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Last week MEF and its African membership arrived in Cape Town for the 20th conference. Here, MEF CEO Rimma Perelmuter, reflects on a week of uniquely African energy and optimism.

On the Cape Town waterfront is the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. This spectacular building – a converted grain silo overlooking the Atlantic – has been open just a few weeks. Inside, the gallery offers a showcase of the very best of contemporary African art. The project is a clear testament to the growing confidence of the African continent and its uniquely diverse and powerful voices.

And just a few hundred yards away, at the CITC centre, so is This gathering of Africa’s burgeoning telecoms and tech community is now in its 20th year.

Last week’s edition  was kicked off in style by our fifth annual MEF Connects Africa party supported by Basebone, Content Connect Africa, Boomplay Music and BBM. MEF Connects was actually part of a bigger Africa Mobile Party, whose attendees included members of the MEF, our African member contingent, representatives of the Mobile Mondays community and nominees for the 2017 AppsAfrica Innovation Awards.

What we discovered during our week in Cape Town was the sense that mobile will the key to what has been described as Africa’s ‘fourth industrial revolution’. And it’s evident that the precise form of this revolution will be uniquely African.

This was something that Herman Singh, MTN’s group chief digital officer, put into words. “180 million of MTN’s 250 million customers have internet access,” he said. “But 75 per cent of them have feature phones, so most are not using apps, they’re using the browser.

“That’s why the most popular music channel on our network, after ringback tones, is streaming music on a mobi site. Spotify is not building that. Deezer is not building that. So you have to build something the rest of the world doesn’t need… the solutions has to be African.”

  The combination of a transition to smartphone ownership, faster connectivity and cheaper bandwidth will make mobile-first Africa a cauldron on innovation in the years to come. With that will come huge opportunities.”

Singh had a receptive audience for his message. Why? Because he was making his point as the guest speaker introducing the AppsAfrica awards ceremony.

These awards showcased the diversity and richness of innovation across the continent. And they also revealed the growing scale of Africa’s app development community, with 320 entrants from 31 countries.

The winners demonstrated plenty of creativity in solving problems that are uniquely African. A fine example is Jumo, which won the Changing Africa prize supported by MEF.

Jumo teams up with mobile operators to gather data about unbanked people to give them a credit worthiness score.

By looking at what a person does with their phone, Jumo can make assumptions about his or her financial status, and then deduce what type of products he or she needs. The company then helps these individuals to apply for loans from conventional banks, and have the cash sent straight to their phones.

Jumo was a worthy winner. And I was delighted to see them scoop the prize and offer them an annual MEF membership.

Products like Jumo address the technical limits that Singh addressed in his introduction. But this doesn’t mean that Africa is not building a more advanced telecoms infrastructure.

Indeed, during the conference, Ericsson (judiciously) revealed its newest data on the African market as part of its annual Ericsson Mobility Report.

It forecast total mobile subscriptions in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region will go from 1.59 billion in 2017 to 2.03 billion by 2023. Meanwhile it said mobile broadband subscriptions will hit 1.85 billion. LTE subscriptions are expected to grow by 29 percent from 190 million to 860 million by 2023.

The combination of a transition to smartphone ownership, faster connectivity and cheaper bandwidth will make mobile-first Africa a cauldron on innovation in the years to come. With that will come huge opportunities.

It’s been mentioned many times that Africa has no Amazon, while Uber is isolated to a handful of areas. Clearly, that’s a vacuum to fill. Inevitably, someone is going to build Africa’s digital commerce and ride sharing unicorns.

So it’s no surprise to see so much investor money pouring into the continent. Indeed, just over the road from another event was taking place. This was AfricArena, which convened over 100 private equity investors to hear startup pitches. Then there was the World Bank’s XL Africa accelerator, also in Cape Town. That gave 20 startups the chance to secure up to $1.5-million. There are dozens more similar programs in progress.

When the Zeitz Museum opened, Mark Coetzee, its executive director and chief curator, said he hoped to provide a “platform for Africans to tell their own story and participate in the telling of that story”. It’s an admirable aim. But away from art, and in the realms of mobile, one gets the sense that the African story has already begun.

Rimma Perelmuter