John Curtis-Oliver,  partner, head of TMT Middle East and Africa, Boyden  John Curtis-Oliver, partner, head of TMT Middle East and Africa, Boyden 

By John Curtis-Oliver,  partner, head of TMT Middle East and Africa, Boyden 

As Warren Buffet once said, we should “be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful”.   Since arriving in the region in 2005, I have focused on hiring leaders into the telecoms and technology sectors.  I have always been struck by an overriding sense that the leaders of the telco operators seem content to follow the crowd rather than to pave the way.  Year after year, the leaders of the major telco groups deliver similar messages to each other with the current message being all aboard the digital bandwagon.  Have our telco leaders been guilty of ignoring Mr Buffet’s advice?  

What is the future for the telco sector in our region?  I remember in 2006, advising a candidate who was due to be interviewed by one of the major telco groups as the head of the M&A team.  To paraphrase his thoughts, he suggested that instead of paying $X billion for the 9th mobile licence in Togo or Yemen (no offense to my dear friends from Togo and Yemen), perhaps he advocated, it might be interesting to build a diverse portfolio of assets investing in ISPs, internet start-ups, ICT, future technologies, IT services, system integrators or anything else we can think of with a view to being able to offer a fully-fledged service to the corporate segment and consumer segments? I told him that he may be ahead of his time. For those of us who are old enough to remember, this was the era of new licence issuing and the proverbial beauty parades.  The client felt he did not truly understand the role.  When we seek to understand some of the challenges faced by the telco sector now, we can track back to this era.  Even in 2006, the operators in the region quietly admitted that, while they had control over the consumer segment from a voice and data perspective, with the corporate sector, they had no choice but to form partnerships in order to offer a full service.  Why did they resist rather than drive technological innovation? 



During the 2017 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, there appeared to be great enthusiasm around new technology and the potential for a bright future but an overriding sense of doubt as to which, if any, of the operators in the Middle East and Africa are truly ready to capitalise on the opportunity.  Everyone seemed to want to change and transform and innovate, but was this a push to drive performance improvements through innovation or a reluctant admission that the world has changed and the current modus operandi might have a short shelf life?  

While talking to some brilliant start-up companies at the 4YFN event, I found that a common complaint was the lack of access to the key decision makers from the telco operators. Even the start-ups led by ex telco industry executives with direct access to decision makers made this complaint.  It seemed ironic that, while the operators’ leadership talk of changing the model, leading the digital revolution and breaking away from the traditional revenue streams, the short shuttle from the main event to the 4YFN event was a bridge too far.  Who knows what hidden gems may have been there?

On behalf of the start-ups, my message to CEOs is this: next year, or next time there is a major industry event, split your delegation into teams, tell them to go into the halls and the 4YFN (or equivalent) start-up event and come back to you with the two to three best companies for you to meet.  Give each of them ten minutes of your time and the chance to pitch their solution.  If nothing else, it will give the start-ups hope.  If the start-ups do not see a light at the end of the tunnel, innovation will die and the industry will go backwards.

Over the past few weeks, I have been surveying senior executives from the telco sector.  I surveyed directors, VPs and CXOs from the major telco groups in the MEA region in order to build up a picture of how they view the industry.  I have been asked to emphasise that those quoted in this article are giving their own opinions and not necessarily the opinions of their employers.