Digital Shapers # 2


Interviewee Akinwale Goodluck, Head of Sub-Saharan Africa Operations

Company  GSMA

Industries Telecom, Mobile Operators

Founded 1995

Headquarters London, United Kingdom

GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, uniting more than 750 operators with almost 400 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset and device makers, software companies, equipment providers and internet companies, as well as organizations in adjacent industry sectors. 

  • GSMA is one of the most active entities in the telco sector. Can you tell me more about its ambitions? 

Aside from being an industry body and a significant ecosystem per se, we are passionate about connecting everything & everybody to a better future. We think that this can be done intelligently for different parts of the world. More than ever, as a result of the pandemic, we have become more resolute about how we bring the benefits of digital inclusion to everybody across the world. This is our biggest challenge & what motivates us at our core.  We also play a strong role in convening the industry through federative events, such as the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona or various other events in Africa.  

  • Is digital & financial inclusiveness part of the evolving role of African telco operators today in Africa?

Africa and particularly sub-Saharan Africa is in a unique position, as a lot of people live in a “mobile-only” environment where telco operators play a key role. Making sure everybody is digitally & financially included is a pre-requisite for the economy of the continent to take off: economic development in Africa relies on the expansion of mobile networks. By the end of 2021, we will reach 500m unique mobile subscribers for Sub–Saharan Africa. By 2022, at least a third of the population will be subscribed to mobile internet services and by 2023, we believe that 4G will overtake 2G and will subsequently become the second most dominant standard. We also have big expectations for 2024 and 2025, as, by 2025, we expect that at least 50% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa will be subscribed to mobile services. 

  • Is 5G deployment a topical issue for Sub-Saharan Africa?

5G is inevitable in Sub-Saharan Africa but it is not necessarily imminent. The challenge & the opportunity in the region now is to complete capacity with 4G infrastructure & drive a lot more traffic through that pipe. That said, the rest of the world is already driving 5G expansion. Commercially viable business cases for 5G will progressively appear, and then Africa should decide what sort of 5G network will be rolled out. Africa will probably reach that state around 2025. But it is certain we will get there for sure, as some operators such as MTN & Vodacom have started 5G trials in South Africa.  

  • How does GSMA support innovation in the telco industry in Africa? 

Innovation is central at GSMA: our M4D (Mobile for Development) team has the primary responsibility to explore how mobile can be used to foster socio-economic growth and inclusion. We provide funding and expertise, help innovators find grants, and develop an advanced source of knowledge. The ecosystem accelerator focuses on startups and methods to scale innovation through partnerships with mobile operators. As of today, we have probably funded about 105 startups across 23 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through the Innovation fund for mobile internet adoption and digital inclusion, our purpose is to close the usage gap & enhance mobile connectivity. Again, these are examples of how we invest money and resources into driving innovation in that area. 

  • Many operators position themselves as financial services providers seeking bank agreements in an expanding number of African countries. What is their role in the financial services ecosystem?

Given the demographics of Sub-Saharan Africa - where the larger part of the population is young and a significant number of people is financially excluded - financial inclusion plays a crucial role to lift people out of poverty. Digital financial services powered by mobile network operators is an effective tool enabling such financial inclusion. For example, 30% of Safaricom revenues in Kenya originate from mobile financial services. If you look across Sub-Saharan Africa and especially in countries experiencing high growth in financial inclusion, the latter is always linked to an enabling mobile money regime that is brought through a solid mobile network operator ecosystem.

  • What are the key components that explain that some countries are lagging behind when it comes to setting up favorable market conditions for the development of mobile financial services?

I believe these weaknesses originate from the regulatory environment. Kenya has taken the lead in East Africa, but we are observing strong adoption in Tanzania & Uganda. In these countries, government authorities are allowing MNOs to play a significant role in the development of regulations and policies on mobile money. The same pattern is found in African countries that are performing well in West Africa. For instance, Ghana & Côte d’Ivoire have adapted their regulations in order to allow MNOs to play bigger roles in the financial ecosystem. 

  • To what extent has the pandemic shifted priorities for telecom operators and GSMA?

The pandemic has had a very negative impact across the world, but a positive aspect of this is that it has brought the issue of digital inclusion into the foreground. A lot of governments are now focused on ensuring that digital inclusion happens for everybody. We have seen a lot more collaboration between governments, MNOs, and civil society. Everybody now understands the need to provide services so that people can work, play, go to school, and have access to financial and health assistance. The industry now provides services in residential neighborhoods - not only in central business districts - because everybody started working from home. MNOs have also been focusing on the affordability of devices and content availability, cooperating with various external stakeholders.

  • When considering new entrants in the telco industry – for instance, GAFAM that are more and more engaged in building subsea cables, data centers, etc. - how do you perceive their role in the future of Africa connectivity?

There will be enough room for everybody to play as demand will continue to grow exponentially in Africa. The requirements for data centers will continue to increase in parallel of the development of free trade agreements that will bring a lot more cross-border data movement in Africa. Scaling data centers' capacity is definitely an imperative, so I don't think there is an issue of competition at this stage between them and the MNOs. Right now, the necessity relies in collaboration.


  • What is GSMA’s role in overseeing data privacy/safety in Sub-Saharan Africa? 

GSMA devotes a significant amount of resources to data privacy and safety. In Africa, GSMA has been at the forefront of advocating best practices in terms of cross-border data protection, data anonymization, and child online protection. For instance, we worked with the communications authority and operators in Kenya to launch child online protection guidelines. A big event was launched in February that brought a lot of traction. It is a true demonstration of commitment to online safety. We understand that if people do not safe online, this will remain a barrier to internet connectivity. 

  • What is the responsibility of content providers such as Facebook, Google, and telecom operators? 

Every stakeholder in the telco industry has a separate responsibility to drive safety and security online. Some are in charge of taking it down, others have the responsibility of advocacy, while governments have the responsibility to enforce. Advancing digital safety will require onboarding all stakeholders. We all have a responsibility for security in the real world and the same applies to security in the online sphere. 

By Hamza Iraqi, Consultant at Euromena Consulting

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