How Westerners benefit by ensuring African phone calls remain expensive

Friday August 24 2018

Phone call

A lady makes a call on her mobile phone in Nyeri, Kenya on May 12, 2013. The cost of international calls from Africa is higher compared with what Europeans or Americans pay. PHOTO | FILE 

By JEAN-PHILBERT NSENGIMANA
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When Africans make international calls to fellow Africans, the traffic they generate usually transits through a hub outside the continent.

The cost of such communication is higher compared with what Europeans or Americans pay while transacting within their respective blocs despite their having higher levels of income.

The economic value at stake is significant. Smart Africa estimates that its 24 member countries lose about $3.5 billion annually to the fraud or grey traffic linked to this setup.

The situation brings to mind the travel experience, whereby to fly from one African capital to another, sometimes in the same region, people needed to transit through a European airport, unnecessarily paying multiple costs to the benefit of European airlines and hospitality institutions.

It is against this backdrop that on July 18, 2016, the One Africa Network (OAN) initiative was launched by Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda and chairman of Smart Africa and Ali Bongo, President of Gabon on the sidelines of the African Union Summit in Kigali.

While presiding over the launch, both leaders said that the mission of the OAN is to make intra-Africa communications secure and affordable, in order to accelerate the socio-economic integration of the continent.

The milestone was a fulfilment of a promise made earlier when the OAN initiative received endorsement from the 24th Assembly of the African Union in January 2015.

Subsequently, Smart Africa initiated the design, development and deployment of the African Regional Exchange and Financial Settlement Platform that will work as a clearinghouse to keep and account for the continent’s traffic at home.

The initiative has the following five major objectives:

  • Assert the ability of African nations to oversee their own voice, data and financial transaction traffic and reclaim associated benefits;

  • Boost intra-Africa trade and the socio-economic transformation agenda;

  • Support African continental integration, especially the free movement of people, goods and services;

  • Protect African borders from telecoms fraud and grey traffic while tackling the associated economic and security threats that such traffic represents; and

  • Improve the quality of service and affordability of communications within the continent.

The launch of the One Africa Network followed an initiative that was implemented in the four countries of East African Community’s Northern Corridor: Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda.

Within six months of the launch of the OAN, the traffic between countries had increased by 800 per cent and the revenues realised by operators had increased, despite the price per minute of international calls having dropped.

This means that the explanation for the high price paid by Africans when they communicate cannot be construed as a commercial imperative.

The explanation cannot also be technical since the bulk of communications infrastructure is now based on VOIP (Internet Protocol), therefore eliminating distance as a significant cost factor.

What is clear, is that the persistence of high roaming and international calling fees is a form of digital exploitation that seeks to maximise providers’ interests and other motives through the old “divide and rule” technique.

The public needs to be made aware that the traffic of voice and messages represent just the tip of the iceberg of the overall intra-Africa communications.

A much larger part of this business is made of Internet traffic and financial flows. The OAN initiative should, therefore, be understood as an effort by African leaders to keep Africa’s value within Africa as long as Africans are trading amongst themselves.

It is not just a question of sovereignty. It is a question of Africa’s competitiveness and survival in the global digital economy.

Jean-Philbert Nsengimana is an advisor to Smart Africa and a former minister of ICT in Rwanda.

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