The Digitization of Africa: The Mission of Mr. Mzimba

digitalization in Africa

At the exact point where the northward urban sprawl of Johannesburg meets the southernly expansion of Tshwane (formerly Pretoria) sits the nerve center of Vodacom, the only Vodafone company in the world with a different name. Vodacom Park. Far from being an actual park, the HQ of South Africa’s biggest network operator is a bustling telecoms ecosystem where thousands come and go every day. Sitting alongside the country’s busiest highway, which often competes with Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road for traffic volume (and speed!), a visitor could take all this in and wonder, where is Africa? It seems far away, indeed. Inside Telecom sat with Africa’s Vodacom Business Group Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Mr. William Mzimba, to discuss the operator’s vision on how the continent can open doors for a rapid economic growth, and innovation to accelerate the digitalization of Africa.

But for William Mzimba, CEO of Vodacom Business, Africa is always very close. To his heart.

When we met, I imagined the interview about Africa’s digitization would follow a well-traveled route. Challenges, and opportunities, with a finale about the legacy he wants to leave behind. That sort of thing. And actually, the interview did proceed as described. But when William eventually talked about legacy, I realized that this story would be a lot more compelling if this was at the beginning, not the end.

I’m not even sure he was conscious of it himself, but Mr. Mzimba’s voice and energy took on a dimension of power that almost shocked me but did not surprise me, when he talked of legacy. The power was born of that uniquely African characteristic that laughs at the notion that business and sentiment don’t mix. The raw emotion that poured from him was tempered only by the eloquence and deep knowledge of the subject at hand.

“Inclusion,” he began, the word erupting out of his mouth, an alert that what was to come would be forceful and unequivocal. I wasn’t wrong.

“My legacy will be about how I orchestrated educational, digital, and financial inclusion and how I managed the process to provide the most needed human right on the continent. I call it a right because, to many, it’s only ever been an out-of-reach privilege.”

So, first up is education inclusion. The second is digital inclusion, and the third is financial inclusion.

“I believe that at the nexus of these three, we will be able to solve most of the challenges we have on the continent. I want to play my small part with the platforms I have to bring about education, digital and financial inclusion. With Vodacom’s reach and the wholehearted commitment of my team, we are aiming for access and inclusion to the wonders and riches of a connected world. As far as education is concerned, we are collaborating with Governmental education departments about connecting schools that geography and economics have thus far denied bringing data costs down and, in some instances, zero rating the content consumed by the kids.

The digital aspect of inclusion centers around an interrogation of how I can use my knowledge of available technologies to help people find new careers or jobs or grow their own enterprises. We have a particular focus on small businesses, where we can help SMEs work more efficiently in the digital world, with lots of advisory channels, selling relevant services while, at the same time, advocating digital education. We know how technology can be leveraged to help their businesses or their jobs, and we pass that on. From a community perspective, this is akin to empowering people to be competitive locally and globally and perhaps less parochial than their historical circumstances have forced upon them. There are millions of people in Africa that the financial sector has termed ‘the unbankable,'” Mr. Mzimba highlighted.

It’s not true and more of a reflection of banking’s inability to create an ecosystem to enable inclusion. Okay, so we’ll pick that mission up and work to get rid of the unfair and demeaning moniker through access and infrastructure. There’s too much potential out there, too much entrepreneurship waiting to blossom.”

It’s hard to quantify the herculean task needed to accomplish inclusion in

its three variants if you have lived your life in a developed country. But I

have lived in South Africa from a very young age, and when I hear of William’s determination and absolute certainty of a positive outcome, I get it. Living in an environment where there is a vast gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ One’s heart cannot fail to sing when hearing a plan of this nature. What struck me most was that I found myself nodding at every point he made because, having lived in Africa, I could see it all unfolding just as he said, even though his earlier conversation was focused on challenges.

We started the conversation with William stating that Africa was the ‘last frontier’ for developed economies to colonize. This makes it an extremely enticing proposition, especially with a vibrant consumer just itching to be as connected as possible. “You can see it already,” William explains, “with

the entry of so many OTT players entering the various African markets.”

