Change the world


“If you consider that in 2050 Africa will have a population of approximately 2.5 billion people, representing a quarter to a third of all humanity, it becomes clear that Africa’s emerging markets are your future.” 

This is what the former Chair and CEO of MTN, Phuthuma Nhleko, told students at Nelson Mandela University’s online Faculty of Engineering, the Built Environment and Technology (EBET) graduation ceremony on Friday 18 December, during which he was conferred with an honorary doctorate.
“Placing myself in the shoes of students graduating from university today,” he says, “I was struck by how fundamentally different the world’s ecosystems are in the year 2020 compared to 1983 when I graduated with a BSc Civil Engineering.

In brief, Nhleko’s path followed this trajectory: he did his degree at Ohio State University, graduating in 1983, followed by an MBA in finance from Atlanta University.

He practised as a civil engineer in Ohio and South Dakota in the US before returning home where he held a number of positions, including as a senior member of the Standard Corporate & Merchant Bank corporate finance team, and as director of a number of large corporates. He became the CEO of MTN in 2002 and the Chair in 2013 – a position he held until his retirement in December last year.

“The question that needs to be asked by graduates today is ‘what is the prism and framework in 2020 through which we should be etching a roadmap towards fulfilling our humanity-changing ambitions?’. I come back to the emerging markets every time. They have their obvious ups and downs but a huge amount of growth and opportunity is going to come from here.

“Africa’s 2.5 billion people – I’m drawing this from the projected global population demographics cited in Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital’ - will all need food, clothing, education, healthcare, housing, infrastructure, employment and connectivity,” he explains, urging graduates to seek opportunities for Africa, in Africa.

“Look what China has achieved in 70 years – it has grown from an underdeveloped country with a huge rural, poverty-stricken population into the second largest economy in the world, competing in many areas such as telecommunications with the United States as the global leader in innovation and technology.”

He has demonstrably shown that emerging markets can be a massive growth destination for investors and capital. With MTN he saw the potential and during his leadership from 2002 to 2011, the MTN Group grew into one of Africa’s largest multinational businesses. The mobile subscriber base grew to over 185 million users in 22 countries in Africa and the Middle East and the company’s market capitalisation increased from US$6 billion in 1994 to over US$35billion.

He emphasises that South Africa must move with the times. “Our mineral wealth and manufacturing sector is important,” he says, “but the world is now living in a digital economy which is increasingly driven by the depth of intellectual property and innovation. We have the talent. If you look at the many innovative youth in Silicon Valley, a great number of them are from developing countries outside the US. 

“What we consume and how we work will be completely restructured to a digital, wireless and content-laden ecosystem. It’s no accident that the FAANGs - the stocks of the five most popular and best-performing American technology companies: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Alphabet (formerly known as Google) – constitute at least 15% of the Standard & Poor's (S&P) 500 Index [widely regarded as the best gauge of large-cap US equities]. This is the age we live in.

“If I was offered the opportunity to invest in anything I chose, I would invest in biotechnology, big data and artificial intelligence. This is the future and if I was graduating today, I would be looking at how I can use my ability to pursue these fields on the continent and in other emerging markets.

“The question that needs to be asked here is, ‘if Africa constitutes a quarter or a third of humanity within 30 years - what is Africa doing to plan and prepare itself to hold a global position consistent with its population size? Further, with Africa contributing around 2% of global GDP with no meaningful influence over significant multilateral organisations and forums, what is Africa going to do about this and with 2.5 billion people, can the world afford to ignore the African continent or continue to position it at the periphery of global affairs, as it has done for the last two centuries?”

Nhleko believes we haven’t even begun to tap the potential: “When I was at MTN in the early 2000’s the likes of Ericsson of Sweden, Motorola of the US and Alcatel of France provided 100% of MTN’s telecommunications equipment. I gradually supported the introduction of Huawei - the Chinese telecoms operator - into countries like Nigeria, and Uganda, much to the consternation of the telecommunication engineers at MTN. In 2020 Huawei is the largest telecommunications equipment provider in the world with the largest market share and it is leading the likes of Ericsson in 5G technology. It happened – and it shows it can be done.

“Today’s graduates need to leverage a platform in Africa for this generation and the next generation, which I refer to as the ‘Africa 2050 generation’; it is up to our graduates to precipitate a paradigm shift in Africa’s prospects and global position.”

Essential to this shift, he adds, is a reclaiming of African identity, with university humanities curriculums needing to play a key role to play in this regard, as he explains: “The African identity has been almost fatally dislocated in the last 400 years. I do not believe that any credible African Renaissance, politically culturally or economically will come to pass in the absence of a deeper re-examination and re-definition of the collective African self.”

He further believes that Africa needs to increasingly act as a cohesive borderless unit: “Our thinking has to be completely pan-African in outlook, leveraging the asset of 2.5 billion people to develop muscle in global trade and political matters.”

It deeply concerns him that we are living in an age where “collectivism has given way to individualism”. He cautions graduates: “You need to explore beyond the ‘what is in it for me?’, or ‘what can I get out of this?’. To be successful you need to focus on ‘how can I pursue my humanity-changing ambitions by thinking laterally, not only for my generation, but for the next generation?’.”

The springboard for innovation in the electronics industry, known as ‘Moore’s Law’ states that computing and the digital industry will continually and dramatically increase in power and decrease in cost at an exponential pace. Nhleko concludes: “In this digital world, how can we keep ahead of the Moore’s Law’s curve such that Africa can occupy its rightful place in the world within a generation?”

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Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777