Private sector ICT lobbying: making friends and influencing people

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Organised lobbying of any sort is relatively new in Africa and even newer for the ICT sector. Trade associations have always been there in some shape or form but their role has taken on a new urgency as Africa gets to grips with the commercial and political realities of ICT.

In former times, with just state-owned incumbents, one of the main issues for those doing business was about large-scale equipment contracts. On smaller matters like whether you could get a phone or the service was below standard, there was in practical terms little you could do about it. Except maybe bribing your local telephone engineer to put it right.

Lobbying is about making friends and influencing people to your viewpoint. The first question you ask yourself is: who has to change their mind for my (or our) viewpoint to prevail? In most African countries this is sadly still a rather small group of people. Many key decisions still go all the way up to the President or Prime Minister.

So the old-fashioned method of lobbying has been for companies to work individually behind closed doors, usually in pursuit of licences or contracts. And in the worst cases, it has involved money changing hands or businesses involving relations or associates of leading elected politicians.

In the new African ICT landscape there are a growing number of “points of influence”. Democratic parliaments take an increasing interest in ICT policy. Independent regulators are another place where significant policy decisions affecting business are taken that may not directly reflect those of the elected government. And a more independent media in a growing number of countries allows lobbyists to take their issue directly to the “court of public opinion.”

With increasing numbers of licensed companies, it has become difficult for local elected politicians to “participate” in all newly licensed areas. With bidding for licences occurring at least formally on a transparent basis, it becomes harder to fix what happens in advance. Legal challenges offer an increasingly effective route in several countries for losers who feel they’ve been cheated. And as governments change after elections, patterns of influence change. For example, the third mobile operator licence in Malawi is on hold as the successful application came from a local group that involved the former President. The larger the number of “points of influence”, the harder it becomes to fix the results of any decision in advance. With fuller competition, events become even more unpredictable as the regulator goes from being gatekeeper to facilitator.

In this emerging world, there are a number of important private sector issues that have come centre stage. External and local investors want to be certain that their considerable investments are not going to be undercut by unfavourable licensing decisions or destroyed by “anti-business” measures. Increasingly companies (of all sizes) and individuals rely on ICT, be it mobiles or the internet. As a result issues of pricing and service levels become a vital matter of public debate. This came into sharpest focus in Uganda where a group of MPs associated with brewing interests argued that spending on mobiles was destroying the local brewery companies and should be restricted.

Faced with this changed world, companies have been getting together to lobby for their position on a range of issues. For some this has been heresy: as one rather prim South African told us:”It’s not for the private sector to have a viewpoint.” But why not? Provided the private sector acts in a reasonably transparent manner, it is simply one more of the many “interest-groups” seeking to influence Government. With some exceptions, African governments have found it hard to come to terms with the fact that they have to listen to these new voices. There are still cases where Governments claim to have consulted on ICT legislation or policy but have failed to invite or wilfully ignored those who might have had a useful and necessary contribution to make.

These new groupings might be ICT companies coming together in trade association type of bodies or less frequently private sector groupings of users like banks and large companies lobbying for more cost-effective and reliable data services. Coming together in this way has not always been easy. Fierce competitors in small markets have not always found it easy to sit down to work together.

In small country markets and in some cultures, it has proved particularly difficult to breed a sense of trust. The ICT private sector in francophone countries – with their inherited deference to the central role of Government - has found it hard to carve out an effective lobbying role, which makes the emergence of SITSA in Senegal interesting (see below). But once trust has been established between the parties, these lobbying groups have shown an increasing confidence in pursuing their objectives.

Successes so far have been modest but have included:

* Kenya’s TESPOK fighting successfully for the setting up of a local Internet Exchange Point and the opening up of data carriage market domestically. It is now engaged in a fight over anti-competitive moves by the incumbent Telkom Kenya on broadband services.

* Ghana’s GISPA has recently negotiated a lower price for all ISPs on the monopoly-owned, international cable SAT3 through a rough-and-tumble public campaign that combined private and public pressure. It now also faces anti-competitive moves by the incumbent on broadband pricing.

