by Bright B. Simons (Harvard Business review)
The United States economy is nine times the size of Africa’s, but Africa has twice as many mobile phones.
This tantalizing statistic would seem to indicate that, in the mobile era, Africa’s time has come. But the mobile subscriber numbers are only part of the story. So far, the buzz about African mobile has been about the consumer side of things. I believe, though, that it is at the enterprise level that mobile could truly become a game changer for Africa, enabling the building of massive fortunes, and perhaps even the much anticipated recycling of innovation from Africa to the West.
The focus on consumers up to now has been perfectly understandable. That is where the results are already visible. It is consumers that have made Africa the fastest growing mobile market in the world. It is consumer spending that is driving all the value added services — including mobile payments — that everyone seems so excited about. Whilst the subscriber growth has been astounding, a critical look at value creation however show how much more needs to be done before mobile can shift African economies. For instance, the United Kingdom, with barely 7% of Africa’s population, has a bigger telecom industry in terms of revenue. That’s why the enterprise side of things has seized my imagination.
To the extent that the African enterprise has been relevant in the mobile story so far, it has been about the telephone companies themselves. It is amazing how enthusiastically African telecoms have, for instance, embraced the cloud, where “cloud” means accessing the enterprise’s intellectual assets more in the way one accesses a utility, like tap water, instead of a local resource, like, say, a borehole.
African telecoms have in fact done more than embrace the cloud; they have unpacked their infrastructure: selling radio masts to third parties and leasing them back; grabbing seamless, turnkey solutions for billing, customer discovery, relationship management, and service delivery from big vendors with a gusto that would make a western CIO gulp for air.
Much of the esoteric quibbling about private and public clouds and legacy infrastructure that has frustrated vendors like IBM, HP, SAP, and the rest in Europe and America has been bypassed in Africa as telecom companies prioritize cost and comfort over culture and security.
Given how open-minded African telecom companies have been about the cloud, they should have no qualms about pushing enterprise mobility; they have no hang-ups.
This puts African telecom companies in a position to promote an open-minded, hang-up free approach to enterprise mobility. But so far they’ve concentrated their marketing power at consumers, and invested in selling mainly broadband-related products to the corporate sector. On enterprise mobility they’re still at the starting line.
Which is why the opportunity is so thrilling. The market is completely open. It could be anyone’s game.
To understand what I mean by “enterprise mobility,” look at your own recent working practices. How often do you use your mobile phone or tablet for work-related activity? Do you have a company-issued mobile phone or tablet? Is its use governed by company-level policies? Are you allowed access to critical company data outside the four walls of the business? What does “four walls” mean if you are a travelling salesperson, or on call after work hours to respond to crises? How does the company judge whether it is really you making that call or pulling that piece of data from its vaults? In low-infrastructure settings like Africa, these questions are double-pressing.
Most African corporations, especially in the private sector, are only now in a position to think deeply about information technology (IT). Unlike in the West, where corporate policies on IT easily date back five decades, and where systems deployed two decades ago are still in operation, the African enterprise has discovered IT just at the onset of cloud-thinking. The dissolving of corporate boundaries is not science fiction to the average African manager; she contends with the realities and frustrations every day.
Intriguingly, the African IT manager has very little influence over the enterprise as a whole. The notion of the CIO is still in its infancy. When it becomes obvious that IT is a bottom-line matter, it is the CEO who usually has to make the call.
If the CEO gets what’s at stake, then — given the unique advantages of the African setting for all things mobile — the whole enterprise is likely to embrace cloud and mobility with a seamlessness and finality that is impossible to achieve in the West. And when such a bug successfully infects one company it could very easily affect its entire industry, because mobile has always been a viral technology.
What do we have here then? Surely, it is the perfect mix of ingredients for a massive boom: a huge, self-defining, market opportunity; incumbents without a clear plan; limited penetration by established vendors; motivating cost factors; favorable surrounding culture (i.e. mobile is hot); and massive latent needs. Just the sort of environment likely to spawn a host of medium-sized innovators, always the right catalyst for a boom.
There is, however, one really big if. African economies are still hyper-dependent on government spending — a legacy of the socialist infrastructure put in place after independence. For there to be an enterprise mobility boom, there also needs to be a broader enterprise boom and rebalancing of economies away from government and toward the private sector.
Such economic change typically comes in stages. The current consumer boom in Africa is based on the first steps toward private sector empowerment that were taken in the 1980s, when most African countries’ economies were shrinking. Now, with the consumer boom spurring real growth all over the continent, we may be due for an even bigger spurt of private sector expansion.
Simply put: the consumer boom could fuel an enterprise boom which would in turn keep consumer spending rising. And this enterprise boom offers the platform for a mobile explosion so dramatic that it could dwarf the change and growth Africa have seen so far in the mobile-enabled space — and launch Africa into the global economic big leagues.
There’s no guarantee that all this will happen, of course. But the ingredients are in place.