Vice President, Ericsson sub-Saharan Africa, Mr. Shiletsi Makhofane, spoke with Emma Okonji in Tanzania on Ericsson’s commitment to transform Africa with its latest technology solutions. Excerpts:
What is the state of development in Africa, since the campaign on digital transformation for the African continent?
The campaign for digital transformation in Africa is ongoing, and Ericsson is at the forefront of the transformation, just like the GSMA group. Ericsson has developed technology solutions that will transform several sectors in Africa and we see Information and Communications Technology (ICT), cutting across all the sustainable development goals in Africa. From us at Ericsson, we are working hard to sustain the transformation process currently going on. Sectors like Energy, Transport, Safety and Security, including Smarter Cities, need to adopt technology that will drive development in these sectors.
The broadband plan by most African countries must not look at the supply side alone, but the holistic strength of broadband capacity to drive technology transformation on the continent. Broadband facilitates ICT transformation, industry transformation and Ericsson is currently doing a lot of work in these areas. The energy sector for instance, has a challenge and the biggest challenge for Africa is energy. If we connect the grids and then connect the homes with smart metres, it will go a long way in supplying uninterrupted energy to the African people.
How can Ericsson’s solution address the issue of road congestion and high volume of traffic on the roads of most African countries like Nigeria, and Tanzania?
Another area that Ericsson is interested in is about transportation. Everyday people move from place to place. They go to work, meeting, market, keep appointments in offices, among others and they are using transport to move around. Most times they find it difficult to move around because of inefficiency in the transportation system, resulting in heavy traffic on the roads. Our approach to this challenge is on connected transportation such that we are able to use technology solution to connect vehicles and vehicular movements so that the commuters are able to have information of the movement of cars and buses and be able to plan out their time in a most profitable way. Most times people go out with the hope of getting transportation quickly and they end up spending their time waiting for buses because they do not have the slightest information on the arrival of the buses. We see this as the height of inefficiency in the transportation system and we have developed technology solution to address that. Again, the bus or cab driver also may be driving with the hope of getting passengers, without having the slightest information on the location where passengers are clustered. That inefficient way of not knowing how much demand and supply are available, is what we are addressing with our technology solution. With our technology, a better movement schedule is achieved. The solution also addresses the issue of heavy traffic on the roads, as well as the issue of parking space for cars and buses. Most cars and buses do not find places to park when they want to do so and they kept roaming, looking for parking slots. Our technology solution addresses all of that and the issue of congestion on our roads.
What about public safety and security that you earlier mentioned?
On public safety and security, we are looking at a situation where there is an emergency situation and the Police are needed for rescue operation. With the kind of technology that we have, it goes beyond placing voice calls to the police, because our technology allows people to send video clips of accident victims and this will spur security operatives to be on alert and make better decision, and through this means, lives could be saved promptly.
So we are saying that these are some of the critical industry issues that needed to be addressed with technology solutions, and I am glad to say that Ericsson is thinking fast and have developed solutions that will address the issue.
We are also concerned about communication as part of the digital transformation. Currently we have more mobile phones than television sets in Africa. So we are looking at how the visual content could be delivered through the mobile phone. Before now, people gather at a particular location to watch special episode of television content, but with the advancement in technology, where contents are streamed live to mobile devices, people now watch their television programmes and movies, while on the move and at their own convenience and it has made life extremely easy for people.
Is your solution also addressing the African challenges in financial inclusion?
Our solutions address the challenges of the financial inclusion and we have made announcement with some African countries, during the previous Economic Forum for Africa and we are working with most African governments to digitise money flow in their countries. We have solution that can address interoperability between systems to boost seamless financial flow. This will help government to reduce cost of printing and moving money, as well as create safety of money. In the absence of technology, people will prefer to keep money at their homes and it will not add value to the economic growth of the nation.
Are there specific solutions for digital inclusion for different African countries since countries have different specific challenges?
When you talk of technology solution, it covers certain quality test and different regions have different needs and challenges. For us at Ericsson, we are looking at solution that addresses specific needs in different countries. So we build the solution to solve certain challenges. We are currently looking at how we can deploy out solutions to address the needs of the consumer. So our solution is built to be able to address specific challenges in different African countries.
