By Lauren Hermanus and Georgina Combes (28 June 2011)
A problem of perception
Africa is a diverse continent with lots of different stories. But unfortunately what happens far too often – in both well-meaning and not so well-meaning ways – is that Africa’s problems are lumped together in one undifferentiated picture. This picture is regularly a cliché for which the description, prognosis and solution is as un-African as a white Christmas.
Sustainability in Africa is not about being green. We know because we work with companies who are grappling with sustainability issues here. Rather, it is about addressing all the challenges impacting on human lives, social structures, and economic disparity within ecological limitations. So green is part of the picture, but that picture is complex. Many companies, including mobile operators have, in the past few years, found interesting and innovative ways of responding to challenges on the African continent.
One such client is Vodacom, who have recently aligned their brand with parent company Vodafone. Their strategy involves exploring innovative solutions to sustainability in Africa with some great successes. We are writing this blog as we want to share some of these examples. It is, in part, in response to Solitaire Townsend’s ‘Vodafone powers Africa’ letter to the CEO of Vodafone calling on Vittorio Colao to imagine a future where Vodafone has become the first energy and communications technology company – particularly to contribute to bettering Africa. We also write to challenge perceptions of Africa that suggest that companies here are miles behind the rest of the world.
African solutions for Africa
So which sustainability actions should mobile operators in Africa take? And what are they already doing? We think first on the to-do list should be extensive research, ensuring good relations with government and creative engagement with communities. Through these engagements a company can then define an appropriate, contextually-informed and pragmatic vision for the continent. Step 2 involves narrowing that context to determine how to maximise the net positive value added by the industry, and to determine the leverage points and opportunities to take socio-economic and environmental solutions to scale.
In most African countries, it is the developmental springboard offered by mobile connectivity that is the real value contributed by the mobile telecommunications sector. And while greening must certainly be part of this agenda, there are other industries for which this is closer to their core business. There has recently been a major push to extend broadband access in emerging markets. This includes substantial investments in submarine and terrestrial cables and innovative products like Vodafone’s Webbox, specifically designed to make the internet accessible to emerging markets.
The most exciting opportunities lie in serving customers and communities at the base of the pyramid. In South Africa, one of the economic powerhouses of the continent, 75% of the population earn less than R1800 (approximately £163) a month. Developing market-appropriate solutions are good for business and society. Vodacom’s mobile banking success in Tanzania is an example of understanding and serving the base of the pyramid. And the inspirational social innovation driven by Grameenphone in Bangladesh holds interesting lessons for Africa. Vodafone has also already been exploring smart solutions for agriculture, food security and mobile health.
Many mobile operators are already looking into energy provision to communities in partnership with the GSMA. It’s called community power and works best in areas that are not supplied with electricity from a national grid. The Ericsson Community Power solution has received global recognition and won a GSMA Global Mobile Award for best use of mobile for Social and Economic Development and this solution has been implemented by MTN in Liberia. Innovations like this are driven by Africa’s unique constraints, such as limited power grids in many regions of operation, and global trends such as rising electricity costs.
Communicating the real stories
We agree that it’s good for companies to have positive and progressive visions for sustainability, but we also believe this vision needs to come from Africa and be based on a deep understanding of the issues. This does not mean that the continent needs to be cut off from outside information, help or technology. Rather, we think a sustainable future will depend on engagement and partnerships, old and new. As mobile operators are increasingly driven to recognise and respond to lower income markets and the challenges they face, they have the opportunity to use the wealth of knowledge and experience held by communities, NGOs and local government to develop creative and mutually beneficial partnerships.
There is undoubtedly the willingness and ability to build a sustainable future in Africa, and mobile operators are engaged in lots of innovative solutions. But perhaps a large part of the challenge is also in communicating the real stories and ensuring they are heard at home and abroad.