A strong government promoting new information and communication technologies, telecoms operators looking to innovate, and a young population with a more entrepreneurial outlook: a promising combination for Côte d’Ivoire.
Interview with Innocent N'DRY, export advisor on new technologies at Ubifrance West Africa, a French agency promoting exports to the region, which is based in Côte d’Ivoire’s business capital Abidjan. L’Atelier caught up with him at the recent Rencontres internationales de la French Tech in Paris, on the theme of new ICTs in Côte d’Ivoire..
L’Atelier: So where does Côte d’Ivoire stand now when it comes to mobile telephony? Are people just using the basic functionality – phone calls, sms, etc – or has the smartphone really caught on in the local market?
Innocent N'Dry: Over the last year the mobile telephone sector has posted huge growth in Côte d'Ivoire. The five national operators now have over 21 million subscribers. The leading player is Orange Côte d'Ivoire, closely followed by South African firm MTN and the Emirates-based firm Moov, well ahead of the others.
At first people used to buy smartphones just to impress their friends and family, or for work purposes, but now they are using them in a different way. Today smartphones are a must, making life easier in so many ways – doing the shopping, paying bills, building up savings, etc. New uses of smartphones are primarily down to apps which have mainly been developed by startups in this field.
[Moroccan operator] Maroc Telecom is said to have approached the Ivorian government with a view to taking over the licence granted to Warid Telecom, which has never been used. What changes might that bring, would you say?
Maroc Telecom is a major operator and its arrival would give a real boost to the mobile telephone market in Côte d’Ivoire. Today only the three telecoms companies I’ve just mentioned are trying to develop products for the mobile Internet market. Only these three are really doing innovative things. So an experienced operator like Maroc Telecom could really help to drive growth in the online market.
As you mentioned, the President of the Maroc Telecom Group recently met the Côte d'Ivoire President and obtained the green light to move into the Ivorian market. Although the telecoms providers I’ve mentioned operate in several different areas of the country, having a company of this size in Côte d’Ivoire is likely to encourage the others to expand their operations throughout the entire country.
We can see a real desire on the part of the Ivorian government to encourage the use of ICTs. What do you think of the Telecommunications Kit it has provided for local authorities?
The government’s plan is to drive the spread of ICTs throughout Côte d'Ivoire and that’s why local authorities are being provided with Internet connections. However, this is being done on the basis of CDMA technology which, as far as I’m concerned, is rather old-fashioned compared to what’s available today.
Nevertheless, the system enables someone sitting thousands of kilometres away from Abidjan to send an email much faster than s/he could before. So that’s a good start! Especially when you realise that we’re talking about installing Internet connections at all administrative levels, both ‘Prefecture’ level and the sub-Prefecture level as well. This is one of a set of major projects for which the government has obtained quotes from firms in countries such as India. In addition, we hear that one of the longer term goals is to obtain low-cost computers for the whole population to use.
PCs or tablets as well? But do you think this initiative will actually come from government or from small companies and startups in the field? [Abidjan-based startup] Qelasy has just brought out a very low-cost tablet in Côte d’Ivoire, focusing initially on educational purposes.
Well, it was the government that came up with the idea, but obviously the companies then have to play their part in the process. In fact some of the major telecoms operators, including Moov, Orange, and MTN have already signed contracts with hardware distributors to offer their customers low-cost tablets.
Qelasy started out as the brainchild of a young Ivorian who worked for a long time in different telecoms companies before deciding to launch his own tablet. It isn’t actually being manufactured in Côte d'Ivoire, but it was designed there and it’s now being distributed through Orange, which offers the tablet to all its subscribers and customers.
So, yes, we can say that the government comes out with ideas and then it’s up to the companies to run with them.
The TEDx programme held an event in Abidjan in July. Do you think there’s real enthusiasm among young people to become entrepreneurs right now?
Yes, I really do think so. In addition to the TEDx event, Orange and MTN are also running a series of workshops focusing on mobile app development. Many young people come along to try and develop their ideas, and existing startups have been taking part as well. The network operator then picks out the best projects and tries to bring them to fruition. If you look at the Android apps, mostly designed to make people’s everyday lives easier, you’ll see that quite a few of them have been created by young Ivorians.
Obviously we can’t compare these startups with their equivalents in France, for example. Right now people working at startups don’t often have all the resources they need. Sometimes they come up with an idea and then when they need a helping hand the operators will step in and try to drive them through to the production stage. But at this moment in time I wouldn’t say that we are looking at a whole set of Ivorian entrepreneurs. In fact many of these ideas start out as just a bit of fun.