While El Dorado is something for storybooks and popular mythology, I know the actuality of it all too well having grown up in California with Gold Rush history all around me as a child (my home town is called, ‘gold town’.) Much is made about the wealth that flowed through Northern California during the mid-19th century, but rarely is the dirtiness of that period ever covered with people working in terrible conditions, catching all manner of diseases, often dying, and all to have the actual wealth go to an elite few with the connections. We’ve repeated this story in a number of ways over the past 150 years…
I mention this because of the title of this article, L’Afrique, nouvel eldorado des télécommunications (Africa, the new El Dorado of Telecommunication.) The article talks a great deal about the developments in the industry and the growth, but doesn’t actually follow up on what is a very catchy title in that while the mobile phone growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is tremendous, it’s illusory at best. This growth is being painted in such a good light at the moment, because a great many worldwide companies see a gigantic market there. This is definitely true, but what happens when the growth slows down? Yeah, I know, the slow down is years and years away given that there are a billion people there, but still, it’s not as far away as you may think.
At best, a great deal of the adoption is coming about because service, coverage, and prices are sub-par. I think that everyone I’ve ever met in Sub-Saharan Africa has two if not more phones. One is for talking. One is for texting. Maybe one is for another region if they go there often. This isn’t growth, it’s people dealing with less than adequate service. Up until about 10 years ago, people in a lot of the US had to do the same as the coverage just wasn’t “there” yet. And 150 years ago, miners in California bought multiple claims for when their current one ran out. You hedge you bets and when that translates to numbers, it looks impressive. But, you probably own more than one pair of shoes and always need new ones. You’re really only wearing one at a time, so is there really huge possible growth in the shoe industry? Nope.
Yes, there is innovation, like this MTN address book function that Elia tipped me off to and is quite cool. But, I’ve seen this type of thing before. It was in the 1990’s in the US and Europe. Innovation in mobile technology was awesome then. Every couple of months, something groundbreaking would come out from a network provider (not a handset maker mind you) and then they’d all flock to copy it. It was a wondrous time to play with mobile technology, but it’s gone as flat as the growth rates in these regions.
I’m just saying that El Dorado was never found. The gold mines of Northern California dried up. A lot of things have happened along the way, but the one thing we know is that growth rates are finite. What happens when the growth flattens out or once numerous networks have swallowed each other? There’s conflict in Eastern Congo for the materials that are fueling all this growth. What about that? What if the exports were to stop as they’re systematically inhumane?
I know that a lot of my fellow tech bloggers will point to all that’s coming about because of the mobile penetration and that the mobile phone is the computer in Africa (although my African friends with computers might disagree), but there is a day very soon where things will flatline and a lot of folks will be left in the lurch. Competition will dry up. Innovation will fall off. Prices will go up and then what?
Instead of constantly talking about growth (especially as if it’s going to go on forever), maybe we should be paying a great deal more attention to what’s happening at the top and on the sides of this new El Technorado and see that it really isn’t all that it’s being purported to be. Only then we can maybe talk about what’s sustainable in the industry.
Five bars of pure, unparalleled clarity and growth