July 31, 2021

Lessons Learned in Scaling Digital Solutions in the Water Sector

"Digitalization is transforming how utilities function and how water services are delivered," the GSM Association (GSMA) asserts in a report focusing on scaling digital solutions in the water sector. The report adds: "New technologies not only enable existing systems to operate more efficiently, but also make new service delivery models possible. Some innovations are already available in the water sector, with some solutions scaling, while newer ones are developing."

GSMA's Mobile for Development (M4D) Utilities program works to unlock business models that leverage mobile technology to deliver better and more affordable energy, water and sanitation services in emerging markets. The UK-based organization, which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, points out that "Through our Innovation Fund we have provided catalytic support to start-ups, non-governmental organizations, and utilities across Asia and Africa to trial and scale new models." What is more, "This support has helped validate and launch a variety of digital solutions to expand and improve water services." The report examines the experiences of two past Innovation Fund grantees, Wonderkid and CityTaps whose journeys to scale hold lessons for all seeking to accelerate digitalization.

"Both companies are business-to-business (B2B) service providers," the report explains. "Wonderkid provides bespoke software solutions to 40 water utilities in Kenya and other African markets. CityTaps provides pay-as-you-go (PAYG) digital metering solutions to utilities. Currently operating in West Africa and Central America, CityTaps is looking to expand in the Kenyan market. Based on the experiences of these two grantees, we identify some critical considerations for innovators at different stages, from ideation to validation, iteration, refinement, scaling and widespread adoption. Their experiences also highlight some of the strategies and critical stages at which different actors can support innovators to scale, such as funders and the public sector."

The GSMA presents the following supporting actions for key stakeholder groups segmented into five categories:

Funders and Donors
  • Invest in developing digital ecosystems as well as specific solutions and businesses;
  • Support the development of digital skills within utilities and among their users; and
  • Structure support to innovators such that capital is available both at the ideation and scaling stages.
  • Be conscious of the capital costs faced by utilities, and structure product offerings to account for these; Maintain a lean approach to the iteration process and develop an adaptable business model; and
  • Focus on building trust and awareness to drive service adoption.
  • Mark out a pathway and take steps towards progressive adoption;
  • Make investments in digital readiness;
  • Demonstrate leadership in digital adoption; and
  • Invest in customer education and promotional campaigns to drive adoption.
Mobile Network Operators (MNOs)
  • Pursue partnerships to enhance customer base, product offering and brand image;
  • Create partnerships with utility service providers to encourage service uptake in new markets; and
  • Focus on creating a more accessible environment for third parties.
Government and Regulators
  • Put in place strong performance management systems. This is what creates some incentives for performance improvements; and
  • Ensure that policy allows for utility service providers to form partnerships with innovators and improve their service offering.

Having watched the rapid digitalization in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) over the past few years, I concur with the report's conclusion:
No single actor can scale digitalization without working with others. Governments, utilities, innovators, MNOs and donors all have unique capabilities and capacity, and it is only by working together that the full benefits of digitalization can be realized. While new innovations are always emerging, there are already many viable technologies in the water sector that have yet to see widespread adoption. These technologies provide the opportunity to tackle long-standing and intractable challenges in the water sector, and benefit hundreds of millions of people who still lack access to a safe, affordable and reliable water source.
Do you agree with the recommended supporting actions for key stakeholder groups? What are your recommendations for transforming how utilities function through digitalization?

If interested in learning more about PAYG as a business model in delivering utilities to people in LMICs, I recommend reading "GSMA Report Explores the Value of Pay-as-You-Go Solar for Mobile Operators in Africa" previously published on this blog.

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

June 28, 2021

WHO's First Global Report on AI in Health and Six Guiding Principles for Its Design and Use

According to a report published by the World Health Organization (WHO), "Digital technologies and artificial intelligence (AI), particularly machine learning, are transforming medicine, medical research and public health. Technologies based on AI are now used in health services in countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and its utility is being assessed in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC)."

The report, Ethics & Governance of Artificial Intelligence for Health, which is the result of two years of consultations held by a panel of international experts appointed by WHO, further says: Whether AI can advance the interests of patients and communities depends on a collective effort to design and implement ethically defensible laws and policies and ethically designed AI technologies. There are also potential serious negative consequences if ethical principles and human rights obligations are not prioritized by those who fund, design, regulate or use AI technologies for health. AI's opportunities and challenges are thus inextricably linked."

To limit the risks and maximize the opportunities intrinsic to the use of AI for health, the WHO provides the following six principles as the basis for AI regulation and governance:

Protecting human autonomy: In the context of health care, this means that humans should remain in control of health-care systems and medical decisions; privacy and confidentiality should be protected, and patients must give valid informed consent through appropriate legal frameworks for data protection.

Promoting human well-being and safety and the public interest. The designers of AI technologies should satisfy regulatory requirements for safety, accuracy and efficacy for well-defined use cases or indications. Measures of quality control in practice and quality improvement in the use of AI must be available.

Ensuring transparency, explainability and intelligibility. Transparency requires that sufficient information be published or documented before the design or deployment of an AI technology. Such information must be easily accessible and facilitate meaningful public consultation and debate on how the technology is designed and how it should or should not be used.

Fostering responsibility and accountability. Although AI technologies perform specific tasks, it is the responsibility of stakeholders to ensure that they are used under appropriate conditions and by appropriately trained people. Effective mechanisms should be available for questioning and for redress for individuals and groups that are adversely affected by decisions based on algorithms.

Ensuring inclusiveness and equity. Inclusiveness requires that AI for health be designed to encourage the widest possible equitable use and access, irrespective of age, sex, gender, income, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability or other characteristics protected under human rights codes.

Promoting AI that is responsive and sustainable. Designers, developers and users should continuously and transparently assess AI applications during actual use to determine whether AI responds adequately and appropriately to expectations and requirements. AI systems should also be designed to minimize their environmental consequences and increase energy efficiency. Governments and companies should address anticipated disruptions in the workplace, including training for health-care workers to adapt to the use of AI systems, and potential job losses due to use of automated systems.

As the WHO notes: "AI for health has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the pandemic is not a focus of this report, it has illustrated the opportunities and challenges associated with AI for health. Numerous new applications have emerged for responding to the pandemic, while other applications have been found to be ineffective. Several applications have raised ethical concerns in relation to surveillance, infringement on the rights of privacy and autonomy, health and social inequity and the conditions necessary for trust and legitimate uses of data-intensive applications."

"While the primary readership of this guidance document is ministries of health, it is also intended for other government agencies, ministries that will regulate AI, those who use AI technologies for health and entities that design and finance AI technologies for health."

The report importantly adds:
Implementation of this guidance will require collective action. Companies and governments should introduce AI technologies only to improve the human condition and not for objectives such as unwarranted surveillance or to increase the sale of unrelated commercial goods and services. Providers should demand appropriate technologies and use them to maximize both the promise of AI and clinicians' expertise. Patients, community organizations and civil society should be able to hold governments and companies to account, to participate in the design of technologies and rules, to develop new standards and approaches and to demand and seek transparency to meet their own needs as well as those of their communities and health systems.
Do you agree with the six principles as the basis for AI regulation and governance? What are you recommendations for how AI can be used for health?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

June 10, 2021

Bridging the Digital Divide through Aerial Connectivity

"Access to the internet will no longer be a problem in a few years." This was a claim I made during a during a recent conversation with a representative from Re+connect, a social venture developing a civic technology solution that closes the last-mile disaster relief gaps and builds long-term resilience for underserved communities, and a manager at the Puerto Rico Science, Technology & Research Trust, an organization whose mission is to invest, facilitate and build capacity to continually advance Puerto Rico's economy and its citizens' well-being through innovation-driven enterprises, science and technology and its industrial base. The success of the mobile application Ms. Qin and her colleagues are developing for people living in Puerto Rico's rural and remote areas depends on having uninterrupted access to wireless internet.

