East Africa Com Tracks Region’s Slow But Steady Tech Growth

Written by Tom Jackson
East Africa Com
East Africa Com serves to bring together stakeholders within the East African tech scene. Photo – Twitter

Every year, stakeholders in the East African tech scene converge on Nairobi for East Africa Com, the region’s flagship tech conference, to discuss progress and roadblocks in the region’s tech revolution.

The story of this year’s event was one of quiet progress, with discussion over the obstacles that remain when it comes to establishing cities like Nairobi, Kampala and Dar es Salaam as African tech hubs, and ensuring that technological development benefits all parts of society.

While the likes of Kenyan tech pioneer Dr Bitange Ndemo and ICT secretary Katherine Getao kicked off the event by hailing the extent of tech transformation in the region, others were more cautious when it came to the state of play.

Oren Tepper, vice president for sales in Africa at satellite operator Spacecom, said the provision of affordable connectivity was being hindered by the fact that satellite firms and mobile operators had yet to find affordable ways of working together.

“There is a conception that satellite connectivity is expensive. The challenge is to bring the cost per bit to as cheap as possible,” he said.

“There are a lot of upfront costs. So we need to find innovative business models to enable us to bootstrap projects and reduce costs.”

An operator shopping list

The mobile operators themselves are also looking for better working relationships, but with government. A panel on the regulatory environment for operators in Kenya convened representatives from the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) and the country’s three telecoms companies.

It agreed good progress had been made, but regulators can still do more when it comes to assisting development.

Paul Kukubo, board director at the government regulator, said Kenya had one of Africa’s most vibrant telecoms markets, while the recently-introduced policy of mobile money interoperability was an example of forward progression in the sector. The regulator, he said, had to continue to look forward.

“There are so many emerging issues – AI, data, what a network looks like in 2018, or 2025.  How do we create a regulatory environment? Our mindset now is a bit more futuristic. We don’t want to regulate for yesterday, the world moves on,” he said.

Kenyan operators want the world to move on in a certain way, and came to the event with a shopping list for government. Alice Kariuki, group regulatory director at Airtel Africa, said there were issues around how infrastructure is accessed by operators, and called for a stable tax environment.

“They don’t always have a consistent policy. When they face financial pressures they will target the telecoms space,” she said.

Karuki also said the region as a whole was lagging behind when it came to laws for data protection.

“We appear to want to have a European model before we have something to protect us. We need to have legislation that grows with the challenges as opposed to waiting for the perfect model,” she said.

Stella Wawira, head of public policy at Telkom Kenya, said the cost of spectrum was too high, and urged the CA to come up with a policy that encourages investment, a view echoed by Mercy Ndegwa, head of regulatory and public policy at Safaricom.

“We want an environment that allows for competitive investment. We want a framework that allows for consumer interest to thrive,” she said.

A bright future

Hindrances aside, the conference discussed a number of exciting developments, in spaces as diverse as internet of things and blockchain, that could contribute to the development of the region.  Startups also had their chance to impress, with nine innovative solutions from the region pitching their wares to an audience of investors, telecoms operatives and other stakeholders at the inaugural Disrupt Africa Live Pitch Competition on day two.

The startup-related section of the event also saw representatives from the corporate and startup worlds agree that, though progress had been made, more needed to be done in terms of facilitating partnerships between corporates like mobile operators and banks, and smaller, more innovative startups.

Uber also had its chance to share its vision of a brighter future, with the company’s East Africa general manager Loïc Amado introducing Uber Movement, its data-driven service aimed at facilitating smarter cities. He also said the company’s carpooling service will help get cars off the road in Africa.

However, he believes that the self-driving cars Uber is trialling will truly make an impact.

“This is going to be a gamechanger. It is still very early days, but shared self-driving cars would reduce the number of cars on the road by 90 percent,” he said. “We can turn a ride into a shared ride and start reclaiming our cities today.”

Financial inclusion

Fintech is another space that is developing quickly, with Anuj Tanna, director of mobile financial services at Telkom Kenya, saying the industry was “in a good place right now”.

“We are at a very mature stage compared to other markets in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

“We are seeing expansion above and beyond simple basic services like money transfers and payments, where we are leveraging platforms and ecosystems to drive further financial inclusion within the market. It has given a chance to developers and startups that are trying to solve problems.”

Tanna said different players should understand exactly what their individual roles were, and that the sector needed do more to tackle closed ecosystems.

“We are layering products, and that is natural. When you have the rails in place you want the products to bring different services to customers as well as additional revenue streams,” he said.

“The real thing that’s dawning on everyone is that there’s been a lot of progress but most transactions are still cash-based. There’s still so many hurdles when it comes to providing these products. A tech solution is not always a solution that is going to translate into customer behaviour.”

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.