The 13th annual AfricaCom convention took place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) on Wednesday, November 10 and Thursday, November 11. From the perspective of the organizers, it was a rounding success as the largest mobile convention on the African continent had its best year yet in terms of exhibitors, attendees, and countries represented. Over 4,500 visitors gathered at AfricaCom representing 1338 companies from around the world.
The main buzz over the course of the two days centered on expanding the reach of mobile applications to the rural areas around the continent while at the same time celebrating the fact that mobile technology has just crossed the 500 million subscription mark in Africa.
The greatest challenge in the business models discussed by many of the operators here is not the technology or the ability to build the infrastructure to provide the next generation mobile technology. Instead, the primary obstacle is building a realistic revenue model to show that mobile technology companies can be profitable. It is no surprise that poverty, or more specifically extreme poverty, is rampant throughout Africa. In fact, about half the people live on less than $1 per day. Out of a total population of just over 1 billion people, it would seem pragmatic to believe that the upper threshold of mobile technology saturation has been achieved when they surpassed the 500 million subscription milestone — at least for the foreseeable future. Although that may be the case, the real goal here is to not necessarily get a mobile phone into every hand, but rather to use that technology to see what can be done to improve the lives of its people. In that sense, Africa has been on the forefront of innovative business opportunities. For example, mobile payments has taken off better in Africa than anywhere else in the world. Why? Because when half of society doesn’t have access to banks and credit cards, but someone within your circle has a mobile phone, then using that technology to conduct business and commerce makes logistical sense. As a second example, farmers use mobile phones to get updates on the agricultural market. This allows them to set prices based on the latest information instead of charging too much or too little.
Being my first telecom convention anywhere in Africa, I was actually pretty impressed by the conference and the quality and quantity of the exhibitors and presenters. Not only were there representatives from around Africa, but there were quite a few from Europe, Asia, and North America. Companies like Qualcomm, a href=”http://www.motorola.com/” target=”_blank”>Motorola, HP, Ericsson, and a myriad of others had set up booths in the convention center to not only market themselves, but to tell the story of what they were doing to service the African market.
Industry awards were given out to a number of exhibitors. One of the awards that caught my eye was the “New Entrant of the Year” award given to Dark Fibre Africa for expanding their open access fiber infrastructure by adding an additional 1100 km (687.5 miles) of lines around South Africa to increase the amount of data, voice, and video communication around the country. They plan to double that amount over the next twelve months. Not surprisingly, the large South African based multinational mobile technology company, MTN, took home three awards including Best Network Improvement, Best Marketing Campaign, and the Changing Lives awards.
The second day of the convention was also well attended, but the crowds seemed noticeably lighter. The breakout sessions in the main exhibitor hall were the same as they were the day before and so I did not really see a need to sit through the same information again. Many of presentations were introductory topics, such as what 3G and LTE is. For an entire continent that is just starting to see the benefits and promises of this new technology, providing education on the fundamentals makes sense. I was glad many of the presenters took the time to provide solid background information on these technologies.
I look forward to getting continuing correspondence from the folks over at AfricaCom. Hopefully, I’ll get another chance to return to this convention in the future and see what the level of progress is being made throughout the African continent.