Whether designed to help people living in the United States, Afghanistan or somewhere in between, having regular access to the internet is crucial to delivering valuable technology-based services. However, there are large swaths of areas globally where internet service is not available. But recent and continuing advances in satellite broadband will greatly reduce (and hopefully eliminate) the digital divide, which is the gulf between those who have ready access to the internet and those who do not.

According to a report written by Tim Hatt, Head of Research and Consulting at GSMA, a UK-based organization representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide, with support by OneWeb, Intellian and SoftBank, "Satellite broadband continues to undergo a period of reinvention through the low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation model that re-emerged five years ago from OneWeb, SpaceX and a range of other participants. Momentum and industry traction have been underpinned by a reduced cost structure and higher performance capability relative to legacy geostationary satellites that operate at much higher altitudes." The report notes that a "separate mode of aerial connectivity called high-altitude platform stations (HAPS) is also in development, albeit at an earlier stage and further away from commercial deployment."

Segmented into four chapters beginning with "Bridging a large and persistent internet divide," the report explains that "[w]hat is driving the push for satellite and broader aerial connectivity has not changed: the size and persistence of the internet divide and the consequential – but less appreciated – connectivity barriers for businesses in rural areas." Moreover, "Given that internet access is near ubiquitous in most western countries, it can be easy to forget that on a global scale, penetration is only 50%. This leaves around 3.7 billion people (or 3 billion adults) offline; we forecast that continued network expansion and smartphone price declines will help bring this down over the next five years but only to 3 billion, leaving 40% of the world still offline. The vast majority of unconnected individuals live in India, Africa and a handful of populous, lower-income Asian countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia (see Figure 2)."

In the chapter entitled "Connectivity from space: under the hood," the report explains that the "basic model for LEO constellations is to integrate with mobile operator networks: 3G, LTE and eventually 5G. The major change with LEO constellations compared to traditional GEO architectures, which primarily connect to slower-speed 2G and 3G networks, is a lower deployment altitude to drive higher data throughput and lower latencies."

"Providing network coverage and backhaul links to rural areas is foremost a challenge of economics rather than anything to do with technology," the third chapter points out. "Large distances, uneven topography and the presence of impediments such as forests all make rural coverage more difficult than in urban or suburban areas. Low population densities also mean that usage and revenue per mobile cell site (or broadband exchange point) are much lower than in a city or suburban environment."

Outlining the differences between wholesale versus retail business models with satellite and HAPS connectivity is the focus of the report's final chapter. "The first and most common is connectivity provided on a wholesale basis to mobile operators, which continue to own the end-customer relationship. The second is to sell access directly to consumers or enterprise customers."

Addressing the future outlook, I appreciate the report's concluding paragraph:
We expect current market momentum for LEO connectivity to continue as established constellations increase towards their target size. Forming commercial partnerships with operators will be key over the next 2–3 years to test and deploy aerial solutions in practice, providing feedback loops to inform tech and business model iterations. To a certain extent, regulatory issues surrounding spectrum licensing will persist, albeit to a lesser extent given progress over the last five years. Operators will also need to focus on infrastructure deployment logistics in rural areas as part of a wider package of educational support for such communities. Coverage is, after all, one of several barriers to mobile internet and broadband access along with costs, digital literacy and relevance. Tying these together through joined-up efforts is most likely to result in success rather than tackling each in isolation.
Accessing the internet through aerial connectivity is not a new concept. Such connectivity has historically been cost-prohibitive for most enterprises and individuals. Encouragingly, recent reductions in research and development costs leading to advances in satellite – low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit – and the newer high-altitude platform station technology is altering business models that will allow operators to provide reliable low-cost internet service to those living in unconnected or poorly-connected areas. The end result is delivering mobile solutions like those created by Re+connect that closes the last-mile disaster relief gap.

What recommendations do you have for improving internet connectivity to close the digital divide?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

May 29, 2021

GSMA Report Presents Policy Considerations to Bridge the Digital Divide in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

According to report published by GSMA, a UK-based organization representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide, "The world is more connected than ever before, which is improving people's lives and transforming socioeconomic development. The importance of mobile internet cannot be overstated, as it is the primary way most people get online."

While 93 percent of the global population has access to mobile broadband, which has been helped by mobile operators investing over $870 billion in capital expenditure over the past five years, mobile internet adoption has not kept pace. "Of the 4 billion people who do not yet use mobile internet, the vast majority – 3.4 billion – live in an area already covered by mobile broadband," the report explains. "This gap in mobile internet use has not significantly changed over the past several years, and is now six times greater than the mobile coverage gap (see Figure 1)."

Moreover, "Those who are still unconnected are disproportionately poorer, less educated, rural, female and persons with disabilities. If no action is taken, the GSMA estimates that 40 percent of the population in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) will still be offline in 2025. This shows that infrastructure policies alone will not bridge the digital divide, and that it is increasingly urgent for policies to focus on demand-side challenges to achieve inclusive digital growth."

The GSMA "report outlines policy considerations to address the main barriers to mobile internet adoption and use, to ensure everyone can participate in an increasingly connected world. The report also provides a framework for action in response to the need for a comprehensive policy approach to achieve the greatest results (see Figure 2)."

Below are five barriers to mobile internet adoption and use:
  1. Affordability (individuals cannot afford devices, data plans or other service fees);
  2. Knowledge and digital skills (people are unaware of mobile internet and its benefits or do not have the necessary skills to use digital technology);
  3. Relevance (local digital ecosystems are underdeveloped, and there is a lack of content, products and services that meet user needs and capabilities);
  4. Safety and security (individuals and communities are concerned about the negative aspects and risks of the internet, such as harassment, theft, fraud and online security); and
  5. Access (individuals do not have access to networks and enablers, such as electricity and formal IDs, or devices and services are not accessible enough).
The GSMA then presents its framework for action followed by key policy considerations to eliminate the aforementioned barriers:

• Collect and publish granular, reliable and gender-disaggregated data related to mobile internet adoption and use in accordance with international guidelines and standards.
• Conduct and support research to better understand the context, circumstances and needs of individuals not yet using mobile internet.
• Set policy priorities, targets and budgets based on data-driven assessments of the barriers to mobile internet adoption and use.
• Develop policy strategies that address all barriers in a holistic manner through a well-defined, collaborative governance model.
• Conduct regular, impartial impact evaluations and adapt digital inclusion strategies based on these insights.

Handset affordability
• Remove sector-specific taxes and fees on handsets.
• Refrain from imposing costly barriers to importing handsets to incentivize local production.
• Enable innovative financing mechanisms for devices.
• Partner with the industry to provide device subsidies to targeted user groups.

Data affordability
• Create an enabling environment for mobile operators to achieve operational and other cost efficiencies.
• Adopt tax principles that promote uptake of mobile data services.
• Enable innovative data pricing strategies and pricing flexibility in competitive markets.
• Consider data subsidies for targeted user groups.

