Interview of Bruno Mettling, Chairman of Orange MEA in CIO Mag

Thu 21 Mar 2019

What motivated you to share this journal of the digital world in Africa?

The willingness to give testimony through this book came to me in parallel to the conviction that digital had a major role in meeting the vital needs of the African populations.

The digital contributions were so numerous and powerful that it was no longer only about highlighting such or such startup developing via new applications services in agriculture, health, or other fields, but rather encourage a more extensive reflection and a deep introspection over this topic,  via the writing of this book . The situations where digital is capable of contributing in solving the difficulties proper to Africa are now legion.

And time has come perhaps to address this issue differently, by particularly thinking about the way the development models should be reconsidered by integrating this digital dimension.

Is it about demonstrating that, with digital, other models could be experimented? 

It is the very essence of the book.  And it is even more important to do it when the traditional development model is receding.

If you are interested, for example, in the means used in the field of education, and that you take into account the demographic change of the population, you are bond to see that there is a mismatch between the traditional educative approach and the simple continuation of the schooling rate of most countries. 

If we do not reinvent models which make digital a knowledge dissemination tool, and an interactive tool as well, then there is a problem.

It is obvious that with the digital tools, we can meet the formidable demographic challenge to which the African education system is confronted, in a much more efficient and cost effective way. 

Why didn’t you address the cultural and creative industry in your book, when in Africa, the majority of the population is less than 25 years old? 

If it is true that my book does not specifically deal with the cultural and creative industry, it is nevertheless obvious that digital will enable the creation of new cultural media. It would deserve to be highlighted, but there are many emergencies to take care of. Those which seemed primary and basic to me are linked to education, health, agriculture, etc. I decided to focus on what seemed to be priority for development to foster this famous inclusive growth. 

This being said, education, as knowledge acquisition, are intimately correlated to culture and to access to cultural goods. And I think they should not be opposed. But I wanted to address the digital emergency for my part, this emergency in rethinking the development policies in order to bring answers, in terms of education particularly. It is the first of rights, with health and food but also with anything that is in favor of economic inclusion, such as mobile banking. 

You mention the shift from transactional to conversational. When you know that in Africa, transmission is oral above all, what may be the effects of this?

It is an important subject that may dramatically disrupt the Internet world and the access to knowledge. Web development has lived two major steps, which preceded those addressed in the book. 

The first one consisted in consulting, passively, pages.  Then came interactivity via mail particularly, which enables you to interact. That is the transactional phase of the web.

It allows you to send and receive messages.  The connection becomes dynamic.

With chatbots more recently, machines capable of replying to messages.

We are now witnessing the arrival of a third step: the conversational phase.

It is in my view the most important of the web history. It is fundamental to Africa for it will help the great majority of its population, which still at this time does not have access to the Internet, to finally use it.

Until now, all Internet programs were based on written expression, and thought and defined in the classical languages, particularly for Africa those of Molière,   Shakespeare or in Arabic language.

With the new upcoming transformation thanks to artificial intelligence, the web particularly will be more and more based on oral expression, on voice, as demonstrated by voice assistants that are far from simple gadgets and take part into this new web mutation.

And thanks to the artificial intelligence engines, it becomes possible to recognize voice, languages and to simultaneously translate them into the most different languages, I think about thevernacular languages of Africa. The language barrier will progressively fade. We may think then about developing very quickly interactions to speak, learn or trade in one’s own language.

Hundreds of millions of Africans may from now enter the Internet economy from which they were excluded because of poor literacy and standard language skills on the web.

Would digital help reach the objectives faster? What about the needs in physical infrastructures then?

Physical and digital infrastructure should not be opposed. Let’s take three examples.

Let me go back to the one on education. I mention in the book the example of Abobo, a municipality of Abidjan. In this town, fifty babies are born every day. 

An online survey was then sent to the population concerned in partnership with the Ministry of Health and the survey helped identifying the most exposed people. This system is infinitely more efficient, in a country of this dimension, than that consisting in relying on the only physical infrastructures to organize diabetes detection.

We understand that digital solutions help implement predictive tools preventing risks very quickly and at attractive costs. And in the end, a high-performing health system. 

My message is clear: it is not about contesting the relevance and the obviousness of having hospitals to treat diseases, as well as first aid dispensaries. But to integrate to this system the digital dimension - including in terms of training.

The demographic growth is such that in order to enrol children in school, you would need to build a classroom every day and hire a teacher.

How many rooms would be then needed on the scale of the city, the region or even the country, to absorb this population?  It is completely surreal and out of reach.

And especially if you understand the fact that by 2030, in other words in a decade, Africa’s demography will grow by the equivalent of the total of the European population. 

It is unreasonable, in these conditions, to maintain the traditional patterns of training and learning.

Other alternatives are possible with digital.  Orange has already developed, in more than 500 schools, new interactive methods.

Tablets help organize exchanging and learning with children.  

I mention in my book a second example, this one in the health field, where tools already exist. 

