July 15, 2024

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Insights from Ericsson’s Middle East and Africa President on the continent’s Tech Revolution! What is missing to take up 5 G across the Continent?

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Africa has long been viewed as a continent with an untapped potential for technological innovation. But in recent years, that perception has been changing rapidly. From mobile money to e-commerce, Africa has been at the forefront of tech revolutionizing the way people live, work, and do business. And who better to shed light on this transformation than Fadi Pharaon, Ericsson’s Middle Eastern and African President? In a recent interview during his visit to Rwanda, Fadi shared his insights on Africa’s tech revolution and what it means for the continent’s future. So if you’re curious about the latest developments in African tech, keep reading!

By DUSABEMUNGU Ange de la Victoire

In what ways does Ericcson contribute to capacity building and skills development in the Africa tech sector and how does this help drive technological innovation and economic growth on the continent? 

We at Ericsson believe a lot in the power of innovation and the power of mobile communications and mobile internet as a means to improve the economic growth, as a means to address productivity and cost measures for industry and as a means to give equal opportunities for everyone in the society.

And as we have seen for the past decades as mobile technology has advanced, we have done research that shows a 10% increase in mobile broadband usually leads to an economic growth between 0.6% up to 2.8%.

In Africa there has been really spectacular development. We have seen that mobile broadband coverage has doubled in the past five years. And of course Rwanda is one of those countries where we see a huge amount of traffic, both voice and data increasing at all times.

From Ericsson’s perspective we are very active in Africa. In fact we have been here in some markets for over 100 years ago. And today we contribute to the capability and skill set build up through different dimensions. One of course is our own team. We have an office here in Rwanda. We serve two customers. We always ensure that we build the skill set in the office and in fact some of the talent in the Ericsson Rwanda office is supporting us with tasks outside Rwanda for neighboring countries.

We invest in the graduate program where we typically bring people fresh out from the university to come and join us and they get support from our team to develop and to get to work with different parts of the organization before they choose where they want to focus on.

We also collaborate obviously with our customers directly. We collaborate with the regulator bodies.

So to give you two examples that we’ve done for Africa but including Rwanda, one is the collaboration late last year with the Smart African Digital Academy, the SADA, where we organized a multitude of courses in order to introduce policy makers across 19 countries to all new technology concepts such as 4G, 5G, artificial intelligence and telecommunications, machine learning and other type of technology advancements so that they are better equipped to make the required policy directives.

We also have a memorandum of understanding which we signed with the African Telecom Union, the ATU, where we have together published a set of recommendations so that regulators across the African countries are able to see what are the best practices when it comes to, for instance, spectrum strategies and spectrum allocations to allow for the absolute best performing networks across the countries that they cover and how that can develop economic growth.

We also are partnering with UNICEF through their Giga initiative. The Giga initiative is a very ambitious one. Basically it wants to connect all schools in the world to the Internet to ensure that the students have access to a digital curriculum that already from an early age they are exposed to digital applications and ways of working so that they grow up and find good career possibilities.

Ericsson’s part of this partnership is that we support them in mapping all of the schools around the world and to demonstrate where they are, how many connections they have and what is a good performance or not.

We also collaborate with our own customers directly with a program that we call “Connect to Learn” where we focus on certain schools and we support them again to get mobile connectivity and digital tools so that the students can benefit from that.

So that is a panoply of all types of contribution that we make in order to advance telecommunications in the country.

The Giga initiativestarted a few years ago, Can you just give us a brief on the Giga initiative. What have you done in collaboration with UNICEF and what’s the next step? Because it had a plan to connect about 2 million schoolsWorldwide, but also in the Rwanda context. How many schools have been connected? What has been done in the last three years?

There are multiple phases for the Giga project and since it is global, it will require time because it’s quite a huge undertaking. From Ericsson’s perspective, we have contributed to our own cost the first phase, which is a portal which you can visit today and you can actually see on the map and you can zoom into Rwanda. It will give you the dots which basically represent all the schools, if they are connected and if yes, to what type of connectivity and how good it is and so forth. This is important for the UNICEF Giga project because they will understand what are the gaps.

Then comes the next phases whereby they need to seek as well, what do you call it, different types of sponsorship and financing in order to enable these connections to happen. As well, they need to collaborate with other private companies to enable purchase of digital equipment like iPads and others that the students can do. They need to also educate the teachers. How do you actually build and follow up on a digital curriculum? So that’s why it is a multi-year engagement, but the outcome will be of course very good.

We announced after a year of establishing the Giga initiative, one million schools mapped already and with the support of Ericsson. Rwanda was part of the 35 countries that the Giga initiative covered. I think in the portal in the map you can see how many schools are in Rwanda. It’s easy to see.

And what’s the next step in the implementation of the Giga project?