• Focus digital skills strategies on use cases that help targeted user segments meet their life goals and needs.
• Use a comprehensive framework focused on competency areas and proficiency levels to design effective digital skills training programs.
• Adapt digital skills strategies to local contexts to reflect how most users access the internet, which in LMICs is through a mobile device.
• Launch awareness campaigns on both the benefits and potential risks of using mobile internet and how to address them.
• Invest in training and capacity building initiatives, including through win-win partnerships with the private sector.
• Incorporate digital skills development across education policies at all levels and provide students with access to suitable devices to practice and learn.

• Create an environment for digital businesses to thrive.
• Enable the digital transformation of priority sectors and SMEs.
• Facilitate the growth of start-up ecosystems.
• Accelerate the digitalization of public services.

• Put appropriate mechanisms in place to address online safety concerns, including disinformation, harassment and child sexual abuse.
• Implement horizontal data privacy frameworks that protect the fundamental right to privacy while also giving organizations the flexibility to provide innovative services in a responsible and accountable manner.
• Support individuals to protect personal information and recognize fraud.
• Implement effective strategies to tackle handset theft and the trading of counterfeit devices.
• Refrain from the use of restriction orders, such as mandated network or service shutdowns.

• Implement policies that improve access to mobile broadband and electricity.
• Ensure that sales and training facilities are accessible for underserved populations, including women and persons with disabilities.
• Ensure inclusive and transparent registration processes for mobile and digital services.
• Support the development of simplified designs and accessibility features for persons with low literacy and disabilities.

The report importantly asserts that the "benefits of mobile internet are available to more people each day. However, in a world increasingly dependent on digital technologies, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. Connecting the 3.4 billion people that live within reach of a mobile broadband network, but are still offline, requires a collective effort and a data-driven and holistic approach to addressing the main barriers to mobile internet adoption."

What is more, I concur that the "responsibility for building an inclusive digital society extends beyond any single sector, and demands action from all stakeholders spearheaded by a proactive government. Only by recognizing and acting on our shared responsibility to advance mobile internet use can we ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in an increasingly connected world."

Do you agree with the report's recommendations? What ideas do you have on how to bridge the digital divide in LMICs?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

April 10, 2021

GSMA Report Addresses the Mobile Gender Gap in Pakistan

While my last trip to Pakistan was over 12 years ago, I recall being impressed with the number of people using mobile phones. In those days, feature phones operating on second-generation (2G) cellular networks were the devices used by cellular customers. I should qualify "customers" as it was men as the sole owner of these mobile devices. I remember sitting in a crowded café in Karachi where I observed many men talking on their phone, but not a single woman. While the mobile phone was transforming the way men communicate, which would bring certain improvements, I imagined the socioeconomic benefits women could experience if they had better access to mobile technology.

A lot has changed since my last trip to Pakistan. Smartphones accessing the mobile internet is just one key evolution of the mobile telecom industry over the past decade. Therefore, it was with great interest that I read Addressing the Mobile Gender Gap in Pakistan, a report produced by the GSM Association (GSMA), a UK-based organization representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide. With financial support from UK aid from the UK government and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, the report notes that "2020 was an unparalleled year in which the importance of universal connectivity and access to critical information, services and opportunities came into sharp focus. Across low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), mobile is the primary way most people access the internet, accounting for 85 percent of total broadband connections." The report importantly explains that "[d]espite the importance of mobile, the benefits are not shared equally."

Moreover, the "report examines how women's mobile access and use are changing in Pakistan. It highlights examples of what stakeholders are doing to tackle the mobile gender gap and provides recommendations to further improve digital inclusion for women. Drawing on the findings of the annual GSMA Intelligence Consumer Survey in Pakistan from 2017 to 2019, the report is supplemented by interviews with key stakeholders in Pakistan, as well as other GSMA and third-party data."

Below are the report's key findings:
  • There has been progress in closing the mobile gender gap in Pakistan. Between 2017 and 2019, gender gaps in mobile ownership, smartphone ownership and mobile internet awareness and use decreased by between five to 17 percentage points.
  • Growth in mobile internet awareness and use was particularly impressive during this period.
  • Of the 12 countries consecutively included in the GSMA Intelligence Consumer Survey from 2017 to 2019, Pakistan had one of the strongest rates of growth in mobile internet awareness, especially among women. The gender gap in mobile internet awareness narrowed from 16 percent to 11 percent. In parallel, women’s mobile internet use nearly doubled from 10 percent to 19 percent.
  • Despite this progress, mobile phone ownership in Pakistan is still unequal. Only 50 percent of women own a mobile phone compared with 81 percent of men. This is equivalent to 22 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone.
  • Women in Pakistan are 49 percent less likely to use mobile internet than men, which translates into 12 million fewer women than men using mobile internet.
  • The main reason women cited for not owning a mobile phone or using mobile internet was family disapproval. For an estimated 11 million women in Pakistan, family disapproval is the key barrier to owning a mobile phone.
  • Low literacy levels and unaffordable handsets and data are also key barriers to women owning mobile phones and using mobile internet.
  • Smartphone ownership is relatively low in Pakistan for both men and women: 37 percent and 20 percent, respectively. The proportion who intended to purchase a smartphone in the next six months was also low: just six percent and four percent, respectively.
  • Owning a smartphone can be a powerful way to close the gender gap in the use of mobile services, but there are still significant challenges.
  • Sixteen percent of women in Pakistan who own a smartphone are still not using mobile internet.
  • Ninety percent of men who own a smartphone purchased it themselves compared with just 42 percent of women.
  • Once women in Pakistan own a mobile phone, they are just as likely as men to report the benefits of mobile. Fifty-eight percent of female mobile owners reported that owning a mobile helps them with day-to-day work, study or chores while 66 percent reported that owning a mobile makes them feel safer and 53 percent reported that owning a mobile gives them access to useful information they would not otherwise be able to access easily.
  • Closing the gender gap in mobile access and use in Pakistan could generate a 54 percent revenue increase for the mobile industry, equivalent to approximately $130 million. This is much higher than the 31 percent average increase across all Asian countries, and represents a significant commercial opportunity for the mobile industry in Pakistan.

"Stakeholders in Pakistan should focus primarily on bridging the country's wide gender gap in mobile ownership and reaching the remaining unconnected women, and secondarily on the usage gap," the report explains. "This will require addressing three main barriers: literacy and digital skills, affordability and the strong influence of social norms on women’s ability to access and use mobile technology." As such, the report presents the following recommendations:
  • The government, mobile industry and development community should work together to address public perceptions of women using mobile technology. In particular, normalizing women's use of mobile and raising awareness of how owning and using a mobile phone can benefit women and their families. This could include promoting use cases with both personal appeal and externally justifiable benefits, such as providing education for children, supporting family healthcare and unlocking opportunities to generate income for the family.
  • Male gatekeepers should be considered when targeting marketing or digital skills training programs to women as they often influence women's mobile access, mobility and purchasing decisions.
  • The government and other stakeholders should invest further in public education, especially basic literacy and other initiatives that help women and girls build their mobile digital skills, financial literacy and confidence. This should include women and girls at all levels of education, income and familiarity with mobile and the internet.
  • Designers of mobile services should include local languages where possible, and consider increasing the use of icons, pictures, numeric inputs and IVR/voice commands to better serve women with low levels of literacy. Involving women in the design and piloting of these services would also help ensure their needs are met.
  • The mobile industry and policymakers should explore further initiatives to overcome the affordability barrier. This could include introducing more competitively priced and subsidized internet-enabled handsets and handset financing models, and lowering taxes on handsets and mobile services that have a tangible socioeconomic benefit. Taking these steps would likely benefit women disproportionately. For those still unable to afford a handset, the industry could explore solutions to improve the experience of customers who share a device.
  • To accelerate the closure of the mobile gender gap over the long term, stakeholders should ensure there is a focus on gender equality and reaching women at an organizational and policy level, through senior leaders championing this issue and setting specific gender equity targets.

