How telecoms is helping unlock Africa’s true potential
African development is in the midst of a digital revolution which is exciting, different and disruptive, including in the critical area of education. March will see a much-anticipated event, hosted at the University of Rwanda. It is the First African Education Summit, the first, we hope, of many.
Schools and colleges comprise just one sector in which the telecommunications business is leading the way in unlocking the continent’s potential, which has been stifled for years by infrastructure that has been allowed to decay or was never there in the first place.
Advances in digital communications, such as the roll-out of 4G networks, are helping Africans to leapfrog intermediate stages of development and seize the advantages of the latest technology. In the words of Inside Telecom magazine: “Telecommunications in Africa are already playing a fundamental role in African society. This sector has created a closed circuit of economic growth and innovation.”
The continent abounds with challenges and opportunities and telecoms companies, such as Airtel Africa Plc listed here in London, are central to meeting them. Let’s look at some examples.
Through their phones, small farmers can find out how much they should be charging for their crops, and with the sub Saharan post pandemic out-of-school rate at 31%, digital learning has a huge role to play.
Financial exclusion has been a major, long-standing issue in Africa, both for businesses and individuals. Moreover, it’s a problem which impacts gender equality, with women disproportionately excluded from the financial system. Our industry’s money services are linking millions of people them to the essential financial services they need to realise their potential and aspirations.
Then there is the digital divide. In April 2022, the Carnegie Endowment estimated that just 33 per cent of Africa’s population was using the internet. Building on existing customer bases, the industry is helping to increase this figure, allowing more and more Africans to benefit from the capacity of digital technology, as the Endowment put it, “to deliver goods and services in healthcare, education, finance, commerce, governance, and agriculture”.
An efficient, robust and expanding communications infrastructure is critical to bringing businesses and customers together, to their mutual benefit. And telecoms companies are enabling this – whilst also ensuring that the environmental impact of business is minimised (in alignment with our commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the 2050 deadline in the Paris Agreement).
All of this is very much in the interests of our shareholders in the United Kingdom and internationally, as well as across Africa: in the words of Chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal: “Sustainability and profitability are inextricably linked.”
Traditionally, official development finance institutions have played a leading role in bringing capital to Africa. That is changing, with growing interest from private investors. But as the World Bank noted in January 2022, in global terms, the market for “green” investments in Africa remained small.
The World Bank qualified this assessment, observing that “Attracting sustainable investment is a key challenge for the region for several reasons. First, while climate change and associated physical risks will be felt by all countries, some of the most severe temperatures are predicted in Sub-Saharan Africa. The region is also directly and indirectly exposed to the transition risks associated with climate change, which is amplified by the dependence of many economies, and jobs, on minerals, energy and mining.”
Africa has received billions of dollars in aid over recent decades. Life expectancy and populations have both risen dramatically, and absolute poverty has fallen. Yet the rise in living standards has been relatively meagre, and few African countries have achieved the rapid economic growth witnessed in much of Asia.
But set against these factors is the compelling Africa “buy” story presented by the Continent’s breakneck population growth, coupled with the challenges and opportunities that this presents. At 2.7 per cent, annual population expansion dwarfs that of the next fastest-growing regions – with South Asia at 1.2 per cent, and Latin America at 0.9 per cent. By 2050, Africa’s population is expected to have doubled to 2.5 billion.
These people are increasingly likely to live in urban areas. Indeed, 43 per cent already do, drawn by the prospect of better economic possibilities, a figure expected to reach 50 per cent by 2040. Improvements in African political governance suggest this trend will usher in the emergence of a new middle class.
Key to the appearance of such a class is the telecommunications sector, with its ability to drive the adoption of transformative technologies and the services they offer.
Companies such as Airtel Africa are thus absolutely central to realising the potential of this vast and endlessly fascinating continent.
Segun Ogunsanya, Chief Executive Officer, Airtel Africa Plc