* The South African VANS Association which represents a particular industry sector has fought several well-publicised and successful battles with Telkom on competition issues. The Communications Users Association of South Africa which represents the broad spread of communications users from all industries has also often added its weight to these struggles.

* In a way that is much harder to pin down, industry involvement in policy discussions has often been one factor in getting import taxes lifted on computer equipment. There are also campaigns now underway for a similar lifting of import duties on telecoms equipment.

Not all of these campaigns have been successful. The Cyber-Café Owners of Kenya (CCOAK) sought to come together to try and hold up prices in a market where there were simply too many cafes. Its intervention had little direct impact on the problem but café owners have probably benefitted from sharing common issues. More recently, African ICT sector associations came together to form a continental grouping.

Lobbying is a combination of very public and very private activity. You have still have to work behind closed doors but you will often take your issues out into the public domain. You may noisily maintain a public position but be willing to negotiate a compromise. However, the very noisy pursuit of particular objectives sits uncomfortably with the “don’t rock the boat” culture of most African Governments. Both politicians and civil servants have been used to a fairly quiet state of “business as usual” (where they tell people what to do) and feel strangely vulnerable when challenged or confronted by strong outsiders.

Lobbying relies on creating trust at all levels with those you are trying to influence. When one industry association started lobbying its regulator two years ago, both saw each other as “the enemy”. Two years later there is a mutual respect between the two and the regulator will as often as not turn to this association for advice as it will to the incumbent.

Successful lobbying means taking a narrow self-interest and turning it into a broader interest that might genuinely claim to be national. So for example, the desire to get particular licences will benefit the operators. But if those involved can demonstrate that they will offer lower access costs, particularly to education institutions, this narrow self-interest acquires a broader purchase on the national political agenda.

In acknowledging the centrality of these broader national needs, those lobbying in the ICT private sector have formed alliances with those in civil society. There are a growing number of mail-lists and groupings that bring together NGOs pursuing access objectives and the need for more coherent national ICT policies with other players in the same space. Each side draws strength and credibility from the presence of the other.

In future, there will be new alliances with consumer groups representing individuals addressing pricing and service level issues. On some issues, the private sector may be in conflict with consumers (on price) but on others they will find common ground, particularly around opening up greater levels of competition around price.

LE LOBBYING - SITSA DOES IT SENEGAL-STYLE

The formation of a new ICT association in Senegal - SITSA - is significant for a number of reasons. Senegal is now entering the post-monopoly period and new opportunities are opening up that were previously dominated by the incumbent Sonatel. SITSA may be one of the first ICT associations in francophone Africa to show how it can use its infleunce to change policy for a broad range of players. Russell Southwood interviewed Coura Fall of SITSA on what it hopes to achieve.

How did SITSA start?

For a long time, we had an association for ICT sector members called OPTIC which was affiliated to the CNP, the main private sector organisation (“le patronat”). Many companies did not belong to it. On 20 July 2003, we had a workshop that was perhaps more representative of the sector came together to discuss the problems faced by the ICT private sector in Senegal. The workshop was facilitated by WITSA and USAID.

How many companies are involved?

Thirty companies attended and we spoke about the implications of the liberalisation of the telecoms sector. Those attending decided to put in place a new association called SITSA. We wanted to become an interlocutor for Government, something they could use to know what the ICT private sector thinks. We now have many members – around 50 members drawn from 28 companies - and are being consulted by the Government on the issue of the liberalisation of the telecoms market. Our activities are not yet wholly effective but will become more so in the future.

What are SITSA's objectives?

SITSA (which is affiliated with WITSA) has a number of objectives including: advocacy, research, lobbying and certification. We will publish an annual handbook with companies categorised by types of activities. We will also publish position papers on key issues like VoIP.

We are looking for solutions that will open the market but there are a range of particular issues including:
- There is a problem with taxes on imported computers.
- There are issues about the regulatory framework as it does not integrate new technologies like VoIP.
- There is the difficulty around other operators getting access to the national backbone (run by Sonatel).
- There are also problems of transparency in the process.

How do you see the new liberalisation?

There is a particular dynamic to liberalisation and all the actors involved want to come together to find a model of liberalisation that works. The Government is one of the principal investors in (the incumbent) Sonatel and this makes this a difficult thing to achieve.