"Mobile technology has the potential to help address many of the wider gender inequalities in Pakistan by enabling women to access health, financial and other life-enhancing services, and contribute to a number of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)," the report says. "Pakistan has been a key driver of the narrowing gender gap in South Asia in recent years, recording impressive growth in women’s adoption and use of mobile technology."

I concur that "[s]takeholders in Pakistan have an opportunity to build on positive momentum in the country and accelerate digital inclusion for women. This has become even more critical in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased the urgency of reaching women in Pakistan with mobile technology." I appreciate how this report addresses the mobile gender gap in a country with a population of 217 million as of 2019, according to the World Bank, 49 percent of whom are women. Imagine the socioeconomic benefits for all Pakistanis, men and women alike, if the mobile gender gap is eliminated.

Infographic: GSMA

Do you agree with the report's recommendations? Do you have additional ones that will facilitate the elimination of the mobile gender gap?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

March 18, 2021

Report Explores the Role of Mobile Technology in the Humanitarian Sector and How It Is Shaping Humanitarian Action

"The global economic crisis that followed widespread lockdowns has worsened this desperate situation, stretching humanitarian budgets to their limits and forcing humanitarian agencies to reimagine their operating models and do more with less," according to a report published by the GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation (M4H), a program working to accelerate the delivery and impact of digital humanitarian assistance. "In this context, the role of mobile technology and opportunities for humanitarian organizations to digitize humanitarian assistance have become more prominent. For those affected by crisis, mobile technology has never played a bigger role – connecting people with loved ones and enabling access to health information, financial services, social protection interventions and humanitarian assistance."

With the support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), this report documents the progress of the M4H program and partners in 2020, highlighting the key trends impacting the humanitarian sector in this unprecedented year, and summarizing the activities and outcomes of research, the M4H Innovation Fund, strategic partnership projects and advocacy efforts. In addition to the FCDO, the M4H program is funded by the GSMA, a UK-based organization representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide, and its members.

The report presents the following achievements during 2020:
  • "Sparked innovation: The program contracted eight new grantees under round three of the M4H Innovation Fund, bringing our portfolio to 22 grants in total (including the inaugural Disaster Response round). To date, M4H Innovation Fund projects have directly impacted the lives of 714,000 people, with four grantees scaling or replicating in new contexts (Lumkani, Refunite, Mercy Corps and Flowminder).
  • "Facilitated five new partnerships between MNOs and humanitarian organizations, reaching a total of 19 partnerships. The portfolio of projects implemented by M4H has impacted 454,000 people in humanitarian contexts who are now better able to access and use life-enhancing mobile services.
  • "Replicated two business models in new countries, training mobile money agents on Humanitarian Code of Conduct principles (MTN Rwanda and Uganda in partnership with Alight) and providing digital financial literacy training for female mobile money agents (in partnership with Grameen Foundation).
  • "Became a stronger thought leader. M4H published 10 reports, translated from English into an additional four languages. In 2020 alone, M4H reports were cited 36 times and downloaded around 15,000 times. Of note was the Digital Lives of Refugees report, which was downloaded 3,146 times and cited 21 times by stakeholders such as UNHCR, UNDP and ODI.
  • "Highlighted the messages of M4H at 30 in-person and online events globally, 12 of which were organized by the GSMA, reaching over 600 people.
  • "Influenced policy change in Kenya, unlocking access to vital mobile services for recipients of a digital ID project led by the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS). We documented the steps and events that culminated in a policy shift in Uganda that enabled approximately 600,000 refugees to legally register for mobile services in their own name.
  • "Provided capacity building training to over 150 policymakers representing over 16 governments and intergovernmental bodies, including The World Bank and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)."

The report also presents five "prevailing trends related to the role of mobile technology in the humanitarian sector and how they are shaping humanitarian action. While few of these trends are new," explains the report, "COVID-19 brought many of them into sharper focus."

Trend 1: The pandemic has accelerated the need for inclusive digital humanitarian assistance

"COVID-19 has been a catalyst for rapid change and innovation in humanitarian action, sparking action and debate across the entire humanitarian sector. This has included calls for reform – to more locally led action and decolonized approaches to aid. In parallel, the power of mobile technology to enable communities to express their needs and to inform their decision making and choices was recognized by more actors, shining a light on the importance of mobile technology in the lives of people affected by crisis. In the face of COVID-19, humanitarian actors and mobile operators had to adapt to a grim new reality. As humanitarian needs grew, so did restrictions on movement and physical contact, making it more difficult to provide services to affected populations in person. Very quickly, demand grew for delivering humanitarian assistance digitally."

Trend 2: There is a greater focus on digital ethics, privacy and data protection

"While the fast-paced digitalization of humanitarian assistance provides many benefits, it also carries risks. The inability to access or use digital tools can mean that the benefits of digital and financial inclusion are not realized, or worse, lead to exclusion from basic services and vital information (see Trend 3).

"Ethical questions around the digitalization of humanitarian assistance also include respect for individual privacy and personal data protection. Since both are considered an integral part of protecting life, integrity and dignity, it is of fundamental importance for humanitarian organizations."

Trend 3: Accountability to affected populations and inclusion are being prioritized, raising awareness of the digital divide

"Digitizing services can offer transformational benefits to people affected by crisis. However, it can also inadvertently exacerbate inequalities, due to digital divides (such as the digital gender and disability gaps among refugees). This is a particular risk for groups who are disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises and have distinct needs, such as women, the elderly, ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities and those who lack formal identification. The digital divide has long been a major obstacle to digital humanitarianism, but COVID-19 has triggered a step change in the awareness of digital divides, their intersectional dimensions and the importance of addressing them.

"It is imperative that mobile-enabled products and services are designed with and for the most marginalized recipients, as this will allow humanitarian actors and mobile operators to better understand their perspectives, experiences and feedback. This is in line with Grand Bargain Commitment, a 'Participation Revolution,' to include people receiving assistance in making decisions that affect their lives. Human-centered design and other inclusive methods are key to being accountable to the populations that humanitarian actors have a mandate to serve. M4H has been providing guidance for the humanitarian sector and MNO partners to adopt these methods, from making mobile technology more accessible for persons with disabilities to understanding the user journeys of mobile money-enabled cash recipients."

Trend 4: A climate emergency is underway

"Over the past decade, 83 percent of disasters triggered by natural hazards were due to extreme weather, and climate-related events killing over 410,000 people. In the past year alone, catastrophic climate-related events, including bushfires, wildfires, tropical cyclones, record rainfall and locust plagues, touched every corner of the globe. Communities affected by conflict are disproportionately impacted by climate change, which intensifies humanitarian needs, increasing displacement, disrupting food production and weakening healthcare systems.

"These events have reinforced the need for better preparedness and response capabilities, and the role of mobile technology in addressing the climate emergency, from mitigation to response and recovery. Through the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, M4H has continued to work with MNO members to ensure telecoms infrastructure is resilient to extreme climate events."

