Kathy Gibson is at AfricaCom 2019 in Cape Town – Inclusivity is a cornerstone of the digital economy.

John Senior, managing partner of Bain and Company, Africa, points out that the World Economic Forum believes the digital economy has the potential to reduce inequality – but only if everyone is included.

In fact, digital exclusion drives great inequality, so telcos have a responsibility to ensure digital inclusivity, he adds.

An inclusive digital future starts with the belief that everyone deserves the benefits of a modern connected life, says Rob Shuter, group CEO of MTN

“When we look across our markets, of our 244-million customers, about two thirds are living in a 2G/voice world.

“We believe we have a major role to play in driving not just basic connectivity, but that the services we put over the connectivity make an impact on people’s lives.”

Digital inclusion, financial inclusion and more are often a central debate on the national agenda in the countries MTN operates in.

Bain points out that few telcos have succeeded in becoming a full-service partner.

Shuter stresses that MTN doesn’t think about itself as a pure telco anymore.

On one front, it is a telco, offering communications.

“The second big theme is around fintech. We already have about 32-million mobile money customers.

“The third aspect is to be a scale player in some narrowly-defined mobile services.”

He adds that these strategies are responding to a consumer pull in the markets where it operates.

“It is a work in progress. I think we have made a good and deliberate start. Now we need to maintin the momentum.”

Innovation is key to this. “I think the most impactful place for innovation is in the core business itself,” Shuter says.

In terms of platform and partners, he adds that MTN works in a hybrid model where its own people, partners and other third parties all work together in the building of its own services.

“Then there is a platform business.” In this instance, MTN provides some services, but also enables other parties via the platforms.

To drive a digitally inclusive Africa we need to connect everyone – which poses some tough decisions for telcos in Africa.

“The first way to think about it, is what is the coverage for basic voice services? In most markets, this is around 90%.”

The other 10% can be addressed via new technologies and under-serviced funds.

Then data services can be rolled out to where there is voice.

“Then the 4G rollout is looking at the concentration of devices, often in the urban and peri-urban contexts.”

In South Africa, we are in the unusual position of having 90% 4G coverage, but in the rest of Africa it is much less prolific.

The challenge with mobile Internet adoption in Africa is much broader than coverage, Shuter points out.

“We now have much more unconnected people in covered areas. For instance we have data population coverage of two-thirds, but only one third of customers are connected.”

At MTN they talk about the necessary framework as “chase”, which stands for coverage, handsets, affordability, services and education.

“We need to work very deliberately on all these elements.”

The telcos can’t do it on their own, Shuter adds.

For instance, financial inclusion is a vital element: around the same number of people have access to connectivity as to financial services so the two are intertwined.

“From a mobile operator perspective, to increase data traffic, we need more spectrum.

“In South Africa, data traffic is forecast to grow five time but the spectrum bands we have are those that we allocated 20 years ago. We cannot grow the traffic without new highways.”

New mobile services will also be dependent on the regulatory regime, Shuter says, which is different in all the countries MTN operates in.

“The cost of the handset is another issue,” he adds. “South Africa is one of the highest per capita countries on the continent, but the average per capita income in Africa is $100 per month.

“An entry level Android handset is $40. This is a big purchase for our people. And this is why we are struggling with penetration even where we have coverage.”