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Connecting Africa to the world and the world to Africa

The opening keynotes of the 14th Africa Com conference reinforced the sense that the industry gathering in 2011 is somewhat different to those of previous years. The introductory analyst comments and insights from some of the region’s biggest carriers highlighted a maturity in the marketplace that has put Africa on the map for internet giants like Facebook and Google, which have representatives at the event for the first time.

Customer loyalty and retention are clearly becoming more important factors for the operators to bear in mind, while the fact that a healthy handset portfolio now ranks very highly as an asset, supporting the trend that significant growth in messaging and data shows mobile devices are not just for voice.

Johan Dennelind, CEO of South African carrier Vodacom, said during his keynote that “internet growth in the African markets is tremendous,” and said that he anticipates four fifths of all internet traffic in the region will be carried through mobile networks. Social networking giant Facebook was flagged as one of the main drivers of this growth, which dovetailed nicely with Vodacom’s strong focus on community engagement.

Marc Rennard, Orange Group’s EVP for Africa, Middle East and Asia, also cited a need to focus on the improvement of Value Added Services (VAS) as customers become more demanding and more educated about the services they are buying.

Rennard said that there are 36 million Facebook users in Africa, with the social network reporting 50 per cent growth over the last six months. And as the social network experiences strong growth in the region, more opportunities will arise as the population in Africa is expected to double to two billion by 2050.

Yet competitive pressures are forcing the operators to develop their offerings: “There are a total of 19 new competitors since 2006 in the countries where Orange is present,” said Rennard. “The markets are becoming too overcrowded, so quality is becoming a main differentiator and is beginning to match that of European standards.

Serame Taukobong, chief marketing officer for MTN South Africa, added that that the main issues to address were more about the use of ICT versus not using ICT, rather than a lack of actual internet access. “The demand for stimulation no longer just rests with the operators,” Taukobong said, “it is now a concern for all parties involved.”

Taukobong said the critical issues to be addressed all talk to partnerships with governments and the private sector as a way to bridge the digital divide. The conversation this time around is less about connecting Africa, and more about connecting Africa to the world.

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