Africa has often been said to be a continent that leapfrogs intermediary stages of technology. So it is not a surprise that the East African Community (EAC) is one of the few – if not the only – regional blocs to scrap mobile roaming charges. And this is just the beginning.
Introduced in October 2014, the One Network Area (ONA) aims to harmonise tariffs on mobile voice calls, SMS and data transmission within the EAC. This has led to a minimum 400% increase in the volume of calls – a direct benefit to EAC citizens and African businesses operating across EAC borders. Previously, making calls across the EAC was in many cases more expensive than calling Europe, the US or Asia.
The second phase of the ONA initiative is under way, whereby telecom operators have begun revising SMS and data charges downwards. Rwanda began this process in August 2015, and the idea is to have a truly integrated regional bloc with all mobile telephony barriers removed.
Compare this with other regional blocs in developed markets. The European Union (EU) only recently voted through new rules that will scrap mobile roaming charges – a reality that will happen in 2017. That the EAC managed to start this process in less than one year after an EAC Heads of State Directive illustrates how African countries really have the potential to make quantum leaps in development.
Tanzania recently expressed interest to join the ONA and so has Ethiopia, even though it isn’t a member of the EAC. South Sudan is already part of ONA. At the highest political level, regional integration is about bringing people together and creating environments conducive to tangible gains and inclusive growth. How much more can the EAC and Africa achieve with this type of leadership? A lot.
The beauty of broadband is that it isn’t constrained by physical borders or distance. When executed, the ONA will see calling rates across the entire continent reduce drastically. One can only imagine the multiple opportunities for growth, inclusion and development.
It is exciting to look into a future where the EAC’s political will to connect its people even more may be replicated across the continent. The EAC ONA, the single tourist visa and the use of identity cards for travel in the EAC are just a few examples of what is in our means to transform the lives of our citizens for the better, once we commit to it.
What the success story of ONA tells us is that the most intractable barriers are not of a physical or regulatory nature, but those within our minds.
The writer is Valentine Rugwabiza, Minister of East African Community, Rwanda.