If there is one industry that has continued to exceed expectations in Africa, it is telecommunications.
Today, the continent has more than 500 million mobile phone users. That is almost one in two Africans. It is far beyond what Rwandan-Congolese businessman Miko Rwayitare, creator of the continent’s first mobile network, Telecel International, could have imagined in 1987. At the time, the entrepreneur was only targeting a few thousand of the happy few, and his phones, which could not even send an SMS, were still the size of a brick.
In three decades, operators have gone through global crises relatively untroubled. After the development of 2G networks, then 3G and 4G networks, submarine cables and mobile-mobile payments, the continent has taken a new technological leap – that of the platform economy.
It first appeared in the field of e-commerce, which has been active for a few years now, to be joined by financial services, energy, agriculture, health and education. Even governments have started to use them in the hope of bridging the gap between citizens and administrations.
Alongside MTN, Vodacom, Orange and others, thousands of startups, investors, incubators, fibre-optic network operators, data centres and influencers are enriching the ecosystem. This profusion of players has inspired The Africa Report’s first ranking of the top 40 personalities who make up Digital Africa, with the goal of updating it every year.
To select 40 from this crowded field was an ambitious undertaking.
It includes telecom operators with hundreds of millions of subscribers, the heads of specialised investment funds and founders of startups that have become unicorns, but also African representatives of the FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) giants. It also includes some public decision-makers who hold the pursestrings on digital infrastructure.
Innovation, funding, leadership
For our ranking, we used a series of criteria ranging from innovation capacity to financial strength and the size of funds raised, as well as leadership and notoriety, with the main focus on events that occurred during the period 2020 to 2021. This ranking cannot claim to be an objective truth, but it presents our vision of a revolution that we have followed since its beginnings.
We could have immediately placed the top 10 telecom operators, without whom very little would be possible, but we also wanted to highlight the adoption of e-commerce, the explosion of fintechs, particularly in Nigeria, the growing interest in energy-access services, the development of data centres, and the first truly significant projects from the FAANG companies in Africa, particularly in infrastructure.
The role of enlightened regulators and public servants is critical to success or indeed failure. For every Kigali Institute of Technology, there are unlawful crackdowns by Central Banks on blockchain operators.
Finally, we note that women are still in the minority in this ecosystem, and particularly in the top roles. However, they are far from being absent. In addition to the personalities in our ranking, we would like to mention Odunayo Eweniyi, co-founder of the startup Piggyvest, Coura Carine Sene, who runs Wave mobile money in Senegal, Fatoumata Ba, whose fund, Janngo Capital has pledged €60m ($70m) for women-led startups, and Andreata Muforo, partner of the investment company TLcom. We hope to see more women in the elite of the sector in 2022, so watch this space.