Rebooting the telecom revolution

Adenuga

 

With Globacom extending the superfast 4G LTE service to all the 36 states of the federation and Federal Capital Territory — thereby becoming the first Nigerian network to do so — I sighed in relief for the telecom industry. I will explain why shortly. In summary, the 4G LTE technology allows broadband internet access at speeds several times faster than 3G. This makes downloading and viewing movies/videos as well as listening to songs much faster. This is music to my ears. The Nigerian telecom industry has always needed to reinvent itself after a prolonged period of complaints from subscribers about the poor quality of service, both in voice and data.

What happened to the telecom revolution that engulfed Nigeria in the 2000s? Did it stall or simply slow down? Since the oil boom of the 1970s, nothing else has changed our economic landscape like the launch of GSM services in 2001. But while the oil boom basically distorted our political and economic structures, turning government offices to centres of monumental sleaze, harming transparency and accountability, creating a sense of entitlement and ruining our economic advancement, telecom has offered real contributions. It has created genuine wealth, produced real jobs, enhanced intellectual potential and impacted positively on virtually every sector of our lives.

Looking back, we truly have much to celebrate — in spite of all the challenges. From less than 400,000 active telephone lines in 2001, we are now counting them in hundreds of millions. As at last count, 162 million. We now watch movies, TV and read news on our mobile devices. We make payments from our phones. The sector has produced authentic millionaires and billionaires and enriched government purse in billions of dollars. In 2001, the sector boasted of just $50 million worth of investments. Today, the figure is in excess of $70 billion. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) puts telecom’s contribution to Nigeria’s GDP at approximately 10 per cent.

My dream, when Nigeria started experiencing telecom boom, was that the sector would offer a pedestal for us to conquer Africa. It is one industry that I thought held enormous, untapped potential with which we could play to our advantage in the global economy. But, let’s face the truth, the revolution appeared to have gone south along the line. The battles with issues of service quality got on the nerves of millions of subscribers. So many times, an invisible lady would tell us “your call cannot be completed” or “the subscriber cannot be reached”. Sometimes the lady would lie, without any sense of shame, that “the number you’re calling is switched off”.

Also worrisome is the mortality rate of mobile companies in Nigeria. Between 2001 and 2011, we could count telcos such as MTN, Airtel, Globacom, 9mobile, Nitel/Mtel, Intercellular, Starcomms, Multilinks and Visafone, among others, operating in the sector. But over time, most of them petered out in one form or the other. The challenges seem to have overwhelmed them, despite the glaring potential that remains untapped — especially with all the new technologies that can be deployed for better consumer experience. The telecom boom turned to doom for many operators. Yet we know that things ought not to have plateaued so soon.

As things stand, Globacom is the only Nigerian-owned company still making significant progress in the sector. I still have fond memories of when billionaire businessman, Dr. Mike Adenuga Jr, entered the Nigerian mobile telephone market with Globacom in 2003. The vision of Globacom was, and still is, to be the biggest and the best telecommunications company in Africa. Interestingly, about 14 years ago I wrote a series of articles with the title, “Made in Nigeria, Enjoyed Worldwide”. Globacom was one of the Nigerian companies I “adopted”. I wanted Glo to conquer Africa — competing with the likes of MTN and Vodacom which were the dominant continental brands at the time.

While I was one of those who celebrated Glo as a proudly Nigerian brand, I am not a blind supporter of “anything Nigerian”. I believe that we must also offer quality. That is the most natural way to take hold of the market. Many Nigerian companies are disadvantaged in terms of access to capital to be able to compete, but challenges are meant to be confronted, tackled and overcome. For long, telecom operators have been under intense pressure to up their game, and they have in turn complained about the prohibitive cost of doing business in Nigeria, worsened by inadequate infrastructural backbone. This impairs the ability to invest heavily in network improvement.

At a point, it became clear to us all that the big players needed to re-invent themselves and revamp the industry with more investment in service quality. They had to change or die. In recent times, I have read a lot about how Glo has upgraded its network and modernised its infrastructure, which I think is good news for the industry — from a Nigerian perspective. How Glo, as the second national operator, plays its role is vital to the overall growth of the industry. Its nationwide roll-out of 4G LTE service is exactly how to up the ante and revive optimism in the industry. Other networks will no doubt raise their game too. The market is deep enough to reward those investing and innovating.

I digress a bit. Dr. Kingsley Moghalu, presidential candidate of the Young Progressives Party (YPP), wrote a soul-searching book, Emerging Africa: How the Global Economy’s ‘Last Frontier’ Can Prosper and Matter, five years ago. My major take-away from it is the need for Africans to consciously define the role they want to play in the global political economy. We Africans tend to rely on outsiders to set the agenda for us and then assess us using their own criteria. So when they say Africa is “growing” and that we are an “emerging market”, we jump for joy, unaware that we are only “emerging” as voracious consumers of their goods and services rather than being producers.