Trend 5: Digital cash assistance is proving to be a scalable solution

"The volume of cash and voucher assistance (CVA) has doubled over the past few years, accounting for 17.9 percent of all humanitarian assistance in 2019, up from 10.6 percent in 2016. The COVID-19 pandemic not only increased the amount of CVA delivered, but also accelerated the shift from physical cash to mobile money-enabled cash assistance. Because measures to contain COVID-19 have limited mobility and personal interactions, physical distribution of cash and payments instruments have become riskier and more difficult. The provision of digital cash through mobile money is considered one of the most effective digital tools in the COVID-19 response, with the ability to work at scale for humanitarian payments, as well as social safety net payments, if enabling regulation is in place.

"In addition to supporting several initiatives e.g. Social Protection Approaches to COVID-19: Expert advice helpline (SPACE) and partners with digital cash assistance, in August 2020, M4H launched a global partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The three-year collaboration focuses primarily on the use of mobile money to deliver digital assistance through cash-based transfers, with the aim to save lives in global emergencies, including pandemics and natural disasters."

As for trends to watch in 2021 and beyond, the report says "There are countless other important trends that we have witnessed in 2020. An integral piece of M4H's work is identifying and understanding the potential of frontier technologies, such as AI, blockchain and big data, to improve humanitarian action." What is more, "The program is continuing to pilot and scale such technologies through the Innovation Fund and Strategic Partnerships projects, while also testing new and innovative partnership models that are critical for long-term sustainability. Trends and lessons from these frontier technologies and partnership models will be shared in the year ahead."

The report importantly notes: "As the humanitarian landscape continues to change in response to the shifting nature of crises and funding patterns, it is clear that the humanitarian sector will increasingly rely on mobile operators, the wider private sector and governments to help deliver impactful services for recipients and advance technological shifts through policy innovations."

Moreover, "In a year of uncertainties, mobile technology has remained essential and proven crucial."

What mobile services do see providing value in the humanitarian sector and shaping humanitarian action?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

March 16, 2021

Serving the Community and the World: The Opening Chapter of My Journey as an Entrepreneur

The following is a guest post by Mafade Aygoda.

Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, I gained an interest in business while watching my parents venture into multiple enterprises. As a child, I was involved in helping and supporting them. If I was not doing school work, I was performing different tasks to support their businesses.

My father was a shoe shiner when he first arrived in Addis in his late teens. He always had big visions and big business ideas. My mom, on the other hand, was good at finance and detail-oriented. She was extremely focused and disciplined. While my parents failed in different business ventures, they also learned from these failures to build many successful businesses.

To me, entrepreneurship means doing the unthinkable, finding a path in places people avoid and consider to be hard. It is about making the difficult and complicated things simple and easy. It is about venturing down roads less traveled for a specific purpose.

Immigrating to the United States as a young adult, my first few years in America were difficult. I felt lost and alone. I struggled with the English language. But as soon as I started going to school and started to see faces and stories of people from different parts of the world, my life became colorful. I never lived in a place so diverse. To this day, the diversity of this country is my favorite part of America.

When people learn of my Ethiopian heritage, they often ask: "Where is a good place to get Ethiopian food?" Seattle has a large and vibrant Ethiopian community. And as such, the city was seeing a rising interest in vegan and vegetarian food. Ethiopian food was desired not just by the Ethiopian community, but by the general population. I saw an opportunity to establish a business that would provide not just delicious Ethiopian food, but would do so while providing impeccable customer service and building value in the company's brand by deploying effective marketing strategies.

With the advisory support of Aaron Rose, who has over 25 years of experience building successful businesses worldwide, I took the plunge into entrepreneurship by forming Koba Ethiopia, LLC in Seattle, Wash. I was frustrated by the lack of cultural representation I saw in Seattle's Ethiopian community. Most of the Ethiopian restaurants served delicious food, but there was a lot of room for improvement with respect to customer service, marketing and branding.

The initial focus of Koba Ethiopian was in food delivery and pop-ups while searching for a permanent space to establish Seattle's premier Ethiopian restaurant. Shortly after the launch of my business, I was able to establish Koba Ethiopia's brand identity and promoted the name to a large audience who expressed excitement about seeing a modern and simple approach to Ethiopian food. However, I continued to struggle to find a dedicated space for the restaurant due to the high rents.

With the food delivery business, I disliked the restrictions of serving a limited number of customers based on location. In addition, I was operating the business alone. I quickly realized that if I continued along this path, I would not be able to solve the problems so many new ventures encounter such as attracting new customers or managing my finances. I knew that I had to pivot quickly before I ran out of cash.

Abandoning the idea of food delivery or a restaurant, I learned that having an ideal location is often the key determinant in a restaurant's success and even the rent for the worst location in Seattle was beyond my budget. Therefore, I pivoted Koba Ethiopian to an e-commerce platform. Separately, I launched Shades of Injera, a media platform that is deeply rooted in celebrating differences in cultures, perspectives, and stories. Shades of Injera's mission is to inspire and connect one another in a way that is intentional and purposeful. I believe the more we know about ourselves and others, the better we connect.

This past January, Aaron, who is taking a more active role in my company's operations, and I decided to rebrand Koba Ethiopian, LLC to simply Koba, LLC (Koba). We are also rebranding the e-commerce platform to Koba Roots. As a strategic move, Shades of Injera will become a division under Koba alongside Koba Roots.

We are not abandoning Koba Ethiopian as this platform will continue to show a simplified approach to Ethiopian food and culture. The goal is to inspire people to incorporate Ethiopian food and culture into their everyday life.

We are building Koba Roots to be a leading online retail and lifestyle platform. We are focusing on creating and sourcing products that are simple, green and sustainably-made. The e-commerce platform will have a dedicated space for products inspired by the world's unique cultures. We want to find simple ways to inspire people to incorporate apparel and home goods from around the world. The picture on the right of the Gaby Dress is just one of many items that will be made available through Koba Roots.

Aaron uses this analogy with respect to entrepreneurship. "Launching a business is like jumping into the deep end of a pool not knowing if you have the swimming skills to survive or jumping into a dark abyss not knowing what lies at the bottom. With the right support, however, and with much luck, you can survive."

As a child, I had dreams to become a lawyer, pharmacist or engineer. In doing so, I had hopes this would impress my dad and our community. While I attended different schools, I struggled to find my purpose and to discover the things that I enjoy and excel at. I am happy with the fateful decision to enroll at Seattle University where I received a degree in business administration. In launching my own business, I discovered my passion for helping people experience different cultures through fashion, food and design while sharing our unique perspectives and stories.

The past four years as an entrepreneur has been full of trials and tribulations. But it has also been an amazing experience that I continue to embrace each and every day. I am excited by what the next four years (and beyond) will bring in this amazing journey.

Mafade Aygoda serves as founder and chief executive officer of Koba, LLC. She may be contacted at Mafade@KobaRoots.com

March 15, 2021

'Homemade Manhattan Bar Book': A Bartender's Story of Sharing His Love of Making People Happy With Drinks

"Turning Perspective Into Opportunity" is the focus of this forum. Jason Rothman, who lives in Citrus Heights, Calif. with his wife, Nicole, and their cat, SusieQ, turns his perspective into opportunity by publishing his first book, Homemade Manhattan Bar Book: Create craft cocktails at home with more than 50 recipes, tips, and techniques from a real working bartender.