The entire project, the main aim of the project is to connect schools and to ensure that those schools that we are mapping are being connected. So the next step is to look into after the mapping phase is to ensure that in those countries we partner with customers, we partner with ministries of education, we partner with operators in order to ensure that those schools who do not have access to connectivity have connectivity.

And then of course there will be a phase of education for teachers, training, and upskilling. And then of course throughout the different phases of the project we might face some challenges of, for example, equipment for the students. iPads, iPhones, electricity. So this is our discussion with Giga and UNICEF. Every step of the project has its own challenges and it’s being handled and addressed as a solid project.

We are looking for sustainable development. You know, we are not the ones running the Giga. It’s UNICEF who’s running it. We are one of their partners, specifically on the phase one that I mentioned. But this is purely committed by the CEO of our company, actually. We see it as incredibly important because education is honestly the basis for any economy to thrive. And we see that.

Look what Rwanda has done already, right? It’s really a country with exemplary focus on education in the past decades and we can see that translated today in the economic prosperity of the country. So that’s why we believe in it all over the world. This is something that’s very close to our heart. And we believe in the vision that everybody should have the same right to get to mobile connectivity.

UNICEF is driving. We are one of their partners. And we always have, of course, as part of our role under this umbrella of partnership, we follow up, we put our requirements, we put our views. But this is a project driven and led by UNICEF, by Giga.

We can add a lot of value because we already certain tools that use advanced software to be able to do that. This is what they need from us. Then there are other multiple parties where they need to collaborate with policy makers, with operators in the countries, with financing and so forth. So we are one of their partners in a holistic approach.

Was that partnershipa success?

 If we look at our phase, yes, we are happy and UNICEF is happy with the development. But for us, success is not about having a map. The success is, of course, to see year over year the actual connectivity of these schools increasing. That’s what we want to see. We want to see the students being able to have the right equipment and being able to learn online. That is the success of the project.  

If you look at my country in Africa, which countries are actually implementing this project?

It’s Benin, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Those are the ones that have done good jobs. They are part of the program. Part of the program of the 35 countries.

What are your plans on 5G connectivity? 

So we have seen 5G being launched in different countries around the world since 2019 and the real probably or the biggest I’d say difference from 5G to 4G is the possibility now to really address industries and enterprises. Why is that? Because it’s not only about multiple improvements in the network throughput compared to 4G. It’s about what we call much lower latency. So basically the time it takes for packets to reach each other.

Low latency is important when it comes to real-time monitoring. So with 5G is the first time you will be able to have near real-time monitoring and management of tasks. And you can imagine in certain industries how this will actually either increase their productivity or save them costs or actually increase safety and sustainability.

So we work for instance across the globe with ports and we see different use cases. It could be automatic transportation of goods across the port. It could be management of cranes on and off the ships that can be done with high precision faster and working 24-7. All this needs to be of course fitting into the digitization ambition of the port. We see as well how certain airports are using 5G as a way to embark people on the plane faster than before.

 Because 5G also enables you to get hundreds of thousands of sensors that are always sending data so that you can measure in real life what is happening and then take actions based on that. This is one big step forward when it comes to 5G. The industry focus, the enterprise focus. The second part is of course of interest to your consumer. What can I do with it? Today there is no clear application that will make people move to 5G. But it will come. It will come once we will see devices that will allow augmented reality and virtual reality to be easily used when out and about.

We see of course today that virtual reality is becoming slimmer and slimmer and lighter and lighter. We will see in a few years time hopefully a glass kind of format of device with a 5G chip inside of it. So like your glasses you can maybe get now information about me. So this is augmented reality.

We see these examples popping up recently in football stadiums for instance with the smartphone, so we don’t have the glasses yet, but with the smartphone you put it under a footballer who is running and you can get information about how many goals he scored, how many he defended, and data about the players. That will come in a few years. But we also see a big interest in many countries who have launched 5G in home broadband.

As you say here there is a lot of fiber, but in many places where there is no fiber or it’s very costly to roll out fiber, they use 5G as a means to offer wireless broadband at home. So you will have a small customer premises unit we call it that will enable you to watch streaming video or what not or to do internet with the help of a very solid, reliable, high speed 5G wireless broadband.

That begs the question because certainly we are not ready for 5G as you say. Am I right on that? 

No, I mean… We are not. There are 150, we Ericsson are delivering 5G to 150 networks around the world. The technology for 5G is fully ready. The question of when to launch 5G is of course something that needs to be answered by the regulator here in Rwanda, the policy makers, the regulators, and of course your operators who are in the country. It’s their decision when they want to launch. But technology wise, it is all over the world already.

And then how does Ericsson ensure sustainability in the long term using the technology solutions for Africa, specifically now for Rwanda, considering the challenges that you are already seeing in terms of connectivity, infrastructure, access? 