Ericsson solutions for digital inclusion, ride on broadband and in Africa, broadband availability is limited. How can the solutions thrive with limited broadband?
Yes, we are aware that there is the challenge of broadband availability in Africa, but our concern is even on the spectrum that will drive broadband penetration. We need the right spectrum licence that will drive broadband penetration in Africa, and when this is achieved, it will help our solution to excel and address the needs of Africans with ease, because technology solutions are meant to bring ease of life to the people. So it is important that African governments endeavour to make spectrum available to the telecoms operators, who need the spectrum to rollout broadband services. There is also a very key element for the African continent, which is harmonisation of policies. How African governments harmonise policies is the key to technology development on the continent. For example, the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, which was hitherto used by telecoms operators to provide fixed telecoms services in most African countries like Nigeria, faced serious challenges, because government policies on CDMA were not harmonised in Africa. At some points, it became proprietary that the mobile phones used for CDMA operations cannot be used on another network outside CDMA operations. So that alone contributed to the death of CDMA operations in Africa and the GSM operators took advantage of that singular issue that was peculiar to only CDMA operations, to rollout out their 3G, 3.5G and 4G technology on the GSM network in a more speedy way, because the mobile devices were not restricted only 3G or 3.5G or 4G networks.
What lessons could be learnt from all of these?
There are several lessons to be learnt. If we take lessons from the scenario of the African CDMA operations that I just painted, and African governments begin to harmonise and standardise their policies on telecommunications, it will reduce the complexities of the phone device. GSM technology is rolling out fast because the same mobile device can be used on any network and in any country. I can travel with my GSM handset from one country to another and still use it effectively because there is harmonisation of policies on GSM networks.
Apart from reducing the complexities, harmonisation also helps in reducing the cost of producing the mobile devices, and that makes the devices affordable for the masses.
Aside technology harmonisation, what is your view on technology neutrality?
Technology neutrality is key to technology development. Today there are still some African countries that license operators separately for 2G, 3G, and 4G. The truth is that the licensing should not be segregated because it does not really matter, what technology is used to deliver services, whether it is 2G or 3G or 4G or even 5G that is currently being canvassed in Europe. For example, it does not really matter what kind of channel or the type of vehicle through which courier operators deliver parcels. What actually matters to the customer is that the parcel was delivered safe and timely. Some countries will tell operators that they have to license 3G separate from 4G but that is not necessary because operators with 3G licence can still scale-up to 4G, which is about higher speed of connectivity. So there is need for technology neutrality to enable operators scale-up with less financial burden whenever they want to do so. If this is achieved in Africa, them it will go a long way to drive digital inclusion and transformation. That an operator has a 3G licence does not stop the operator from giving its customers a 4G experience. If there is technology neutrality, a 3G operator does not need to get a 4G licence in addition to its 3G licence before it can offer 4G services to its customers.
What is your view on digitising government activities in Africa?
Most government activities in Africa are not digitised and that is a challenge for digital transformation in Africa. If governments in Africa begin to put their activities online, then the citizens will not bother to flood government offices or the offices of government agencies to carry out some transactions. Government should upload all its activities online and make broadband bandwidth available for people to access government activities online. It will save the stress of queuing up in government offices for certain registrations like vehicle registration, land use registration and payment of taxes. All these could be done online. Again, it will save cost of transporting oneself to government offices as well as the risk of movement.
What should be the role of African government in the whole exercise of digital transformation in Africa?
African governments must come up with policies that will not stifle technology growth on the continent. Government must take a holistic view of broadband and come up with policies that will help deepen broadband penetration in Africa. Ericsson recently published a report about a guide for policy makers in a networked society, and the report emphasised on the need for African policy makers to think about different kinds of approaches to policy formulation around technology development. The Minister of Telecommunications/Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in various African counties should see the need for governments to drive the entire digital transformation process.
Policies should be geared towards transformation of other sectors, using ICT as the driver. The minister of finance for instance, is interested in raising money and driving GDP growth, but technology should be the driver of the activities in the finance sector as well as other sectors.
What should be the role of telecoms operators in the digital transformation exercise?
The operators themselves have critical roles to play in the entire transformation exercise. There is need for collaboration and shared infrastructure among the operators. They must be open to one another in solving common challenges of the African consumers.