I first met Jason in 2014 during his time working as a bartender at the Rainier Club, a private social club in Seattle, Wash. I took an instant liking to him as he possessed impeccable customer service skills. He treated each customer (club member) as if he went into the bartending industry to serve them (a quality I learned to appreciate from my father, which you can read . Not only did he remember details about the customer such as their favorite drink (Lagavulin scotch for me), but Jason recollected details including the member's family, hobbies, profession, latest trips, etc. Essentially, he demonstrated a gift for building relationships.

After his departure from the Rainier Club, Jason kept in touch with me. We occasionally met at his residence just to chat and share a drink (always appreciating that he kept a bottle of Lagavulin on hand). And after returning to his native California, Jason maintained the connection through social media. It was through a post he made on LinkedIn that prompted me to purchase his book.

Edited by Matt Tidwell, I very much enjoy reading Jason's book. Many people find making drink an intimidating process: Do I have the right equipment? How do I measure the alcohol? What type of ice should I use and when should I use it? Should I use fresh juices or juice concentrate? What is a jigger or muddler? What type of glass should I use? Should I shake or stir the drink? Jason provides answers to these questions and many more.

One insightful piece of information that Jason provides is: "Shake a cocktail with citrus, otherwise stir it up. Shaking is hard on a drink. It adds a lot of air which is great for a Margarita, but ruins a Martini or Manhattan. Stirring breaks down the same amount of ice as shaking but it gives the drink a smooth feel. Some drinks you want smooth, and some you want bubbly."

When given the opportunity, there are a set of questions that I ask while conversating with book authors. Recognizing that the purpose of the book is to share his perspective as a bartender with readers, I desired to learn more about what led Jason to take on a project of publishing a book. In an email message, Jason provided me with a response to the following six questions. 

What prompted the idea of writing your book?

JR: "I had all these recipes in my head and when the first shutdown happened, I wasn't sure what was going to come back. Some friends suggested that I make videos, teach online bartending classes. I mentioned that I would need to write something first. I was a nobody. A bartender in Sacramento Calif. I wrote down 50 recipes that I think are some of the most important cocktails to know, and it all grew from there. We were also in the first shutdown [to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic], and writing the book helped keep me grounded."

When and where did you write? Did you set a daily writing goal?

JR: "Once I had the recipes I wanted and the tips I needed to tell people, I decided that if I write five recipes a day, that I would have all 50 done in ten days. It took less time than that, because once I got going, I wrote a lot more each day. I mainly wrote in my kitchen, and my backyard, in the morning hours, with a few marathon days where I just kept writing. I had a good friend edit my book, and he taught high school composition for many years before becoming a principal. Then It took time to rewrite. Then I had to take photos of every cocktail, and put it all together as a book. In all, It took nearly six months of almost daily work to get it published on Amazon."

What was the hardest part of writing for you?

JR: "The hardest part of writing is putting something on the paper when you have nothing. Hemmingway said that the first draft of anything is shit, and I always keep that in the back of my mind. Put something down. It may be crap, but get it down. Come back to it and make it good later, but get something down to start. IT was also hard to lay the manuscript out in an ebook form. I didn't think of all the 'other' stuff I had to do to get the book published myself."

What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing your book?

JR: "I learned that everyone has self-doubt, but you have to fight through that and believe in yourself. It's also okay to fail. I started three other books in my life and they never got past page 30. This one came together without much trouble. Sometimes you have to abandon a project and sometimes you get to see it through to the end."

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

JR: "I would say this to all content creators of all mediums. Just try it. Try creating something. Even if you hate it, you still learn from it and get better the next time. Now that my book is done, I put out drink recipe videos on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. Some videos do well and some don't, but I keep putting them out because in totality, it is gaining an audience that likes the content I release. I have no idea why some videos get 20,000 views, and some only get a few hundred. I just keep putting them out. Same with my book. I started writing recipes and restaurant stories for a "second" book. If it becomes something, great. If not, well I still improve my story-telling skills."

If you were writing a book about your life, what would the title be?

JR: "I don't know what I'm doing, but I keep doing it anyway: The Jason Rothman Story."

The recipes from Jason's book are easy to follow. In addition, he is producing videos which demonstrate his love of making people happy with drinks. While National Margarita Day falls on February 22nd, my wife and I enjoy this drink during the hot summer months. 

To help celebrate St. Patrick's Day on March 17th, Jason demonstrates the ease of making a Tipperary Cocktail.

And the Espresso Martini is absolutely delicious. (Vodka + Kahlua coffee liqueur + espresso = what is there not to love?)

I appreciate the art of making an alcoholic beverage. Part of the enjoyment of consuming a drink is watching how it is made. Like cooking a your favorite dish, however, there is something rewarding about making your own cocktail.

In addition to his website, you can follow Jason's latest cocktail concoctions on Facebook, Instagram, TikTocTwitter, and YouTube.

Among the recipes Jason provides in his book, which is your favorite?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

March 9, 2021

China Will Seek to Enhance Relations with Africa in 2021 and Beyond, Says EIU Report

In a report that explores the evolving relationship between Africa and China, The Economist Intelligence Unit says relations between the two "have been tested by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic that spread across the continent in 2020. Disruption to national and international travel, trade and investment caused a synchronized downturn in all but a few economies in Africa. However, the Chinese government and some Chinese companies are making shrewd moves to build goodwill in the region, protect their strategic interests and set the foundation for stronger commercial engagement in the years ahead."

Titled Taming the dragon: new frontiers of co-operation, below are the report's key findings:
  • China will seek to enhance relations with Africa in 2021 and beyond, with a fresh focus on agriculture, environmental issues, the digital economy, healthcare provision, industrial capacity, regional connectivity and free trade and national security;
  • The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will continue to drive international connectivity with major developments in the pipeline to enhance trade facilitating infrastructure;
  • Enhancing food security is high up the list of policy priorities in both Africa and China. Engagement in African agricultural ventures increasingly characterized by corporate mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures involving private companies;
  • Digital expansion will be boosted by the completion of a cross-border fiber-optic cable in Pakistan, forming the backbone of China's Digital Silk Road; and
  • China will seek to engage in more bilateral and collective free-trade deals, presenting the potential starting point for more in-depth trade and investment ties.

"China has worked hard to establish a solid footprint across Africa through years of high-level political engagement and the provision of access to much-needed project finance and expertise," the report explains. "Chinese companies have delivered thousands of transport, power and telecommunications projects in Africa over the past two decades. China has also supported export-oriented industrial park developments and taken a dominant position in many African markets for products such as competitively priced consumer goods, building materials, plants and machinery, and electronic equipment."

Impressively, "The value of Chinese construction contracts in Africa has topped US$40bn every year since 2011 (surpassing US$50bn in 2014-17), and for years the number of Chinese workers in Africa has been close to 200,000 (although this slipped from a high of 264,000 at the end of 2015 to 183,000 at the end of 2019), according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China." The EIU further says that "[t]his level of expatriate staffing reflects extensive Chinese engagement in Africa—expertise that is required, given the scale and complexity of some Chinese ventures in Africa, employment conditions attached to Chinese loans and foreign direct investment (FDI), and loose expatriate employment regulations across much of Africa. Interestingly, recent leading information revealed that both Chinese and local firms operating in the construction and manufacturing sectors in Angola and Ethiopia tended to employ just as many Chinese workers as local ones, paid them similar amounts and trained them to similar standards."