Thanks to analytics, you can identify and develop, in a predictive way, network systems.  It has been proved that for cancer detection, tracking of family history, digital is much more efficient than the regular physical health network system, when it exists.  Egypt indeed detected risks of exposure to diabetes on three million of its citizens, due to family history.

The third example is the one of energy.  The energy deficit is one of the major barriers on the continent development.

Half of the population of Africa still does not have access to energy.  About 600 million people are not covered.  What is the way out?  I am sure that it is an illusion to make believe that the energy industry sector would be capable of restraining the needs and anticipating the demographic explosion of the continent by producing resources in sufficient quantities.

Let us take the case of the DRC, which I mention in the book. 

In Kinshasa, energy was produced in the 1970’s by a hydro-electric dam with 12 turbines, for a population of 3 to 4 million inhabitants. Today, only 7 turbines are still in working order when the population has been tripling.

These traditional patterns of energy production require heavy infrastructure investments , which must be adapted to the African countries.

Without talking about problems linked to the profitability of this energy generated by dams located far from urban centers, which must be stored, and transmitted to the consumers.

It is still possible to develop alternative technologies. It is of course not about keeping plants running, but rather about delivering energy directly to the populations.

Today, connected solar kits, interactive systems, of very satisfactory quality, exist.

This solution is a set comprising a solar panel, a battery and various accessories (LED lamps, battery chargers recharging several telephones, radio and /or television).

Orange has already rolled out thousands of them in Africa.  The continent has enough natural resources - solar, hydraulic, geothermal, wind or biomass- to reconcile development and climate change. And why not, to become the epicenter of clean energy

What are the international donors and governments then waiting for to head for these alternative technologies?

Solar energy has the advantage of replacing CO2-emitting power sources, used by some African households for lighting. 

Innovation consists in using the new technologies to implement smart power grids and meters.

Rolling out kits, which cost between 150 and 200 dollars, instead of the traditional solutions supplied by the operators, seems apparently simple. But, against all odds, international donors have trouble supporting this type of program.

A finance specialist clearly told me that it was easier for him to convince his investment committee to finance tens of millions of euros forhydroelectric power dams, rather than kits distributed through the entire population.

And this is where I call out to the key public and private decision-makers.  Since the solutions resulting from combining telephone and solar technologies may deliver energy to millions of households at an unbeatable price compared with the deployment of traditional infrastructures, what are we waiting for to deploy them massively?

Isn’t it also a solid rampart against the inexorable rural exodus?

And what about the digital solutions developed for agriculture?

We all know that Africa alone accounts for more than 60 % of the unused arable lands. For agriculture to take off in Africa and be able to better feed the African population, there are two conditions.

The first one is to farm more effectively; and the second, is to improve the farmers’ income.  Once again, it is thanks to digital that these goals will be achieved. 

For example, thanks to basic mobile telephones, the farmers receive alerts on soil conditions, the favorable period for seeding or for irrigating.

Remote irrigation systems monitored from a mobile currently exist. You can receive alerts when the soil is too dry or interrupt remote irrigation when there is enough water.  Hundreds of thousands of farmers already use such applications supplied by Orange.

It is not an epiphenomenon, but a global system which is going to increase further thanks to the conversational solutions which will enable oral exchanges with agricultural engineers in call centers who will advise farmers in their local language, or even drones which help detect phytosanitary situations. 

In terms of income, thanks to the Market Place and thanks to information on prices charged on the different markets, the relationship between the economic players is rebalanced and the farmer knows what price his production is worth on different places around.

There cannot be any digital real impact without change management. What does that say to you?   

It is true.  I can give you another example, that of the e-governance. We are attending major transformations of the administration, at the image, for example, of what is going on in Guinea.

The country managed to multiply the sales of road tax certificates  by three ever since it made the payment mandatory via  mobile payment.

Broadening the base turned to an increase of the recovery rate.  By making mobile payment mandatory, the Guinean government fostered on one hand transparency in revenue collection.

And on the other hand it put an end to the fraud problem which was penalizing the collection routes.

What are we waiting for to multiply these initiatives? 

If it is true that modernizing the administration through e-Government, the fight against bureaucracy is nevertheless a key issue, developed in an ad hoc chapter.

It is particularly important to support through change management the chain of officials who are reluctant to it. We may consider that with support provided to them, they could move from a role of physical collection to an advisory or even supporting role …

To end with the startups, you refer to the temptation of international donors to support and finance them by setting aside traditional activities. How could it be addressed?

The great advocacy of this book is also to say that Africa must develop its own digital model, as it has been the case in the banking sector.

If we had started from the European scheme, so many African populations would have never been massively banked on basic services. We must take inspiration from what worked and rethink the system accordingly. And this, in all areas. 

It is thus important to develop places and provide funds to support the African start-ups.

This essential policy of support to the digital start-ups should not hide nevertheless the need for ensuring the digital development in the traditional sectors, which need it so much. 

If in a preceding book, I fought for the right to digital disconnection in France, today, I want to fight for the right to digital acceleration in Africa.