Connect make this fast and painless. Instead of going through different carriers individually, your data will go to data centres (think airports) for on-delivery

Liquid is making a US$20 million bet on Software Defined Network that ‘provides a readily available platform to African companies and carriers that are looking to invest in their data centre fabric or international business’. I had at least two conversations with other companies about similar ideas.

At a completely different level, industry veteran Yossi Barkan is now selling Israeli company TDCOMM,TECH’s enterprise base station. So for example, if you’re a port or a stadium you can keep all your on-site comms on-site. If the network goes down, it doesn’t have to affect you and latency issues begin to disappear.

The satellite operators are also undergoing a similar set of shifts with greater or lesser degrees of success. Several are getting very focused on offering bandwidth and services to MNOs. Rural connectivity operator AMN, in which Intelsat has invested, seems to be going from strength to strength. In the bigger picture, it’s no longer about just selling connectivity but aiming to meet customer’s business needs.

There’s also a whole raft of technical innovations that are making the big satellite companies respond to their challengers. Software-defined bandwidth on satellites will mean that customers will have more control over the amount of bandwidth they want.

There are several contenders saying that they will be able to offer direct connections between customer mobiles and satellites outside connectivity areas. Long-time rural specialist Bradley Shaw is now selling Lynk who will do just that. Elon Musk says it’s going to happen so it must be true. No, but seriously adult people seem to have figured it out.

That’s before you get on to LEO and MEO launches. SES will be launching its mPower MEO constellation next year. Operators claim to have sorted out much cheaper terrestrial equipment for customers. You know some part of this is going to happen when the MEO operators start briefing against the LEO operators. I remember when the fixed orbit people used to brief against the MEO operators.

It’s not quite everything solid melts into air but it feels like many of the old industry boundaries are dissolving and where better place for that to happen than in Africa.

*******

Africa 2.0 – Inside a Continent’s Communications Revolution – Get the book and attend an event in Johannesburg tomorrow

RSVP NOW: Johannesburg (In person and online): How Mobile Phones Have Changed Africa – An Unfinished Revolution 35 Years in the Making

Luci Abrahams, Director of the Wits Centre, will have a lively, in-person conversation and debate with Russell Southwood, long-time African telecoms and internet analyst and author a just-published book Africa 2.0 – Inside a Continent’s Communications Revolution.

Southwood’s book is an ambitious 35-year, “first draft” history of the largest technological change the continent has ever seen. It looks at both the economic and social impacts that have occurred, and goes beyond the hype to show what happened, what has not changed, and what will help guide future efforts.

Topics covered will include:

Time: Friday 11 November 2022, 16.30-18.00 Drinks and snacks afterwards Place: Classroom 7, Wits Business School, 2 St Davids Place (at St Andrews Rd.), Parktown, Johannesburg Online: Microsoft Teams meeting: Click here to join the meeting; Meeting ID: 352 280 713 048; Passcode: 3QJnzV RSVP NOW Registration link to attend either in-person or online: https://bit.ly/11Nov22EventReg

Any questions? Please contact the LINK Centre's Nokhanyo Yolwa: thelma.yolwa@wits.ac.za, +27-71-939-8867

To buy the book:

In South Africa::

Takealot: https://www.takealot.com/africa-2-0-inside-a-continent-s-communications-revolution/PLID72880480

In the rest of Africa and the world (Cheapest and Quickest):

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Africa-2-0-continents-communications-revolution-ebook/dp/B0B3XLFF89/ref=sr_1_1?crid=66U6ZDU73D2M&keywords=africa+2.0+inside+a+continent%27s+communications+revolution&qid=1659023345&sprefix=Africa+2.0%2Caps%2C165&sr=8-1

Seen and heard at AfricaCom 2021

- As one of the opening events, the session on Africa 2.0 – Inside a Communications Revolution attracted a capacity crowd in one of the large auditoria. Andile Ngcaba, Convergence Partners got the crowd whooping and cheering when he suggested replacing regulators with enabling agencies, who would be there to help get things done.

- I’d forgotten the joys of Mobile Monday where everyone in South Africa who is anyone in a particular niche turns up and parties. The poor sponsor had the attention of about a third of the room while the rest were drinking and talking at the top of their voices. To be fair, many of them had not seen each other for 2 years.

- Great to talk to Jim Forster and Ben Matranga, Connectivity Capital about the work they are doing with Africa ISPs, where have been offering revolving loans and some equity deals. The big surprise? If you put CAPEX into them, they expand their business and coverage area.

- Hytera Communications has announced that the municipality of Ray Nkonyeni in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa is now using its digital call handling system for the reporting and recording of crimes. The Hytera system replaces old-fashioned paper documents - and is already making it much easier for citizens to report crime; and for the police and other authorities to process incidents and, ultimately, solve crimes. Previously people wishing to report a crime either had to visit the municipal government office in person, or make a telephone call. The office clerks then recorded the crime information on paper documents which often became hard to locate and lost occasionally. The Government therefore decided to invest in a digital crime reporting system to increase reporting accuracy, and make it faster and easier to find documents.

- SES and Shevon have announced a new agreement between the two companies that will enable a major African mining company based in the DRC to benefit from high-speed satellite-based connectivity services. The two-year agreement will see Shevon provide for the first time SES’s O3b Medium earth Orbit (MEO) high-throughput and low-latency connectivity services, enabling the DRC mining company to implement new services and applications that will improve workers’ safety, digitalize operations and maximize profitability through increased agility and automation.

Somewhere between US$5-6 billion will be invested in data centres and cloud services in Africa. Hyperscaler AWS has opened its first office in Lagos. The second edition of the Africa Interconnection Report (co-published by Balancing Act and PCCW) has at its core a survey of 105 cloud enterprise users in Sub-Saharan Africa. Get your free copy: https://info.consoleconnect.com/resources/africa-interconnection-report-2022