The amount of data being generated is staggering, measurable in zettabytes. One zettabyte equals one billion terabytes, just in case you’d forgotten.

“The Far East, the West, even our fellow South African Elon Musk have their eyes firmly on the opportunities in Africa, and why shouldn’t they?

The population of Sub-Saharan Africa is young, a new generation like everywhere in the world that has grown up in a digital world, and there is plenty of evidence of a Genesis in terms of Africans now contributing to the advancement of tech. Innovation seems to be in their bloodstream, and we’re seeing small companies like Andela in Nigeria, whose engineers are building software for the most prominent OTT players. We’re witnessing a continent on the rise, and the ground is fertile for Africa to stand in economic partnership with the rest of the world. For Vodacom,

we see the potential being realized, and we are doing a lot to move it along in terms of education and appropriate services. We’re not punching above our weight on the global stage yet, but we will be,” the CEO elaborated.

The conversation moved from spikes of progress to main tech drivers that will contribute to economic growth. I was expecting a chat about AI, cybersecurity, the cloud, quantum computing, etc. But that wasn’t where William was going at all.

“I want to simplify this part of the conversation. I want to talk about connectivity. We have to get people connected. We have to get things connected, value chains connected, and get processes connected. Once we have all of this connected, we can generate enormous amounts of data as everything communicates with everything else. That is the process of digitizing things that would not formerly have been able to operate in the digital era. Therefore, it follows that the need for connectivity is the single biggest challenge in Africa. But once data generation reaches a certain point, we have the creation of the cloud. So cloud becomes a super critical part of Africa’s digital progress.

“Have you noticed how many data centers are opening in Africa at the moment?” William asks me. “Actually, I do,” I respond. “Inside Telecom has been tracking them,” I continue, slightly proud to contribute. William is on a roll now. “Vantage, NTT, Vodacom, Liquid, are opening centers to match the capacity offered by the undersea cables landing in Africa,”

Push all this data into the cloud, and you not only have an infinite amount of computing power, but you also have security, too. Creating access to this data allows us to create various relevant consumer and enterprise

offerings such as ‘pay as you go’, a service that suits SMEs particularly well. This process is very critical because what it does is answer the connectivity issue, and the data storage capability. And therefore, allow us to conduct analytics to uncover business opportunities. Whether you’re in retail and need to understand consumer behavior better, or in banking for its own analytical services, or in manufacturing, you need to optimize a value chain. We have yet to find the limits of how this process can assist commercial enterprises.

“Think of it this way. We need a connected Africa in order to create an intelligent Africa. We need an intelligent Africa in order to create a competitive Africa. This is how we accrue data and insights to take our place on the global stage. This is how we become producers, not just consumers.” I feel I’ve learned more about African enterprise in ten minutes than I’ve accumulated in my whole working life. I ask Vodacom’s Business Supremo about impediments to the process he’s just explained.

The main issue is, apparently, ‘the last mile,’ an industry term I’d only heard before in the logistics business. “Undersea cables promising huge capacity arrive on the continent at landing zones. Getting that capacity inland is a challenge. Not surprising so we find ourselves in ‘barter’ agreements with the cabling companies to help us,” William explained. “But that’s not all. We have problems with vandalism, too. Because the need far outstrips the supply. So this creates cost issues in repair or replacement. But a major problem is electricity. No electricity, no connectivity.

“For example, for a decade and a half in South Africa, the country has suffered from a diminished electricity supply. So the electricity utility initiated something called national load shedding, which in essence, is a rolling blackout. Often, parts of the country are without electricity for 8-10 hours a day. We’ve had to build new networks in order to provide connectivity continuity. The drain on our CAPEX has been significant.”

At this point, I prompt William to talk about his legacy, the subject of the first part of this article. We’ve talked about problems, some seemingly insurmountable. We’ve discussed opportunities, with William surprising me with anecdotes about Nigerian software builders. But now, personal

commitment has become the active ingredient of the conversation. And I realize I’m looking at a leader who demands to be judged by his actions, not his words. And like the glittering mineral beneath his feet that prompted the city of Johannesburg to exist at all, William Mzimba had just spent the last hour demonstrating why he is worth his weight in gold to a continent whose time has come.    

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