Kathy Gibson reports from Gitex Africa 2024 Morocco – As the digital agenda takes off, countries across Africa are racing to provide the basic infrastructure needed to make it a reality. But years of state-owned telco monopolies and a shortage of funding mean governments are looking to the private sector for solutions – and Chinese vendors are the ones stepping up.

Speaking on a panel discussion at Gitex Africa 2024, Ibrahim Sannoh, deputy-minister: communication, technology and innovation in Sierra Leone, explains that his country has connected 14 out of 16 districts to fibre, thanks to a loan from Huawei.

Sierra Leone is making progress in creating a digital economy. So far around 40% to 50% of its citizens are connected, either via mobile or fibre. Government departments are connected, and the state has begun rolling out a national identity number that will be the first step towards a digital identity.

But government on its own cannot pay for all of this, Sannoh says. “We are looking to the private sector to innovate in every aspect on the entire African continent.”

Sannoh urges vendors to come to their aid – but they have to make the approach, and make it easy to do business with them.

“If you don’t move to government, it will be difficult for government to move to you. The Chinese vendors know this: they come to us, they do the design, they do the costing, and they facilitate the funding.

“We don’t need just connectivity: there are many other things like e-government or accessing digital services. As long as you are credible and know what you are doing, come to us. But you have to be ambitious and aggressive like the Chinese companies.”

Alfred Nortey, director for the finance and administration directorate in Ghana’s Ministry of communication and digitisation, agrees that private sector companies need to make the approach to government.

“When we fund connectivity, the private sector also benefits from it,” he points out.

Solutions must still be cost-effective, though. “Huawei has come up with a viable rural solution that is cheaper than others,” Nortey points out.

Together with Sierra Leone, Ghana and Ethiopia are among the African countries on track to get their citizens connected.

Ghana has a digital agenda, and is currently connecting rural areas to the Internet through a programme that seeks to implement 2 016 cell sites that telcos can tap into.

Dr Belete Molla, minister of technology in Ethiopia, says his country has revised policies to keep pace with technology advances, and has laid out a five-year digital strategy.

A key factor that will enable these plans is increased competition.

Sannoh explains that an earlier World Bank loan had seen Sierra Leone connect to a submarine cable, but connectivity costs were very high.

“Now we are trying to unbundle to let the private sector take over the connectivity. This has driven expansion: there are now three mobile telcos connected to the subsea cable, and we have seen the costs come down.”

Ethiopia has also liberalised its telecoms industry.

“For the last 130 years the telecoms industry was run absolutely by Ethiopia Telecom,” Dr Molla explains.

The telco has managed to connect 70-million citizens through either fibre or mobile – a massive number, but one that still leaves almost half of the populous country unconnected.

“We invited Safaricom as a second operator three years ago and it now reaches an additional 10-million people, of which 5-million are using data.”

With a population of 120-million, that means there is still a long way to go to achieve a digital economy. “It’s a challenge we are conscious of,” Dr Molla says. “Government cannot achieve these goals without partnerships.”

What government can do is to mobilise resources and ensure the right policies are in place, he says, but the private sector is going to be key to reaching especially rural and remote areas.

Ethiopia will soon go out to tender for a third telco licence.

All of the panellists agree that digitalisation is vital as they seek to liberate the creativity and economic potential of their young populations.

“Skills and talent are everywhere, but often in the rural areas it is being wasted or not used to its potential,” says Dr Molla. “It needs to be nurtured and developed so we can channel it to economic development.”

Connectivity is the key, and a fundamental enabler for economic growth, he adds.

Sannoh believes the value of connectivity is human: and, as it impacts the minds of young people, it will improve the GDP.

Sierra Leone has set up a special economic zone close to a technology-centric university, where technology startups can be nurtured and helped to grow. Private sector companies are encouraged to invest in the economic zone, and are being wooed with preferential tax breaks.

Ghana is implementing a similar concept, says Nortey. A facility in Accra that gives young innovators space is being replicated in other areas of the country.