To regulate, or not to regulate the digital industry in Africa
The African Telecommunications Union (ATU) says the continent needs digital innovation to spill over into all segments of business and society to strengthen Africa’s digital economy.
“According to the World Bank, Africa requires $100 trillion to achieve full digital transformation, and no one, in the public or private sector, has the capacity to do this alone,” noted ATU general secretary John Omo.
Omo introduced a ministerial forum on the eve of major digital infrastructure event AfricaCom 2022, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on Monday, saying: “Through the power of investment and of regulation, together we can craft a framework that will give effect to the growth and development we want to see.”
Sharing different sentiments during a keynote panel on Tuesday – on how Africa’s tech history contains the roots of its future – chair of investment management company Convergence Partners Andile Ngcaba said regulators in the sector could hinder the sector’s growth.
“I’ve said to the regulators that you either close down, or you call yourselves something else, because [you] need to be enablers,” he said.
“The problem in my culture, where I come from, is that when you give a child a name, the name has a meaning, and the child almost becomes that meaning. When you are called a regulator, you want to regulate all the time. But when your name is enabler, you will want to enable.”
Ngcaba said that enabling the industry would include building and giving access to the necessary infrastructure, services, fibre, spectrum and the release of it, and more.
Recalling South Africa’s long journey to increasing available spectrum, he noted that the waiting cycle of awarding spectrum could cause business models to fail, which would have devastating effects on the economy.
Nic Rudnick, group deputy executive chair at Liquid Intelligent Technologies, echoed a similar perspective, saying regulators in some countries have been assertive but that many other countries have not experienced the same fortune, with regulators impeding the rollout of new generation networks.
“I think some regulators need to understand that sometimes keeping out of the way of the industry is the best way to encourage development.
“What history tells us is that the rapid growth of the mobile industry across Africa happened at a time when there were low levels of regulation rather than high,” Rudnick added.
Commenting on Africa’s digital potential, Funke Opeke, CEO at telecommunications company MainOne, said the informal sector needs to be catered to in order to drive the full usage of internet services :on the continent and ultimately, the digital economy.
She noted that getting the informal sector online and giving it a digital identity and presence, and providing services that are locally relevant in the daily lives and incomes of the users in the sector, will boost Africa’s digital economy.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done: digital literacy needs to be improved; device costs and access remain an issue; access to quality services and affordability also remain an issue. I think getting infrastructure to rural or semi-urban areas at quality and affordable prices can really help their digital presence,” says Opeke.
Ngcaba says he envisions purchasing coffee beans, inscribed with the stories of their origin, using non-fungible tokens, along with a data centre that will provide information to micro-farmers in various areas, and a cashless society.
“I think and hope that over the next ten years, we will use the tools of fast, uncapped broadband on devices other than handsets, that [will] turn Africans into creatives,” adds Rudnick.