According to the report, Africans are some of the heaviest mobile users in the world and, therefore, telco subscriber data has the unique ability to portray a person's digital life — both personal and at work.

The report indicates that mobile wireless network operators have a big opportunity to unearth device user insights and deliver innovative data services that can advance socio-economic value, democratic participation and entrepreneurial vitality among a vast population of one billion consumers in the region.

According to the council, telcos' current revenue streams are drying up in light of disruptive over-the-top services, and the ability to offer new, life-enhancing data services will seem like "an oasis in the arid sub-Saharan desert". Over half of telco marketing executives in Africa believe that real-time customer and operational data are essential to boosting performance through personalisation.

The report is based on a CMO Council survey of marketing leaders at communication service providers, mobile network operators and digital media companies in Africa, as well as from in-depth interviews with executives from:
  • MTN,
  • TelkomSA,
  • Vodafone,
  • Cell C, and
  • Accenture and AT Kearney.
The survey warns that transforming data into lucrative data services won't be easy for telcos. The report highlights some of the challenges that CSPs face across the multi-cultural landscape, diverse markets, limited digital infrastructures and disparate technical terrain of Africa.

The report gives the following recommendations on how to overcome these challenges:

1. Seek inspiration

Find inspiration that sparks a big idea in customer value and experience delivery. This can be difficult for a regulated and monopolistic industry not known for innovation. It will likely mean striking up partnerships with valued data sources and service providers in education, healthcare, agriculture, entertainment, sports, retail, financial services, media and other sectors.

The big idea should appeal to an incredibly diverse market. "Africa as a whole is rising," says Mmathebe Zvobwo, executive of Enterprise and Supplier Development at Telkom South Africa. "But you must also have an innovation that somehow solves a common or pervasive problem in all 54 distinctly different countries."

2. Sift, sort and select data assets to prioritise 

According to the survey, this is the proverbial elephant in the room. Telcos must navigate a maze of cross-border data complexity, availability, accessibility, quality, timeliness and incompatibility.

"The challenge is accessing and unifying that data because we have multiple systems that do not talk to one another," says Grace Mothusi, senior marketing leader, enterprise segment at MTN. "For clean, in-depth data, we require a system that can cater for both mobile, ICT and a CRM tool that can be used by both sales and marketing."

3. Move quickly before adjacent companies get there first

Farming equipment manufacturer John Deere, for instance, already offers data services that advise African farmers when to plant and harvest crops in relation to the rainy season. Telcos, on the other hand, tend to rest on their monopoly on mobile voice-and-data services, thus putting them at risk of commoditisation.

"In Africa today, there is very little customer loyalty relating to telcos," says CEO Vukani Mngxati at Accenture. "It's not uncommon to find a person with SIM cards of three different wireless network operators in one country."

The survey says that telcos should take the last piece of advice to heart, given competitive pressures on their business. Nearly half of the survey respondents in the CMO Council study cited the following as top threats:
  • the proliferation of mobile applications
  • streaming content and digital services, and
  • the complexity and multi-dimensionality of today's digital ecosystem.
"Between the proliferation of mobile applications and the decline of communications as a revenue driver — along with digital natives leapfrogging innovation — telcos realise that they must look outside of their core business strategies to create value," concludes Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the CMO Council.

The report is now available for download from the CMO Council

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