From the mag: how Liquid Telecom is building Africa’s digital future

Published: 2 April 2019 - 8:02 p.m.
By: Ben Mack
Image: Liquid Telecom Group Chief Operating Officer Ahmad Mokhles

A version of this story appears in the April 2019 print issue of CommsMEA.

It’s not often you meet someone who can tell you what their company is all about in only four words. But Liquid Telecom’s Ahmad Mokhles can.

Liquid Telecom is “Building Africa’s digital future,” he says.

“We see a lot of aspirations. We see a lot of ideas.”

Of course, there’s a difference between having goals and ideas and actually delivering on that vision. But Liquid Telecom has been able to put its money where its mouth is – or, in this case, lots of money to achieve lots of very tangible results.

Take what it’s doing with cables. Liquid Telecom along with its partners recently completed the Cape to Cairo terrestrial fibre network. The network – the first terrestrial network in Africa to go all the way overland from south to north – stretches from South Africa (the “Cape” bit) to Egypt (“Cairo”) and is part of Liquid Telecom’s pan African network which is approaching 70,000 kilometres.

Such a “digital corridor” essentially building a link between some of the continent’s biggest economies is just the tip of the iceberg, however, as Mokhles says.

“It’s also about motivating trade. It’s about digital inclusion.”

He says more. “We’ve done the south to the north. Now we need to do the east to the west.”

Hence the plan for a fibre network to go from Cairo to Dakar, Senegal.

“We believe Africa deserves better connectivity,” says Mokhles.

“We believe [Africa] will be the world’s engine for growth. With 1.2 billion people, it will be the engine for growth more than anywhere else [in the world].”

That’s why Liquid Telecom is also involved in many, many more projects. Another example: the Gateway to Africa, which Mokhles says connects Cape Town and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – with more connections planned.

“We’re a pan-African operator. Our approach for each country is about the value creation for the economy.”

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Data and African talent

The ways in which Liquid Telecom is helping to digitally transform Africa also goes far beyond just fibre cables and connectivity. Mokhles says another part of the equation is data centres – data centres located within Africa.

“Most of the players in data centres [in Africa] are not connected data centres,” he says.

“They are siloed. That’s our advantage – all our data centres are interconnected. Number two, we are network-neutral.”

Under the African Data Centres (ADC) name, Liquid Telcom currently has several data centres up and running in Africa, including in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Rwanda. Mokhles says more are on the way.

Cloud services rely heavily on a data centre infrastructure which is why they are working towards the advancement of cloud services in Africa to help drive customers’ digital transformation. The importance of the data centres, Mokhles says, is that they can complement connectivity – and that the data of governments, banks, businesses, and everyday people are all stored safely and treated the same.

“You need to secure your data. And you need to secure that data locally,” he says.

“The key is value creation for everybody. We’re not a telco. We’re a digital player. We’re into digital infrastructure building. Wherever we go, we need to have a 360-degree view.”

One of the most important elements that enables that 360-degree view: making sure local African talents, who understand Africa and its incredibly diverse markets, are in key executive and managerial roles.

“We need to be labelled as a home for African talent,” says Mokhles.

“A key is how Liquid Telecom can unleash growth for African talent.”

And like its cables and data centres, recruiting, training up and promoting African talent is exactly what Liquid Telecom is doing.

People who are from a certain area, simply put, usually understand that area and its culture better than people who are not, says Mokhles. By having local talents in local areas, it’s easier to understand a community’s needs and what kinds of services people want.

“You cannot compare doing business in Africa compared to some other developed economies,” says Mokhles.

One hire that Mokhles is especially keen to mention is that of Susan M’kandawire Mulikita. In January, Mulikita became Liquid Telecom’s CEO for Zambia – and the company’s first female CEO in the southern African nation.

As the Zambian-born Mulikita told African media outlet IT News Africa at the time of her hire, she said she was “very pleased” to join Liquid Telecom because it’s a company “that promotes equal opportunities and inclusive leadership at the highest levels of the organisation.”

Mokhles expands on the significance of Mulikita’s hire as Zambia CEO. “It’s important to show female leadership and inclusion. We are trying to equip African talent.”

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‘Digital inclusion for a digital identity in an African nation’

While equipping African talent is key, Mokhles says the mission of digitally equipping everyday people in Africa must never be forgotten. In short, he says, Liquid Telcom is about empowering people and improving people’s lives.

An example Mokhles points to is what Liquid Telecom founder and group executive chair Strive Masiyiwa recently discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland about how technology is empowering farmers and agricultural workers throughout Africa – and how digital transformation can help unleash the potential of entire communities once people are equipped with the tools to help them succeed.

Hence why Mokhles believes Africa has more potential to power the world’s future economic growth than perhaps any other region on earth. A young, innovative population, he says, is ready to make its mark – something Liquid Telecom and its many partners are wholly dedicated to enabling, as evidenced by their ever-expanding number of projects.

“You cannot discount the growth of Africa,” he says.

Mokhles says any short-term financial pain is more than worth the long-term gain for African society.

“What is the outcome? We’re about digital inclusion for a digital identity in an African nation. People sometimes don’t understand Africa the way we need to see Africa.”

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