Kathy Gibson is at ITU Telecom World in Durban – In just 20 years, African telecommunications has gone from almost non-existent to a level where just about everyone has a phone today.

“The situation in Africa was terrible, but there has been a marvellous change,” says Houlin Zhao, ITU secretary-general.

While big companies have largely been instrumental in making this change, SMEs are key to future growth on the continent, Zhao adds.

A number of SMEs are showcasing their solutions at the ITU Telecom World, says Siyabonga Cwele, minister of telecommunications and postal services

“This is an opportunity for African companies to show African solutions,” he adds.

Throughout Africa, there is an alignment in what governments and business are trying to achieve, says Rob Shuter, group president and CEO of MTN.

For the operators, the next phase is about moving from providing connectivity solely to people in metros to those in rural villages, he adds.

“I don’t find any major dissonance in the markets; we are all trying to achieve the same things.”

The continent has a number of large, complex problems, Shuter says. “Only about 70-millionn of our customers are connected to the Internet.

“So inclusion is a challenge, but it is not just at our feet. This is the generation where we need to bring so many more of our people into the digital world.”

An issue this complex cannot be solved by a single player, he adds. Alignment between policy, investment, civil society and government is required.

MTN is currently faced with another fine in Nigeria, and Shuter was asked what he thinks the company could have done differently.

“Nigeria is one of our largest markets, and we have been there since 2001,” he says. “We are very proud of what we’ve built in Nigeria.

“We do have some challenges, but I believe we will be able to make our case and move past that.”

Deon Fredericks, chief investment officer of Telkom, agrees that it’s important to connect people seamlessly and think about how to improve the lives of everyone in South Africa.

“The country is at a crossroads and we need to think about how we can all contribute,” he says.

“Industry, regulator, government and the social world need to come together to ensure South Africa is ready for the digital transformation – otherwise we will be left behind.”

Jianjun Zhou, vice-president of carrier business BG and emerging market vice-president of Huawei, is encouraged by President Ramaphosa’s speech this morning outlining South Africa’s telecommunications strategy.

“We have about 3-billion people who are not connected to broadband around the world, and about 800-million people not covered by mobile services,” he says.

“We still have about 1-billion households that have no access to broadband.

“So there are a lot of opportunities, but also a lot of challenges.”

ICT is key to the economy of the country, and connectivity is the cornerstone of ICT, Zhou adds. “By enhancing ICT investment by 20%, you get a GDP return of 1% increase.”

Rural connectivity is vital for Africa, he points out.

“Huawei has launched a solution that is designed to give connectivity to villages, with an ROI (return on investment) period of just three years.”