Very good question. So we have taken a few innovations with the support of our research and development departments. To give you two examples, one is that we have developed a special radio which is able to give good coverage but only has one single box rather than multiple boxes. By doing so, you have less weight on the tower which means less rental to pay for the tower owner. More importantly, you have much less energy consumption and that means less cost for the operator and also less carbon emissions. This product was developed specifically based on the input from our customers here in Africa.

Second example is rural coverage. It’s not always feasible to have rural coverage or sometimes it could be very costly. So we came up with a rural coverage site which is easier to deploy. It is kind of prefabricated. We put together a steel tower and it’s fully powered by solar panels. So you don’t need to have a connection to the electricity grid. So those are two examples of how we can contribute to sustainability.

Which areas do you think Africa needs to adapt and how fast?

Now some of the examples we’ve seen in Africa, for 5G particularly, you asked me, right? I would name mining. There are some countries where they have mining and they can realize that 5G could be very beneficial. We’ve actually seen around the world mining where they have these huge, huge trucks normally that go in, take the rocks and go out. These could be now managed remotely with 5G because of the low latency. There could be tons of sensors in the mine that are measuring the dampness, how much oxygen or CO2 is in the air and other types of climatic sensors to ensure the safety of the workers, for instance.

So all of these industries are looking into 5G. And of course, they need to be adapted specially for that kind of industry. So you need to have a dialogue with the operators that work with these industries.

5G for agriculture, for example, which is very important for Africa. For instance, you can do it already with 4G. Agriculture in terms of sensors, same concept. We have drones, you know. Exactly. Which are doing well.  So all of these can be improved, of course, with technology. Today, maybe it’s only text. Then you don’t need 5G. But if you involve video and you want to have multiple drones and covering and you want to watch your video, then you might need more speed. And then these technologies will come at hand.

So what is the role of Ericsson in shaping this for Africa but also in Rwanda, if you can be specific?

You know, for us, we believe in what we call imagination. We believe that connectivity is opening the door for millions of opportunities. We can give examples, but it’s really people out there in Rwanda who will find ways. You have people who are, look at the pandemic, what happened when we all had to sit at home and we discovered the power of connectivity, be it fixed or wireless. Study at home, work at home, do all of our, you know, livelihood measured from home and that shows how important connectivity is. And all of the apps that you use today, if you have Uber, for instance, here, you need connectivity, right? You want to buy something for the supermarket, get it delivered or from a restaurant, you need connectivity. So when 4G came, all of these applications around the world were developed. And this is the same. When 5G is established, it will take years, but the ecosystem will come up with all of these applications.

Look at mobile money, for instance. It’s not related to 5G, but mobile financial services, which is, you know, innovative in Africa, has given an incredible inclusion to society. People who don’t have bank accounts now have electronic wallets. They can send, they can pay money, they can buy services. So this is why we believe connectivity and digitization are essential for society to thrive and for the economy to grow.

So how are you going to bring out your hand in this as Ericsson? 

So we work with our customers. The customers we have are the operators. They are the ones who operate the license, they operate the network and give the service here in Rwanda, right? So we support them with technology. We support them with best practices around the world. And as I mentioned before, we work on multiple levels to increase the knowledge and the skills that we need from schools, or we can regulate the policy makers. We are engaged all over the world with that.

Let’s go to the challenges. How does Ericsson plan to address them? Could you elaborate specifically on the strategies and partnerships that Ericsson is pursuing to accelerate 5G adoption on the continent? But also remember the issue of prices.

You know, one of the most important aspects for adoption of cellular technology is typically the affordability of the device. So we have seen that now with 4G, for instance, how the global price of smartphones for 4G has been dropping year over year. And with that affordability rising, we’ve seen a corresponding increase in 4G subscriptions across Africa, for instance. So the device affordability is, of course, quite important for that.

Typically, this is really the major driver, I would say. When it comes to specific prices, I think that is more, you know, regulated typically by the regulator. This is, of course, the part that the operators are responsible for. And then for the 5G launch across the continent, 5G is now in Nigeria. I mean, we have announced in Nigeria 5G. We have announced in Madagascar 5G. In South Africa as well, 5G was announced. And we typically support our operators with different use cases. So what we mentioned before, we do demos. So we make demos for them. They can see how they can take it to their customers with enterprise or industry or consumers. And that’s how you propagate the technologies.

And in terms of the affordability, education is another element as well across the continent. And I think this is also why operators are looking into that as well.

