Kathy Gibson is at ITU Telecom World in Durban – Ghana is open for business, and is creating an enabling digital environment to make this a reality.

In fact, connectivity should be considered a civic right, Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, minister of communications in Ghana.

“It is imperative that all citizens benefit from digitalisation,” she adds. “The digital divide threatens the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Ghana recently embarked on a digital agenda of infrastructure development, with broadband connectivity for the underserved and unserved at the heart of its agenda.

“As scale up our digitalisation effort, ICT is playing a huge role,” she says.

While telecommunications was widespread in Ghana, the divide between urban and rural areas was seen to be widening.

To counter this, Owusu-Ekuful is committed to achieving 100% coverage by 2020.

In the eight years between 2010 and 2017, 117 base stations were set up in rural areas, but the second phase of the project has seen a huge uptick in deployment.

“We were determined to find an affordable, easily deployable solution,” Owusu-Ekuful says. “So we developed the RuralStar Ghana, working in partnership with Huawei and MTN.”

The modular base station solution has let Ghana deploy 200 new sites in the last two years.

“So it really works. This is an example of a public-private partnership in action,” she adds. “We couldn’t have done it on our own.

“Fortunately, MTN recognised that, although network operators don’t invest in rural telephony, there is a business case: the return on investment (ROI) might be longer, but you will get it.

“They may not have a lot of money, but they are willing to invest what little they have in connectivity.

“No-one wants to be left behind.”

The impact that ICT has on people’s lives is immeasurable, Owusu-Ekuful adds. These are found in financial inclusion, e-government services, education, and both business and employment opportunities.

“If we don’t take deliberate steps to create digital inclusion, we run the risk of leaving vulnerable and marginal groups further behind,” she says. “We cannot afford to do this. Digitalisation is no longer an option, it is a vital necessity.

“We must position for the inevitable transition of jobs that digitalisation will cause, and we can do this by optimising our human capital,” Owusu-Ekufal explains.

“Africa, Ghana is open for business.”

Every country wants to eradicate poverty and to place itself on the ICT leaders’ band.

But how can we make it happen, asks Dr Mohamed Madkour, vice-president: wireless networking market and solutions and head of global demand program at Huawei Technologies.

“Africa is a land of opportunities and of young, passionate people,” he says. “But half of the population is not covered by mobile connectivity, although the things that can help ann economy fly are mobility and broadband. These are at the heart of the economic advancement of every country.”

While Africa dreams of universal coverage, there are key gaps that need to be closed if it’s to become reality.

There is a gap between demand and revenue that is driven by affordability, services, literacy, subscriptions, content, experience and value.

Between supply and cost, the gap is caused by spectrum, power, sites, policy, infrastructure, investment and transmission issues.

Madkour points out that Africa is in the advantageous position of being able to leapfrog earlier technologies and move straight to 5G.

“But collaboration is key,” he says. “And we need to transform.”

Carriers need to get out of their comfort zone and look beyond the consumer; vendors need to deliver solution agility, with solutions that can be replicated in an automated and efficient way; investment entities need to have the courage to come to Africa; and governments need to take responsibility for orchestrating the whole environment.

Madkour adds that Huawei’s RuralStar is a rich solution that brings coverage to underserved areas, is quick to implement and boasts a rapid return on investment (ROI).

“It is a simple solution for communities – and that is what is needed in these environments. It lets us get to universal services with universal coverage.

“That will create a better future for us, by helping to eradicate poverty and empower people.”

MTN is the carrier responsible for the RuralStar rollout across Ghana.

The operator has been battling for some time to increase data adoption across its customer base and came up with what it calls its “Chase” strategy.

“We came up with five challenges that need to be overcome,” says Rob Shuter, group president and CEO of MTN.

These challenges are coverage, handsets, affordability, services and education or ease of use.

Shuter explains that 2G voice population coverage is very high in most countries where it operates. “But when we look at data coverage, it’s only 60% for 3G.

“So the first big challenge to face is that the ability to connect often isn’t there.”

An important part of the solution has been in deploying UMTS on 900MHz spectrum, re-using 2G coverage to offer data services.

The bigger problem in Africa, Shuter adds, is handset affordability. The cost of even the least expensive smart devices is well over $35.00, which is prohibitive for most households.

“We all have to work hard to bring down the cost of the handsets,” he says.

One solution should be to ease tariffs and duties, which would help operators get back into the device markets in Africa, Shuter suggests.

The cost to communicate is a big part of affordability, he adds. Data is still not as affordable as voice or SMS, while complex tariff structures just make it worse.

To create pull from customers, operators should look at services bundling to make access more relevant for more people.

Collaboration among all stakeholders is going to be needed to increase user education, which will drive ease of access in its turn, Shuter adds.