The industry is 26 years old and it is thriving. It has connected millions and in so doing created opportunities for a better and prosperous life for many Africans.
Report by Mutumwa Mawere
As we look back at this 26-year-old industry, it may be ironic that the connection between the more than 700 million Africans, who use the networks to link voices and transmit data, is restricted to the demand side of the economic equation.
How much do we know of the industry? Why is it that in a continent that is generally perceived to be risky, the industry has acquired a character that is not typical of the African corporate narrative?
The industry and technological absorption rate is higher in many parts of the world than in Africa.
For example, China is not just the largest single market for mobile phones, the industry is now deeply embedded into the Chinese civilisation and its people are not just spectators in the value chain, but are very active and in some instances, dominant actors in the supply chain.
The same can be said about South Korea, where a citizen in the name of Samsung has now become a universal citizen whose brand stands for something, but in a manner that supports the home base.
The evolution and growth of this industry has demonstrated that globalisation is a reality. At each point of the value chain, there are actors and Africans are generally missing in action except as consumers.
The industry is seamlessly connected, for to produce one minute of call time, a lot has to happen including generating electricity to power base stations.
Without customers, a firm really has no purpose.
Indeed, Africa has demonstrated that it has what it takes to build a viable mobile phone industry that today has provided a keyboard to millions, who could generally be described as illiterate, but not in terms of using this powerful device that is transmitting millions of words as text today.
The character of any nation is defined and shaped by its people.
However, the mobile phone industry in Africa is now dominated by non-Africans who are on the supply side of the transaction and if a decision was to be taken to blindly indigenise the industry, the visible casualties would primarily be the users, who today can hardly function without the instrumentality of cellphones.
When we talk of building bridges, we must accept that ignorance has the capacity of creating its own slogans and commercial violence.
Generally, the relationship between Africans and money let alone commerce, has not been a healthy one to allow the creation of a value system that is needed to promote the use of firms and their actors in building successful societies.
In terms of heritage, it is not unusual that the knowledge bank of many African citizens is full of political exploits than business stories.
The colonial question and its impact on human development will always crowd the debate on what matters to the future of the continent.
One cannot dismiss the logic that causally connects poverty, unemployment and inequality to the vices of the colonial system, but what is remarkable is the ignorance about the corporate heritage of the continent and why it was the case that Europeans in the main chose to settle in Africa and other distant shores.
Could it be that they were simply looking for a better life that Europe could not offer?
If this proposition is correct, then the difference between the colonial corporate adventurers and the contemporary corporate actors, who have been richly rewarded not necessarily from God’s direct creations, may very well be the same.
Assuming that no rational person could make a decision to leave a place of birth and comfort to another distant place to be poor, then surely it makes sense for Africans to study the behaviour of corporate personalities and their firms to better understand what is required to lift Africa to a level that it can deliver the promise of a better life to the majority of its people.
In our lifetime, we have seen an industry start from humble beginnings with African personalities playing a role, only to fade with the passage of time and we have equally seen the transformation of colonial states into failed states by actions and choices of a few wise people.
What drives the African participants in the industry is no different from what drives the foreign domiciled principals of African enterprises operating in the industry.
The expectation that the post-colonial state actors would behave differently from the colonial office bearers has been betrayed by experience for many of the post-colonial state actors, who have the same political, but not necessarily the same economic worldview.
What makes the mobile industry players different is that they are all motivated by maximising the rate of return that can only be guaranteed if service is delivered and under the watch of Africa’s best political brains.
The quality of life for the majority Africans has not improved.
On June 2 1987, the late American President Ronald Reagan issued a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall.
The wall was built by cowards who did not want their people to move freely, just as animals are able to cross borders without visas.
The post-colonial experience has seen many Africans crossing borders with one way tickets to distant shores looking for better opportunities, defying the logic that informed the quest for Independence.
Memories can easily fade, but the Berlin Wall undermined the rights and interests of the very people that it was supposed to protect.
It was meant to keep people ignorant of what life underpinned by freedom could bring.
The difference between East and West Germany could not be the existence of the wall, but a philosophical disjuncture that could only be cured with the removal of the visible instrument of separation.
Today, Germans live in a unitary state and no wall separates people.
Just as Reagan knew in 1987 that the desire to increase freedom could find no better expression than the tearing of the Wall that brought more poverty to its intended beneficiaries, the approach of many post-colonial African politicians is no different from what the socialist leaders in the Eastern Bloc subscribed to, in that they thought that by creating walls they could protect the poor and vulnerable, but the reverse has been the order of the day.
The mobile phone industry has revolutionised the lives of many Africans and yet its history will show the behaviour of many state actors in trying to block suppliers in the mistaken belief that doing so would promote the interests of the unconnected and poor citizens.
Progress requires a framework within which it can take place. The colonial project was supported by a worldview informed by experiences in the home countries.
One of key architects of the corporate heritage of Southern Africa, Cecil John Rhodes, is best known for the views he held about the role of English people in the global matrix of nations and this is what he had to say to his fellow Englishmen: “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”
Adventurous English persons who listened to Rhodes chose to follow him and history has shown the extent that the English way of administration and organisation has been inherited with ease by the very people who purport to be anti-imperialist. It means Rhodes succeeded in assimilating Africans into the English way of life.
The majority of post-colonial Africa conversations generally take an angry tone about the manner in which people who chose to settle in Africa were and are bad people and invariably the right choice to make is then that it is better to disable them rather than learn from them.
It is in respect of drawing lessons from a past that is not shared that it is important to understand the challenges that colonialists faced in taming the natural Africa, are no different from challenges that faced pioneers of this mobile network industry when the first network was built.
Success was never inevitable just as much as support from state actors was not guaranteed.
The fact that Africa can boast of an industry that works, is sufficient for us to pause and reflect on the drivers of such progress, precisely because we are witnesses to the change that has taken place and can, therefore, act wiser.