"China is the region's single largest bilateral trader and provider of foreign capital in the form of commercial loans and FDI," the report notes. "Over the past two decades loans and FDI have been directed towards transport, power, extractives and telecoms projects, as have smaller but increasing amounts to manufacturing, finance, business services, and health and education." Furthermore, "Resource-rich countries, including Angola, Algeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, have been major beneficiaries. Countries on the eastern seaboard, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, have received finance for major industrial and transport-sector projects. The financial splurge looks likely to continue, although financial forays may be more selective and even more diverse in the years ahead, given Chinese financial exposure to some parts of Africa coupled with China's own evolving strategy and needs."

"An interesting feature of China's financial engagement in Africa is the primacy of loans extended to the region over FDI flows," according to The EIU. "This could suggest that Chinese companies have tended to be more risk averse when it comes to Africa and may have attempted to minimize operational risks linked to political and regulatory issues. However," as indicated in the chart above, "the gap appears to have narrowed in recent years, possibly suggesting that China has become more confident about a more hands-on and exposed approach to its engagement. Whether this is true—or will last, given the impact of Covid-19 on African financial stability—remains to be seen."

On the topic of free trade and industrial development, "A new feature of Africa's evolving commercial relations with China could well be the emergence of more bilateral and collective free-trade deals. Mauritius became the first African state to launch a bilateral trade deal with China when a free-trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries came into effect in January, marking the first step in a potentially new direction for Sino-African relations in which Mauritius could well act as a catalyst and template for other free-trade deals in Africa. Currently, 13 African countries (Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Seychelles and Mauritius) have bilateral investment treaties with China, which could morph into more comprehensive trade and investment agreements in the years ahead." As illustrated in the image on the left, "China has also developed industrial parks and free-trade zones in a wider range of African countries, as well as an evolving network of special economic zones across Africa, which present the potential starting point for more in-depth trade and investment ties."

"In addition to this," the reports says:
China has expressed support for pan-African and sub-regional free-trade arrangements that seek to build larger markets and more integrated supply chains on the continent For instance, China is supportive of the enormous African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, which began its initial implementation phase in January. China considers the AfCFTA and other smaller sub-regional agreements as 'win-win' situations, at least in the short to medium term. These FTAs necessitate infrastructure development and industrial know-how (including more and better highways, railways, seaports and airport infrastructure) and industrial know-how, which are areas where China excels on the continent. However, regional FTAs could create competition for Chinese manufactured products in the longer term. A clearer picture will emerge surrounding the impact on Sino African relations of the AfCFTA and other regional FTAs once rules of origin are better established for the provision of African goods and at what level external tariffs are set for Chinese imports. At present, China does not appear overly concerned and is more eager to exploit the opportunities that Africa's regional FTAs look set to create.
Regarding telecommunications and the Digital Silk Road, The EIU points out that "China dominates the market for smartphones and feature phones (traditional-style push-button mobile phones) in Africa, and this is unlikely to change soon. Chinese companies offer affordable prices and tailored products to African markets that provide a clear competitive edge."

"Transsion and Huawei, together with Xiaomi, Oppo and a few other minor players," as reflected in the chart above, "provide more than two-thirds of registered smartphones and an even larger share of feature phones in Africa. A dominant and expanding handset presence is just one part of China's strategy for the telecoms sector in Africa, which has and will continue to drive the rapid spread of mobile data and voice services across the region."

The report further asserts that "Even more crucial to China's future engagement in the telecoms sector in Africa, and a key pillar of its broader commercial strategy, is control over existing hardware and the rollout of next generation technology. Chinese companies including Huawei, ZTE and China Telecom are major providers of backbone and last-mile technology in Africa with an eye on wider rollout of mobile and fixed-line infrastructure. Huawei may have been excluded from key telecoms infrastructure contracts in North America and Europe, but the company has deep roots in Africa that provide it with a solid and seemingly irreversible foothold to pursue expansion plans in the region."

What is more, "Information and communications technology (ICT) services could receive a boost in 2021, as China will soon lay the final stretch of a cross-border fiber-optic cable in Pakistan that forms the backbone of its Digital Silk Road and will support China's digital expansion across Africa." As illustrated in the image on the left, "The cable will connect to the submarine PEACE cable in the Arabian Sea that links to various entry points in Africa, providing countries participating in the BRI with enhanced access to the Chinese tech sector while reducing reliance on western-developed and controlled cable services. Data centers, smart cities, 4G expansion and possible 5G introduction are on the menu and will help to shape Chinese involvement in telecoms and other business areas across Africa in the years ahead."

The report, however, notes bumps in Sino-African relations lie ahead:
Concerns have escalated over the past twelve months regarding African debt exposure to China the potential loss of sovereignty over strategic assets and resources following failure to make payments. However, China has proved reasonably flexible in postponing and restructuring debt repayments so far in countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia. In the case of Kenya, in January the government secured a six-month debt-repayment holiday worth around US$245m, although China had taken a tough stance; the potential for a debt for asset swap with regards to the Port of Mombasa port looked a real possibility until fairly recently. To date, China has signed debt service suspension agreements with a total of 12 African states and has provided waivers of matured interest-free loans for 15 African states under the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative, and more could follow. However, Africa's current financial difficulties are not easily solved, and debt restructuring has largely kicked the problem down the line in the hope that economic conditions improve and financial strains ease. 
My colleagues in Africa concur with The EIU's assertion that "Anti-Chinese sentiment within some African populations is simmering below the surface, with citizens resentful of Chinese economic influence and the lack of higher-value job creation for locals associated with some Chinese investments." The report adds that "[t]here is a perception that ruling elites in Africa are complicit in Chinese predation of national resources and the displacement of African workers and products by Chinese substitutes. Whether or not these feelings are justified, the developments of 2020 increased tensions and elicited a response from China to appease its critics. For instance, the trip to Nigeria [this past January by Wang Yi], the Chinese foreign minister, incorporated efforts to smooth relations that had frayed following reports of Africans being targeted for Covid-19 testing and forced quarantine in Guangzhou, China. These sentiments will be hard to shake off, and further outreach efforts should be expected to help pave the way for future trade and investment."

Business leaders and investors looking at opportunities in Africa may find value of the report's concluding paragraphs:
China is on a new geopolitical and economic drive in Africa, and countries across the region stand to benefit substantially from Chinese interest in the region in terms of industrial and technological development, regional and international connectivity, and global value-chain integration in the years ahead. Currently, Africa remains receptive to Chinese engagement, recognizes the benefits that could accrue, and is actively seeking Chinese economic support, which bodes well for Sino-African relations. However, securing Chinese commitments is not a given, and achieving the best possible deal will require that African governments and companies hone their bargaining skills and fully value what they have to offer.
The direction of travel appears to be setting the foundations for an increasingly busy two-way street between Africa and China. This will undoubtedly throw up challenges for corporations from Africa and those based elsewhere in North America, Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Asia. However, evolving Sino-African relations will create more and new business opportunities that can be exploited by non-Chinese entities. Chinese companies will consolidate their presence in the region but do not have exclusivity to trade-facilitating infrastructure, industrial parks, power-generation sites, IT infrastructure, or consumer markets—whether or not they have helped to build or finance these.
I have witnessed the increased engagement of Chinese businesses in Africa over the past several years. While the FDI is greatly needed, particularly for those African countries possessing an abundance of natural resources, there has been negative outcomes including the use of Chinese workers rather people from local cities and villages, corruption resulting from weak government institutions and opaque contracts with Chinese firms, and unsafe working conditions and environmental degradation. I have also seen a rising number inexpensive goods and crafts manufactured in China dumped in local markets throughout Africa, which makes it difficult for local manufacturers to sell their products.

