Global satellite firm seeks partnership with local start-ups

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Andy Start, President, Global Government Services at Inmarsat. / Courtesy

The ICT sector has for years been billed as one with potential to fast-track national development through increasing foreign direct investment. Much as the much anticipated drive will be led by local stakeholders, there is room and opportunity for partnership with international firms to achieve the desired goals.

The New Times’ Collins Mwai spoke to Andy Start, President, Global Government Services at Inmarsat, a global mobile satellite communications service, for insights on possible partnership avenues as well as expert opinion on the best way to fast-track growth.

Excerpts:

What exactly does Inmarsat do and what’s your regional portfolio like?

Inmarsat was set up about 35 years ago as an international maritime safety organisation. We originally set up as an intergovernmental organisation by 80 nations to provide communication for safety in the sea. From that we were providing communications to aircraft and on the ground. Since then, the company has evolved to be a world leader in mobile satellite communications.

Throughout Africa and the world, most of our work has been to provide communication to mobile users. We provide communication to passenger airplanes, ships and others that are mobile, among others.

Most of our business in Africa is mobility communications in areas such as mining, police, emergency services and the military. The evolution of the company over the last few years is that we have been bringing on much higher speed satellite services than the traditional services. In addition to that we have been investing heavily in the Internet of Things. There are a lot of opportunities in satellite based communication to augment internet based solution.

You recently signed a memorandum of Understanding with the government on Smart Cities, what will be your role and input?

Inmarsat was the first industrial partner of Smart Africa alliance, we are attracted to do that because we have been focused on making a difference. We have realised that if we help countries and governments make a difference everyone benefits. As part of the Smart Africa Alliance, we have been working over the last year to work out how we can help make a difference in Africa.

We signed an MOU with the Government of Rwanda to become involved in all of the Smart City programmes that the Government of Rwanda is looking at and to bring an understanding of the Internet of Things technology into those programmes.

That may result in Inmarsat getting business or bringing knowledge and information to solutions that do not involve our services, which is also okay because we know that if we build a sustainable relationship with the Government it will be good for business.

As a partner in the Smart Africa Alliance, what do you make of the choice of Smart Cities as a flagship project? Aren’t there other far more pressing issues such as literacy, and cashless economy?

I think Smart Cities are part of the Smart Africa agenda and should be a priority. The fundamental thinking behind Smart Africa that the leaders are pushing is that, by connecting African citizens to the digital economy, they will have an opportunity to leapfrog in the fourth industrial revolution. The demographics, skills and passion of people show that they clearly have an ability to compete in that digital economy if they are connected. The big challenge is to connect them and allow them to contribute to digital business. That is the Smart Africa Alliance that they are trying to work on.

Quite often, there have been questions about the sustainability and impact of technology that has been developed elsewhere in the world and then implanted in Africa or East Africa region without considering the local content. This tends not to lead to desired impact and is not sustainable in the long run. Have you thought this through?

I think there are some interesting lessons that you can draw from urbanisation. One of them is that you need to have the ability to attract funding and ability to scale globally, once you introduce a solution, to be able to develop something that are reusable across Africa and across the world. Each of those needs to be tailored if you want to become a centre of excellence for something. You cannot create wealth from your innovations unless your products can work globally.

To do that you need to attract that funding from investors and also attract platform companies that will help you scale. An example of a Platform company is Microsoft. If you can develop a solution that works with Microsoft, it can be sold everywhere across the world. Inmarsat is also an example of a Platform company. If you create a solution that can work in conjunction with a platform company, your solution can reach all over the world in a short time. The best thing partners like us can do is bring finance.

Inmarsat was last year involved in the Miss Geek competition, it was about finding women in Rwanda who had found interesting challenges in Rwanda that could be solved with ICT. We started working with the winner of Miss Geek 2016. What we can do is provide access to technology platforms and scale it up across the world. We can help her take it across the world. We can bring knowledge and skills to improve it further. That gives her a reference and she can sell it across the world. This would also help and improve the infrastructure in the country and attract other players.

Is your strategy to penetrate the market by working with startups in Rwanda and the region?

We see it as an opportunity to work with startups in the country and across the continent to help energise them to solve real problems locally. By doing so, although the amount of money we make will not be much, the collective impact from all of them will be good business for us and will create a stimulus to the economy.

There are also some large capable companies in the region and we would like to partner with them too. The Smart Africa Alliance is a great vehicle for industries and government to work together.

When picking firms or startups to partner with, what’s on your checklist?

Right now we are picking pilots in interesting areas. We picked agriculture because it presents an opportunity to drive the economy if it adopts technology. We are looking for somebody who is trying to solve a problem and could make a massive difference in the process. In the process, they also create a positive cycle of funding to further grow their business.

We are looking for somebody who has a solution with big impact. We are also looking to work with people with passion and drive. We also require people with integrity, who do not compromise the values of the firm.

Most international firms have cited skills gap in the local market as a major challenge in the process to scale up their business, have you had the same challenge?

There has to be training programmes to fill the skills gaps cited. We have partnered with Carnegie Mellon University and the Ministry of Youth and ICT to provide trainings and run boot camps. We train students in various areas to make sure that they are on the level of international expertise.

The East African region has often been described as a high risk market causing some international investors only come in for short term to make a quick profit before withdrawing. What’s your plan?

Due to our line of business, we have to make long term investments. A satellite is a 30 year investment. We are used to taking big strategic bets whereby we know that if we maintain our efforts, it will pay off. The region is a strategic bet, we do not expect to make huge returns in the few coming days, we would like to cultivate relationships across Africa, and over the period of time, we will do great business.

What more would you like to see being done to improve the local business climate?

Other governments in Africa can look at what Rwanda has done and seek as much as possible to follow that model. The fact is that Rwanda has created a safe and secure environment where business can thrive. Other countries can also replicate Rwanda’s model of investing in education of their citizens, which also improves the operating conditions of investors. The fact that the Government has also entered into partnerships with various international players has also made Rwanda a hub in the region, other countries can replicate that too.

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