How the Internet is changing Africa : Interviews Anat Bar-Gera

Nowhere is the market for mobile telephony and wireless Internet connectivity growing faster than in Africa. Access to this technology opens up new possibilities for locals from all walks of life to earn a living, further their education and link up with the world. Switzerland-based entrepreneuse Anat Bar-Gera has gained a foothold in this growth market.

Ms Bar-Gera, in your career so far you’ve founded one company after the other. What keeps you going?

I love my work. I’ve been lucky: I founded all of these companies together with my husband, who is a very creative entrepreneur, I had the privilege of studying at INSEAD in Fontainebleau and met lots of motivated people there as well as later in Switzerland, and ultimately found my way into the telecommunication business. I leapt at the chances that have come my way and am driven by the enormous opportunities Africa has to offer.

What makes that continent so interesting to you?

Its demographics and potential! Africa is young: half the population is under the age of 20 – nowhere else in the world is this age group growing so rapidly. And those young people are helping Africa to develop. On average, the annual rate of economic growth lies between 5 % and 7 %.

But a certain degree of hope plays a role in that figure, correct?

And justifiably so: as is the case in many developing countries, we’re currently seeing the rapid emergence of a middle class. The needs and desires of those consumers are propelling the economy. People are moving from the outlands into the cities. But quite often the expansion of infrastructure is not keeping pace with the advancing urban sprawl. And there still exist the age-old problems of poverty, high unemployment, especially amongst the youth, and a lack of medical care in many places.

In terms of its development, will Africa become the new China?

The potential is certainly there. By 2025, Africa will have the world’s largest pool of workers. Education is a key topic, of course. Once those people have the requisite knowledge and experience, things will pick up dramatically. But it also takes an environment that is conducive to development and attractive for investors like us. Presently, it’s mainly the Chinese who are first movers in Africa, and this in a major way.

What factors are essential for creating such an environment?

A stable financial system and a reliable legal framework; regulation that’s transparent and equitable; an adequate tax regime; freedom of capital movement – and lots more. Foreign investors take a very close look at those conditions. They don’t just want to bring know-how into the country; they also want to create value, and at the end of the day earn a profit.

You already implied that one pillar underpinning this development will be the infrastructure. What significance does tele­communi­cation have in this regard?

Many African economies are still based on the creative utilisation of raw materials. But the times are changing; the world is going digital. So a priority task here is to create a viable socioeconomic system that enables the leap into the digital age. Apart from linking a country to existing subsea cables at fair prices – a factor that needs to be addressed by the governments and their regulations – it’s a matter of setting up the local network. And then comes the demand factor – creation of relevant local content in order to incentivize the population to us the internet. In the countries where we’re active – to date, Ivory Coast and Cameroon – our efforts go towards ensuring that as many people as possible gain Internet connectivity, and thereby access to knowledge and innovations. Our goal is to offer sensible and useful services as a way of narrowing the digital gaps and ultimately closing them entirely.

What kind of technology is needed to accomplish that?

As a telecom operator, our company focuses on supplying broadband interconnectivity via the mobile 4G/LTE network. We finance the infrastructure necessary for that. With the stable connectivity that YooMee provides you can Skype, stream sports events, games and entertainment, utilise Cloud services, and of course conduct business. Inexpensive prepaid cards for data packages, along with small modems, enable easy access. In the very near future, the receptors for these services will be directly integrated into the smartphones.

“Closing the digital divide” sounds easy, but how do you actually go about doing that?

We’ve come to the realisation that connectivity alone is not enough. People need reasons and motivations to go online, so we create local content; for example, a directory with addresses of restaurants and hotels, other small business, airline and train schedules, transport possibilities, and lots more. As banking services are hardly available for small customers, easy-to-use digital payment systems are on the march, and that opens up entirely new business opportunities. We teamed up with PayPal and are the first merchant offering such online payments in West Africa. An enormous multiplier effect is emanating from precisely these small- and medium-sized businesses. And that has an impact on the entire economy: statistics show that a 10 % increase in the number of a country’s Internet connections causes its gross domestic product to increase by roughly 1.4 %. Another example is schools of higher education. When we offer Internet access at a campus like the University of Douala, thousands of students benefit – suddenly, they can reach out for the online academic and education world, science, literature and a vast pool of knowledge, as well as stay in closer contact with friends and relatives.

How can a Swiss company such as yours be successful in Africa?

As a neutral country with no colonial past, Switzerland is not perceived negatively. That helps us. “Switzerland has watches; we have time,” as the locals would say. Many things run differently here. For instance, personal relationships are very important when it comes to doing business. You need to know the people you’re dealing with. We also like to pay back: my husband supports an orphanage in Cameroon and manages to create strong impact on these children’s lives. The larger companies are also called upon to play their part: sponsoring is one way of doing that.

You’ve found friends and important benefactors for your projects. How important are relationships like that?

Contacts are important. I travel a great deal and also frequently appear at conferences. Friends and acquaintances support us in many ways – for example, Lord Paul Boateng, the first British MP of African descent, serves on our Board of Directors, as does Nozipho January-Bardill, South Africa’s former ambassadress to Switzerland, who today is engaged at the UN in New York. Until recently, Ekwow Spio-Garbrah was also one of our directors. A career diplomat, among other activities, he was appointed Minister of Trade by the Ghanaian government and therefore had to step down from our board.

Why are you focusing on the sub-Saharan region?

We selected our base carefully. At present, Ivory Coast is experiencing an exemplary upswing and Cameroon is a stable country. We’re talking here, regarding sub-Saharan Africa, about a population of close to 800 million people, roughly one-third of whom are already in the middle class or have the chance to get there. For us, the question is whether those people are desirous of being connected with the Internet. What we’re observing is that they are, as soon as they have the necessary income. Especially amongst the younger generation, there are many “early adopters” who want that. And the fact is that this group already today spends a greater proportion of their income on telecommunications than, say, people in Europe. Mobile telephony plays an important role for them. In many cities, the cell coverage is already quite dense – getting to that level also in the rural areas is admittedly a challenge. First, there has to be available electricity.

Where do things go next?

Based on a multi-variable matrix, we seek out those countries that offer fitting conditions for market entry. Ghana, Senegal and Mozambique are at the top of our wish list. But sometimes, luck comes from outside – we’re frequently approached by companies that want to partner with us. YooMee Africa also receives inquiries from regulatory authorities.

Your company is headquartered in a suburb of Zurich, thousands of miles away from your operating business. How did that happen?

My husband and I came to Switzerland because we were given good opportunities here following our graduation from INSEAD. Now we live here with our children and we like it very much. Over the years we built a few companies, all of them telecom and internet operators, some European, East European and none of them strictly Swiss. Getting involved with Africa was a gut-level decision we took at the encouragement of a friend. We bid for a licence, got it and simply started the ball rolling.

You travel a lot. How do you reconcile your private and business life?

I take time for my family and try to keep evenings and weekends open, even though that does crimp our social life at times. Fortunately, our office is not very far from home. And as often as possible, I accompany my youngest kid to school and football games. As a counterbalance to work, I practise yoga or do a few rounds of stand-up paddling on Lake Zurich. But there’s also enough room on my agenda for other activities; for example, as a UNICEF Switzerland Board member – an engagement that gives me particularly great satisfaction.

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