With respect to the continent's digital economy, many tech services require an operating license granted by a government agency. I have seen local entrepreneurs being denied a license in favor of a competing company from China. A friend from Ethiopia once asked for my opinion about launching a fintech company based in the country's capital of Addis Ababa. While I agreed that there are few companies operating in this sector, I advised him that he should be mindful of Chinese companies deploying similar services in the country and throughout the east Africa region.

These challenges notwithstanding, the African continent possesses as large youthful population and a (slowly) rising middle class looking for more sophisticated consumer products and technology services. What is more, African businesses understand they will need to invest in tech services in order to better compete with their domestic competitors and access export markets oceans away.

Is it a better investment to support a local African company or a larger Chinese corporation that has robust plans for entering the African economy? I see pros and cons for either, but perhaps "both" is the best answer. What do you think?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

March 8, 2021

347 African Tech Startups Raised $1.4 Billion in 2020, Says Africa Tech Venture Capital Report

347 African tech startups raised a total of US$1.43 billion in 358 equity rounds in 2020, according to the 2020 Africa Tech Venture Capital Report published by Partech Partners, a venture capital firm with offices in San Francisco, Paris, Berlin, and Dakar. This was an increase of 250 rounds by 234 startups in the previous year, which represents a year-over-year (YoY) growth rate of 44% in deal count.

"This is quite remarkable," the report says. "In such a challenging year, more startups have closed rounds than in any previous year. Activity has grown by almost half. No other region in the world has seen anything like this. The global interest for the African tech ecosystem remains strong even in the context of the global crisis driven by the pandemic."

However, not all is rosy. The equity funding raised by African tech startups in 2020 totaled US$1.429 billion compared to US$2.02 billion in 2019, a YoY decline of 29%. As the report explains: "Despite a strong growth in activity, the total amount raised by African startups decreased for the first time after nearly a decade of accelerating growth. While it is still higher than 2018 and before, this sharp drop clearly marks the impact of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns."

What is more, "Activity has drastically reduced for mega rounds (above US$50M), barely grown on large-size deals and accelerated on venture-type rounds."

More encouragingly, however, "As the table above shows, the activity level has increased for almost any deal below the US$50M size. Deals between US$200k and US$1M have actually almost doubled, keeping up with previous trends. The main drive for the lower total amount of equity funding raised seems to be the disappearance of mega-rounds. Indeed, when we exclude rounds above US$50M, this total equity amount raised is flat between 2019 and 2020. Thus, this explains to a great extent the drop in funding amount."

Focusing on a breakdown by country, the report maintains that "As in previous years, VC Funding is still concentrated in few markets, but we see strong signs of diversification as half of African countries are now in play."
  • Nigeria remains Africa's top destination with US$307M invested (21% of all equity funding) with Kenya following closely behind with US$305M.
  • Egypt completes its rally toward #1 in equity deal count, with 86 deals (+83% YoY), almost a quarter of the continent's VC transactions.
  • African VC investment remains centered around 4 top countries attracting 80% of the volume invested. However, we see more diversification as Ghana reaches a solid #5 spot, with a 102% increase in equity funding to reach US$111M and in total an unprecedented 26 countries have attracted capital.

As indicated in the image above, fintech is still the leading vertical with 25% of funding (despite a 57% YoY drop in volume). The 2020 highlight, however, is on the rising investment in the digitization of key economic sectors with agritech (US$179M), logistics and mobility (US$157M), offgrid/energy (US$148M) and health tech (US$141M).

"When we further breakdown funding in each vertical by markets, it's clear that investors in each vertical focus on a few countries":
  • "Fintech investment is quite concentrated with Nigeria (38%), Egypt (28%) and Ghana (13%) attracting together nearly 80% of all the funding in this vertical.
  • "Agritech is even more concentrated with 79% of the equity funding in this vertical flowing into Kenya. However this is partly driven by a single large deal at US$85M.
  • "Nearly half of Enterprise funding goes to South Africa. And the same applies with half of funding in Logistics, Mobility and Edtech flowing into Egypt."

Focusing on gender, the report reveals that female-founded startups raised 13% of the rounds in 2020, a four point decrease from 17% in the previous year. But they accounted for 14% of the total equity funding just above 13% in 2019.

Moreover, female-founded startups raised US$204 million in equity funding in 2020, a 22% drop from the previous year. Interestingly, startups in Kenya accounted for 65% of this amount keeping with a similar trend in 2019 when 78% of funding to female-founded startups occurred in Kenya.

As for giving a breakdown of the investors, "Africa's tech ecosystem is not only attracting more investors (+24% YoY), but they are also more committed to the market, with 108 of them involved in 2 or more deals and 22 very active in 5+ deals." Furthermore, "443 unique equity investors were involved in the 359 equity rounds raised by African startups in 2020. It was around 87 when we started tracking this metric in 2017, a 5x growth in 3 years."

"Looking at the investors' distribution per stage, early stages' attractiveness is strongly confirmed with 421 active investors involved in Seed+ transactions (228 rounds), 229 investors in Series A (through 86 rounds), 80 investors in Series B (29 rounds) and 43 active investors in the 16 Growth rounds."

Partech Partners provides the following explanation to its methodology noting that the firm reports on tech and digital VC equity deals above US$200k, in African startups:
  1. The numbers are about equity deals. This means Partech excludes everything else: grants, awards, prizes, conventional debt, venture debt, loans, Initial Coin Offering (ICO), non-equity/technical assistance, post-IPO and M&A deals. Examples: Twiga Foods US$29.4M debt from IFC announced in Oct 2020 is not counted. Lumos Global's debt round of US$45M from DFC announced in September 2020 is also not counted.
  2. The numbers only include equity funding rounds higher than US$200k. This includes deals that Partech categorize as Late Seed (Seed+) to Growth stage equity rounds. Angel deals and smaller Seed deals below US$200k (numerous on the continent) are omitted voluntarily. Example: Credit startup Swipe's round of US$120k funding from YC as part of the W20 batch in March 2020 is not counted.
  3. Partech focuses solely on VC deals that are in the tech and digital spaces. This means Partech only count companies where the value is built around digital technology. Example: In May 2020, the Series A of US$11.2M of insect-based feed and fertilizers company, NextProtein, was not counted.
  4. The firm covers African start-ups that they define as companies with their primary market, in terms of operations and/or revenues, in Africa but not based on HQ or incorporation. When this company evolves to go global, Partech will still count it as an African company. Example: Gro Intelligence’s US$85M Series B round is counted as an African deal, as it was founded in Kenya before expanding to the USA.

Having been engaged in the African market as an investor for over two decades, I am encouraged to see the steady rise in the number of tech companies that are raising funds as well as the increasing number of investors who are investing in the continent. As addressed in previous posts on this forum, I remain optimistic on the potential opportunities in high-growth sectors including fintech, agritech, digital health, e-commerce, connected devices (Internet of Things or IoT), and logistics technology and mobility. Challenges remain, however, including the disproportionate number of female-founded startups receiving support from investors. While not mentioned in the report, challenges I have encountered as an investor in Africa include systemic corruption, burdensome government regulations, and an inadequate supply of infrastructure, just to name a few.

What do you think of the report's findings? Which sectors will present the greatest opportunity for investors in Africa?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.