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Getting behind an internet “revolution” in Angola

VICTOR MUZADI and HANNINGTON OSODO, BIRD

“WHAT we are doing is a revolution and you can’t negotiate with a revolution. It’s happening and we’re part of history,” says Morato Custodio.

With two masters degrees from California’s Southern University, an IT dress code and silver chain, Custodio, who is fluent in English and Portuguese, is not someone you would immediately associate with the term “revolution”. In fact, Custodio found early success in the corporate corridors of top regional multinationals, making Director of Operations at Multichoice Angola by 28. His further rise in the corporate halls of power looked in assured. Then, in 2017, he gave that up.

Custodio felt he needed to attend to a burning desire to help young entrepreneurs. As the country healed from the deep scars of a protracted civil war and with talk of new leadership bringing greater impetus to new opportunities, the country was making huge strides in rebuilding its economy and infrastructure. With substantial oil reserves – the second-largest in Africa – the country seemed set for take-off. Custodio wanted everyone to ride on a tide of development. One key ingredient seemed to be missing, however: universal internet access.

In 2017 the internet penetration rate in Angola, with a population of more than 30 million people, was less than 25 percent. That compares with today’s rates of around 40 percent in Kenya, 50 percent in Nigeria and 60 percent in South Africa.

So, after turning his back on the corporate world, Custodio decided to enable the “revolution”. He decided he would become an entrepreneur, focused on growing Angola’s economy.

“Digital inclusion and financial inclusion is the goal,” he said.

Together with local and international partners, Custodio started Lisa Pulsaris Electronica, the first mobile handset manufacturing company in Southern Africa and the largest in terms of production. The company aims to provide cheap mobile phones to Angolans and then connect them to the internet.

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“We started with the base… which is providing people with mobile handsets. That’s why we built a mobile phone factory. We started in 2017 with the capacity to produce 340,000 mobiles a month. I believe if we enable people to get access to smartphones… an entry-level smartphone, it will be easier for our digital platforms to thrive,” he explained. The manufacturer began by employing 152 people, all Angolan nationals.

With an initial investment of 8.5 million US dollars from private investors, Custodio’s dream began taking form. When fully operational, Lisa Pulsaris Electronica will have the capacity to produce 6 million handsets annually and employ 1011 people. The manufacturing of tablets was scheduled for the second phase of the project.

Following the successful launch of Lisa Pulsaris Electronica, Custodio went on to cement a partnership with WiConnect, another startup focussing on providing free internet hubs across the country. Like Custodio, the WiConnect team sees digital inclusion as key to economic growth in Angola.

“The projection for digital inclusion in Angola for the next 5 to 10 years must and has to be 100% or total inclusion. Obviously, this is an unrealistic target, but we must work towards this target in order to be competitive in the new digital age,” explained Paulo Araújo, co-founder and business development lead at WiConnect,

“Our sole purpose is to provide free internet to all of Angola. As of this moment we have over 300 hotpots all over Angola and connected over 217 000 users to the internet in the past 3 years,” Araújo explained to bird in a telephonic interview.

Teaming up with WiConnect has also helped Custodio with his wider ambition of growing an ecosystem.

“Since 2017 my main focus, my mission, has been access for more people to digital platforms and financial services and this wouldn’t be possible if I wouldn’t be able to find people allied to the same vision as I have, and willing to work with me towards that mission – and convince them it would be a very good idea to work towards the future where the majority of the people in Angola could connect to the internet,” he explained.

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His plan for the future remains nothing if not ambitious.

“Our mission is to reach 750 hotspots next year, reaching close to 1.5 million people,” Custodio explained. Angola has over 15 million mobile subscribers, so 10 percent does not seem like too much of a stretch.

There is more to this picture than internet connections, however.

According to Araújo, Angola’s poor internet penetration rating – when compared with other countries in the region – is in part due to a lack of digital services “missing” from the menu available to Angolans.

“The main reasons behind this classification, in my opinion, is due to 3 factors: low internet penetration, low adoption of digital payments solutions and low penetration of banking services in the country,” Araújo explained.

African countries like Kenya and Nigeria have seen a boom in digital payments providers and digital banking, leaving Angola with some catching up to do. The gaps are what Angolan startups like WiConnect and others are now targeting.

“We have launched various projects with multiple partners like BAI (Angola’s biggest bank), IpWorld (the main internet service provider in Angola) and are working with government to scale up operations,” says Araújo.

Other startups are seeing the opportunities as well.

“It is important to mention the importance of players in the fintech space like Lwei which aims to make it possible for Angolans to open a bank account in 5 minutes, offer digital payment solutions for companies and act as a digital payment aggregator for various platforms,” Araújo added.

Meanwhile, all has not been plain sailing for Custodio. Following a successful launch period, Lisa Pulsaris Electronica was not spared the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. After the Angola government-issued lockdown orders, the company was forced to send employees home. Scaling up to full capacity is likely to take longer than expected, as a result.

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Custodio meanwhile dived into the startup ecosystem through Bantu Makers, an Angolan startup studio that builds companies and invests in leadership to solve great challenges in African markets. Through the startup studio, he has also been involved in Angola’s first crowdfunding platform, Deya.

“In 2018 I joined Bantu Makers and we have been working towards enabling other entrepreneurs (to) get access to opportunities as we have and that’s why I love the idea of Deya. That was already in the works, I just added to the team and brought my experience to develop it further,” he said.

Through Deya, anyone with an idea or project can have access to investors and support through crowdfunding. Deya has also partnered with the Funders Institute, one of the biggest startup accelerators in the world.

Having come from a remote village and had some lucky breaks to get to where he is now, Custodio is very aware of the many obstacles that lie the paths of young entrepreneurs in countries like Angola. He believes it’s only fair to give back to society by helping create life-changing opportunities for others who’ve not been as fortunate as he was.

“I got lucky, so my main goal has been making sure no one needs to be lucky. We need to create opportunity (and) access platforms, for other young entrepreneurs to thrive.”

There’s a good chance that if those entrepreneurs do thrive, so can a wider startup ecosystem and, by extension, the opportunity for services like universal internet access. Vive la Revolution!

By The African Mirror

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