When you look at Rwanda, what steps would Rwanda need to take to take up 5G

 I don’t see it as necessarily taking up 5G or 4G. I see it more as how Rwanda can benefit from connectivity overall, both fixed and wireless. We focus on the mobile part of it at all times. And we’ve seen the same pattern everywhere in the world, to be honest, and I think it will be the same here, that once applications are available that add value to the livelihood of people or productivity or comfort or entertainment, they will get to it. And it’s spread very widely.

Today with social media, everything is easy, you know, how to adopt it. And the technology to enable that, if 4G is required for these apps, people will get 4G, as long, of course, as they can afford it, as you said. And this is the same thing we will see with 5G. First, you need to build the infrastructure, and then they will come, because you need to allow entrepreneurs who develop 5G apps to test it. If there’s no infrastructure for 5G, how can they test it? And that’s how it worked in the world. This is what we are seeing now. Early countries that launched 5G, U.S., Korea, and others, this is how we see the innovation starting there.

We’ve got what we call the Kigali Innovation Institute. We have hundreds and hundreds of millions that are going to be invested in that to have an innovation hub where all this technology that is being developed by Ericsson can actually be consumed. What is going to be your role in this?

I think you’re seeing something there and seeing we can actually invest in this hub because it’s going to be using our technology to develop those applications that are going to help Rwandans to adopt or to take up the 5G that we already have. You know, we have not been presented this opportunity, but in other countries we do sometimes collaborate with academies and innovation hubs. We have our own innovation hubs, or sometimes with our own customers. So this is something that we are open for to study, and if we feel that there is something we can add value, we will contribute.

As Africa’s tech sector continues to evolve rapidly, what emerging technologies do you see as having the most potential to transform industries and society across the continent? And how is Ericsson positioning itself to harness the technologies and drive to the adoption in Africa?

So most important is really the application. That is what makes a difference, right? And you mentioned industries here. You know, these applications will be developed in order to – I’ll give you an example. We have our own manufacturing plant in the US to manufacture 5G radios, and this is a fully digitized factory, also using 5G connectivity. And we see that there, for instance, we use automatic guided vehicles. They go get to a certain part, come back to the line, and so forth. This saves a lot of time. This eliminates accidents. We see a lot – because we also follow all the parts through sensors where they are in the plant. We can do digital twin testing. All of these metrics have made this factory more productive. And because we also use a lot of sustainable sources of energy, such as solar everywhere, we conserve water. We’ve also seen a very good impact on that.

So this is a typical example where Ericsson itself is using technology like 5G and automation to get productivity and to lower costs. So this is what’s important. The underlying technology is what we provide. And our role is to support our customer with the underlying technology and to also inspire them with the best practices from around the world. Then each operator will work in their country with their own customers or approach new industries and share education on what this will mean for you as a shipping company, for instance, or if you are a mining company or a manufacturing plant.

You are here in Rwanda. What are some of the unique opportunities that Ericsson has identified in Rwanda? And if you can also go to Africawhat are the unique opportunities?

 Look, I think that if I benchmark, we see today in Africa, if I start with Africa, a big hunger for using these services. We all know that the majority of the population of Africa is young, right? Dynamic. And we can see that translated in the amount of traffic that these networks are seeing. Voice and data are increasing a lot. On average, we forecast that today a smartphone per month is consuming some 5 per month. And we see that by 2028, it will become upwards of 18 gigabit per month. So you see there’s a lot of uptake. And Rwanda will not be an exception to this. And we can follow the actual development of the number of smartphones in Rwanda. It is increasing. Exponentially. And that demonstrates that there is a real hunger for advanced applications, for good quality streaming of video, for good quality internet access and all of that.

 So it is really a need that is seen and fulfilled all over the world that Rwanda will go through with the support of your regulating body and the support of your operators here.

I think in every business, someone faces challenges. If you look at Ericsson, what it’s doing in Africa, what are the challenges and how do you manage to address them? (Maybe you can break that with 5G)

 I think probably it would be in certain countries like we discussed before, the affordability of advanced smartphones, right? So early in any generation of technology, typically devices are high cost. But it was time to start going. We’ve seen that with 4G. They’ve gone down. So it’s about, you know, there are parts of the countries in Africa where you have metropolitan areas who can afford devices. You have parts of the country where people might not afford devices. So it might take a longer time to take up these new technologies because of affordability. And that is fine because we honestly believe that with these technologies and mobile broadband coverage improving, it is contributing back to the economy.

So by nature, this adoption should accelerate this time. If I may add, you want something on 5G. I mean, not necessarily for Africa or Rwanda, but on a global level, the acceleration of 5G is always depending on how much the enterprise, because we are saying that 5G will mostly benefit the enterprise, how much the enterprise sector is ready to adopt the 5G technology and transform their business models. So this is another challenge that we’re facing, not only in Africa or Rwanda, but more on a wider scale. How to scale with many enterprise use cases. But we see it everywhere. 

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