We sign agreements and treaties that hurt rather than help us. We award all kinds of licences without factoring in our own good, to develop our own people and our own economy. Africans sleep, wake up, eat, drink, take decisions and go back to bed without a strategic end in mind. Much of Africa can be described as “NFA” — “No Future Ambition” — owing to a lack of a worldview, or logic, behind what we do and say as a people. We think the world is the way it is by mistake. Moghalu observed that the Asians understand the logic better and this reflects in their interactions with the global political economy. South Korea’s Samsung is dominating the electronics world.

I recently gave a talk on The Role of Media in Economic Nationalism at a CBN Workshop for Finance Correspondents and Business Editors in Lokoja, Kogi state. I pursued a similar argument: Nigerians need to understand that there is a world order and play the game to their own advantage. Our policies must define our desire. Also, our companies must up their game in order to partake in the increasingly competitive global environment. Nothing comes on a platter of gold, apart from oil and its underground relatives. We must have a worldview to drive what we do. The world is not like this by accident. People pull the strings to their own favour and so must we.

Moghalu pointed out in the book that worldview is “the most fundamental aspect of the African development dilemma”. Despite all the talk about Africa being an “emerging market”, Moghalu noted that the continent’s share of world trade was an insignificant 3% (compared to 60% in 1970); our share of Foreign Direct Investment was a mere 5%; the combined GDP of 54 African countries was just about that of India alone; the GDP of the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa inclusive, was similar to that of just Belgium; and all the electricity produced by Sub-Saharan Africa was equal to that of Spain, a country with just 5% of Africa’s population.

I now return to the telecom industry. Africans have more mobile phone lines than Americans — but the devices are produced in Asia and North America. Emerging market without imagination! The challenge for us is how to deepen our involvement in this market. Yes, Globacom has rolled out 4G LTE service across Nigeria and this will enhance economic activities. Good news. But how can we play bigger in the global telecom sector? How can we move to the next level? How can we begin to make or assemble mobile phones in Nigeria? We are still scratching the surface, given our capacity and potential. All the networks need to continue to invest and innovate. It is good for everybody.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

FEMALE GENERALS

On Thursday, I had the rare privilege of anchoring the female achievers’ awards segment at the 17th Annual Conference of Women in Business (WIMBIZ), where pioneer female generals in the Nigerian military were honoured. Major-General Aderonke Kale (rtd), the first two-star general in the army, Rear Admiral Itunu Hotonu (rtd), the first two-star in the navy and Air Commodore Habiba Garba (rtd), the first one-star in the air force, were all celebrated. The women narrated how they defied the odds in our very chauvinistic environment. It was a touching moment for me. A time is coming, and now is, when we shall start giving women their dues in this peculiar society. Salute!

SHOOTING SHI’ITES

As if we do not already have enough bloodshed in the land, soldiers opened fire on protesting members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in Abuja, on Tuesday. The Shi’ites were demanding the release of their leader, Sheikh Ebraheem El ZakZaky, who was arrested three years ago. While IMN members are known for their lawlessness (officially, they do not even recognise the authority of the Federal Republic of Nigeria), nothing justifies the killings. The allegation that they wanted to seize weapons from the soldiers is weighty but how true? We urgently need a lasting solution to the IMN menace before another Boko Haram war starts. Wisdom.

BUHARI’S CERTIFICATE

Watching President Muhammadu Buhari’s opponents take maximum political advantage of his WEAC certificate issue, as well as the attempts of his supporters to defend him, I am easily reminded of the troubles of President Goodluck Jonathan before the 2015 elections. His opponents used every trick in the book against him, including pointing out grammatical slips, to full political advantage. That is the way life goes. I honestly cannot wait for the 2019 elections to be over so that we can get to focus on Nigeria’s problems and challenges again. Crude oil price is falling and our reserves are under threat, meaning harder times ahead if we don’t act now. Priorities.

AND FINALLY…

US President Donald Trump, still playing his political card that feeds on xenophobia, made a startling claim during the week by threatening to sign an executive order to stop children born to immigrants from automatically becoming American citizens. It is a constitutional matter which he cannot decree out of existence, but he knew what he was doing. With midterm elections just days away, he was merely touching base. And to think that his father’s ancestors originated from Germany and his mother’s from Scotland! All of his grandparents and his mother were born in Europe. His paternal grandfather, Frederick Trump, immigrated to the US at the age of 16 in 1885. Irony.

*Written By Simon Kolawole

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