By Chafic Traboulsi, Vice President and Head of Networks at Ericsson Middle East & Africa
Africa has made significant progress toward digitalization, advancing from 2G in the late 1990s to 4G and the promising 5G technology today. The continent's commitment to digital adoption is unquestionable, and this dedication is prominently on display at events like MWC Kigali, a platform for key industry players, government officials, and Tech innovators to converge, exchange ideas, and discuss the transformative potential of these advancements.
According to the Ericson Mobility Report for June 2023, Sub-Saharan Africa is forecast to be the region with the highest growth in total mobile data traffic, rising by 37 percent annually between 2022 and 2028 as service providers across the continent continue to invest in 4G networks and migrate customers from 2G and 3G. More than 10 African countries have already launched commercial 5G networks to date, with more planned, raising the forecast of 5G subscriptions to 13 percent of the total subscription base in 2028.
However, the dynamic digital landscape has been marked by a multi-faceted development across Africa. While some regions and countries have surged forward due to local initiatives and private sector investments, others grapple with infrastructure challenges, high cost of data and devices, and regulatory barriers, to name a few. As technology leaders and policymakers meet in Kigali this year to deliberate on advancing Africa's digital growth, it is important to address five fundamental challenges to ensure that the continent’s digitalization efforts will reach everyone.
The foundation of Africa's digitalization lies in investing in robust and accessible infrastructure. This includes dependable electricity supply to power digital devices and connectivity; expand broadband infrastructure and access; as well as ensure stable energy sources. For example, we see great benefits if more focus is put on investing in building power plants, expanding electricity grids, upgrading aging infrastructure, and more importantly, exploring diverse energy sources, including renewable energy, to reduce dependence on a single energy source.
Given the challenges of energy insecurity, increasing costs and environmental concerns, Ericsson’s unique dual-band three sector Radio 6626, which replaces six legacy radios has been especially helpful to Africa’s communication service providers, as it helps them significantly reduce their radio footprints, operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions. This is especially important in areas with space constraints, and supports service providers in meeting their climate goals. As part of Ericsson Rural Site solution, we are integrating solar panels and batteries as alternative and green sources of power, reducing dependence on traditional energy sources and ensuring uninterrupted service in remote areas.
In addition to network modernization and activating a range of energy-saving features and software, our Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered Radio Access Network (RAN) can help operators achieve up to 12% energy savings. Our Smart Connected Site initiative is also helping improve connectivity, and enhance network stability, security, and efficiency.
Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide
A significant portion of rural Africa still lacks internet access. Extending connectivity to these regions will give the population access to the internet, and services such as mobile money. It will also promote digital solutions in agriculture, education, financial services and healthcare, which can narrow the digital divide and improve development.
Although special subsidies or incentives can be granted to operators to expand connectivity in underserved and remote areas, a substantial increase in usage makes it financially viable for service providers to have a network presence in every region.
While ongoing efforts to connect the remaining 16% of Africa's population without mobile broadband coverage continue, there is an opportunity for industry and government to collaborate towards bridging the digital usage gap. Research shows that as of 2021, 44% of the population already covered by mobile broadband did not utilize any of the life-improving digital services made available.
Besides reducing data costs and promoting affordable devices through favorable taxation policies, allocating spectrum at affordable rates enables operators to compete on value and leads to affordable connectivity. A spectrum pricing analysis by GSMA shows that the unit price per income in Africa is four times the price in the developed world, twice the global median, and similar to other developing countries. In fact, the African continent accounts for half of all high or extremely high spectrum prices observed worldwide from 2010 to 2019.
Forward-looking policymakers should consider the economic benefits of connectivity on economic growth and productivity as well as the resulting future fiscal revenues on the overall economy when pricing spectrum and explore public-private partnerships to stimulate the required financing for telecom infrastructure deployment.
Digital Literacy and Education
An Economist Intelligence Unit report sponsored by Ericsson found that nations with low broadband connectivity have the potential to realize an increase in GDP of up to 20 percent by connecting schools to the internet. Empowering Africans with digital skills is imperative. This can be achieved through several initiatives, like offering practical digital literacy programs in schools and community centers.
Ericsson and its partners are offering impactful digital connectivity solutions and promoting digital learning, as evidenced in Senegal with Fixed Wireless Access. Integrating practical digital literacy into formal education from the very fundamental stage will help raise digital citizens across the continent. Furthermore, to reach a broader population, producing educational materials in local languages should be encouraged. Presently, various African countries, including Kenya are using locally relevant digital tools and applications in their local languages. EdTech startups like Kytabu and E-Lugha make it easier for young individuals to learn and apply digital skills.
It is also vital to develop unique programs that empower women to have equal opportunities in this digital age by establishing initiatives that promote Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) education for girls, as well as mentorship programs that promote gender equality in the ICT sector.
We believe that digital literacy is central to driving an innovative and sustainable knowledge-based ecosystem. We are therefore proud to play our part in leading digital adoption across the continent with our various initiatives, including Connect to Learn, Digital Labs for children, Ericsson Educate for tertiary students, entrepreneurs and career professionals, Hackathons and innovation challenges. Additionally, we are working with UNICEF on the Giga initiative, which is aimed at connecting every school to the internet by 2030. We are mapping school geolocations and providing data sets for mobile coverage in 34 countries globally, including 11 African countries.
Support for Tech Ecosystems
A thriving tech ecosystem involving sectors such as the ICT industry, startups, regulators and academia is crucial for innovation and job creation, but more importantly, it can provide digital solutions and tools tailored to local needs and challenges.
This makes it easier and more convenient for everyone to accept and embrace digitalization. A good example is mobile money, which revolutionized banking across the continent, driving financial inclusion for a large part of the unbanked population in Africa. It is therefore important to support the growth of these ecosystems through favorable policies to drive economic growth and technological advancements. The adoption of Small Business and Enterprise Acts, or more specifically, StartUp Acts have been considered a way to materialize such commitments.
These efforts should be underpinned by clear and inclusive governance and regulatory frameworks to ensure that it is transparent and benefit the entire population. Additionally, an effective regulatory framework encourages competition, protects consumer rights, and stimulates innovation. Organizations like Smart Africa provide opportunities to emulate the success of leading African economies and funding support. The launch of the Smart Africa Impact Fund in 2021 was a great addition to the various initiatives aimed at addressing this major bottleneck for innovators.
Africa's digital journey is a promising one with unimaginable potential. With the right strategies and collective effort, the continent can harness the power of digitalization to drive economic growth, empower communities, and bridge gaps. As Africa charts its digital future, let us ensure that the benefits of the digital age are accessible to all, leaving no one behind.