Going digital in Africa

Interview of Bruno Mettling, Chairman of Orange Middle East & Africa, Chairman of Sofrecom

The digital revolution represents a fantastic opportunity for economic and social development on the African continent. It allows more rapid advances to be made in social progress and services for African populations and companies. In order for the impact of this transformation to benefit the African countries to the full, they need to anticipate their training needs in preparing for the professions of the future. Orange is fully committed to this transformation through its service development strategy, its many initiatives to encourage training in digital systems and its policy of supporting African start-ups. It can also count on its subsidiary Sofrecom to provide support to governments and private operators with their projects.

Has the dynamism of the digital movement exceeded the experimental stage? How can the digital transformation contribute to development in Africa?

The digital revolution is affecting the whole world and Africa in particular. Going digital presents a unique opportunity for the African continent to compete with the rest of the world. We are just realising how far the digital revolution can allow countries to make up for lost time and equip themselves with the latest cutting-edge technology.

Let me give you a first example, that of the mobile phone, that went directly from 2G to 4G without passing the copper fixed-line network stage, very rapidly giving the population access to the Internet.

The second example I'd like to give you is that of the banking sector. The African population is not used to personal banking and yet payment by mobile phone has enabled a large majority of African citizens, previously excluded from the banking system, to be included in the economic environment of their countries. In fact, today Africa is the world leader in payments by mobile phone.

These two examples that I wanted to share with you show quite clearly that, thanks to the mobile phone and the digital revolution, Africa is ready to occupy its rightful place in the 21st century.  

What are the challenges still facing African governments and operators in ensuring the success of their digital transformation?  

There are many challenges, the first, and the one that is the greatest priority for Orange and the operators, is to build networks of quality. Without a decent network, there can be no communication between individuals, no exchange of data and no access to Internet. So a country that does not have a quality network is automatically handicapped compared to other African countries that have one.

The second challenge concerns the operators. The transformation will  mean changing from a culture of network operator to a culture of service operator since our job is not only to offer access to the networks but also all the support services that are also needed. Orange has already succeeded in this challenge as far as mobile phone services are concerned but there is still a long way to go in terms of services to benefit the energy, agriculture, health and education fields that will all be profoundly affected by the change to a digital economy.

Sofrecom is perfectly positioned to act as Orange's spearhead in attacking these challenges

Throughout its history, Sofrecom has supported the deployment of networks and services, in particular in Africa. Its unique experience places it in an ideal position to support Orange in this transformation towards services, through partnerships identified in the banking, energy, education, health and farming sectors. Naturally, service platforms would also be set up to provide support to operators in Africa striving to develop these new professions and also to support governments and institutions in their changeover to a digital system. For example, in the field of education, progress does not just mean the opening of new classes but also the use of digital tools and content to boost learning.

What Africa needs is not the introduction of digital systems in the margin of development policies but rather a rethinking of these policies based on the digital dimension. For example, a country's health policy could be redesigned around the extraordinary potential offered by mobile phones for prevention and detection of disease.

Sofrecom has an important role to play with the authorities in helping them to introduce these transformations successfully.

We are seeing the emergence of local innovation and development initiatives from the private sector and the younger members of society and a number of African start-ups are presenting a multitude of innovations in the sectors you have mentioned. How can Orange support and benefit from these initiatives?

This is a particularly important point. Through its many initiatives (e.g. Fablabs, incubators, accelerators), Orange is scrupulously careful, in the countries where it is present, to contribute to the creation of an ecosystem that is favourable to the development of start-ups.

However, helping start-ups to emerge is all very well but much more is needed. The real challenge is to train Africa in digital systems to allow it to take massive steps forward in creating the innovations it needs for its future development. In order for Africa to benefit fully from the digital revolution and from the job opportunities generated by digital systems, it must have the necessary technical skills and training must take place locally. Training centres already exist in North Africa (Morocco and Tunisia) and in the Middle East but they are still far from adequate in sub-Saharan Africa. There is still a risk, as there was in previous industrial revolutions, that the applications that Africa needs are provided as turnkey systems by Europe, Asia or America. This would be a great pity: Africa needs to manufacture its own applications so that it can achieve the added value expected.

Orange is participating actively in the drive to train local populations in the use of digital systems through its various initiatives and undertakings. There are many examples of local initiatives that it has set up. For example, there is the coding school launched by Sonatel Academy, the training of Data Scientists in Abidjan in partnership with the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique university in France and the Institut National Polytechnique Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Côte d'Ivoire.

Finally, once they have been launched, the African start-ups need help with collecting funds to ensure their future development and sustainability. This is the challenge taken up by Orange Venture Africa.

To sum up, Orange is actively contributing to the emergence of a local digital ecosystem. Our objective is not to do everything ourselves but to recognise and rely on local dynamics and talents within the African countries to develop these service platforms while providing the necessary support in various ways.

You have been the Chairman of Sofrecom since 1 July 2018 and president of Orange in the Middle East and Africa. What differentiates Sofrecom from other consultancy and engineering firms in this sector? And, in your opinion, what are the challenges that Sofrecom needs to meet to become the benchmark operator in spearheading the digital transformation in Africa?  

I was extremely flattered to be appointed Chairman of Sofrecom. I've always believed that having another model other than that of operator to support the African countries, but also countries on other continents, in the various developments and transformations taking place in the telecommunications sector is a fantastic advantage for Orange. Sofrecom is the strong but agile workhorse for the Orange Group and can offer advice and assistance to operators all over the world, in particular in countries where Orange does not have a direct presence.

So I hope that Sofrecom will keep its specificity within the Group, reinforcing its flexibility and reach and continuing to develop its Consultancy and Engineering skills, particularly within the new Departments. I hope that the Sofrecom teams, led by their Managing Director, Guillaume Boudin, remain in the forefront of developments and continue to adapt to their evolving markets and clients.