Robert Rudin: Opening the Lines of Telecommunication in Africa

  • Robert Rudin1 (Photo by Perry Munga)

    Mr. Robert Rudin, Managing Director, Sub-Saharan Africa – Ericsson Kenya. Photo: Perry Munga.

With his military service over, equipped with an engineering degree and a passion for the French language, Robert Rudin began his love affair with Africa when he was only 21 years old. Here, he describes how telecommunication is changing life in Africa.

The decision to build a railway from the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria would forever change the history of Kenya. Cutting its way across almost 1,000 km of previously uncharted territory, this daunting enterprise took off from 1896 and was soon dubbed ‘the Lunatic Line’ in British press. When the last rails were laid in Port Florence (today’s Kisumu) at the shores of Lake Victoria, modern transport would open up East Africa’s interior for exploitation and control, as well as for trade and development. Transporting goods from Uganda to the coast now took six days instead of three months. During its construction, almost 2,500 railway labourers – mostly immigrants from India - had died from sickness, violence, or the famous man-eating lions of Tsavo.

Less well known is that the Swedish telephone company LM Ericsson was involved during those early days of modern communications in Kenya, as the company supplied equipment for the telecommunications lines that ran along the railway tracks. More than a century later, and 50 years after Kenya’s independence, Ericsson equipment still drives business here. Today, however, mobile phone masts and digital internet links have replaced the telegraph’s wooden poles and copper wires.

Chatting via Skype from Nairobi to Philadelphia, Mr. Robert Rudin, Managing Director and Head of Commercial Management in sub-Saharan Africa for Ericsson, shares the company’s long-standing history with Africa that dates back to the 1890s.

“In Kenya when they were building the railway from Mombasa to Kisumu, they were also building a telegraph line along it and there were similar projects in Cape Town and Cairo around this time,” he says.

“Ericsson had contracts in connection with these works and Kenya was definitely one of the first countries we worked with.”

However, Mr. Rudin points out those efforts to deploy affordable fixed telephony in Kenya did not give Ericsson the opportunity to register a permanent company in the country until 2007, when market demand for mobile telephony and local services was rapidly increasing.

 “When the mobile telephony race started in Kenya at the end of the 1990s, we were not really here so we lost a few years. Now that we are coming back it is another game altogether,” he adds.

Drawn to the African continent from a very young age, Mr. Robert Rudin has witnessed how mobile telephony and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has changed the face of Africa in the past 25 years.

Over the years he has always worked closely with Africa, dividing his time between France and several African countries including Morocco, South Africa, Senegal, and now Kenya. Although a newcomer to the country he is a veteran at Ericsson.

When Mr. Rudin began his career in 1989, he says mobile telephony did not exist in Africa. But during the nineties two big events made the telecoms market explode. The first was when most African countries decided to privatise telecommunications and issue mobile telephone licenses to private operators and entrepreneurs – giving rise to multi-billion dollar African companies like MTN and Econet. The second big event was that Africa could enjoy the same mobile technology standards that the rest of the world was already benefitting from through the introduction of GSM (Global System for Mobile communications).

“In 1997, I had my first assignment in Morocco, where I stayed for three years. That period between the mid-90s and towards the end of the decade is really when mobile telephony took off in Africa,” he says.

“I think the biggest reason mobile telephony took off was the technological innovation of launching pre-paid capabilities in the mobile system. These (pre-paid capabilities) were more or less invented for Africa. It was an invention that was made for emerging markets at that point in time and that really changed everything,” he says.

Ericsson pioneered the creation of a billing system that allowed users to load phone credit via scratch cards. In Africa, where few people have bank accounts, it meant that instead of a small market with a few subscribers paying high phone bills, you could now reach millions of subscribers across the continent from all walks of life.

“It is all about affordability – building a global standard for something of course reduces the costs because it is on such a huge scale. As you extend the network, you reach people who live outside the cities, the farmers and other market segments, so the average bill per user goes down.”

Mr. Rudin suggests that Africa’s problem is the high cost of transporting and selling, mainly due to poor infrastructure and the many middlemen. “I have seen that mobile telephony has helped the producers, selling and cutting out a lot of the middlemen and that was great for everyone.”

Although Ericsson sells infrastructure to the three biggest operators in Kenya – Safaricom, Orange and Airtel – competition from young, aggressive Asian firms is their biggest challenge in the area of mobile infrastructure supply, and not one they are taking lightly.

“It’s a different game with different rules compared to ten years ago,” Mr. Rudin says.

But Ericsson is also placing their bets on investing in the training of local engineers, for them to become experts in their fields.

“Equipment, hardware and software systems are getting more complex, but they won’t be any better than the people installing, supporting and maintaining them. And we believe that using local resources is the way forward,” he says.

“In Kenya, you have well qualified engineers and good universities, which is not always the case in Africa. I see a high working morale and it is a good place to be, and that is why we decided to have a services and competence hub in Kenya. So in certain areas, we have engineers with specific expertise, who we can send to neighbouring countries for projects and missions,” he adds.

"This view of the future also goes hand in hand with Ericsson´s 2020 vision of creating a networked society which means anything that will benefit of being connected, will be connected," he says.

Mr. Rudin explains that going back over a hundred years, the idea was to connect different places to each other through roads and railways.

“Then, when mobile telephony was launched 20 years ago, the growth was tremendous, and we went from connecting places to connecting people. And now we believe the next thing is to connect things or devices.”

“Today, there are over 6.6 billion subscriptions worldwide, almost the same amount of people that live on this planet. By 2020, we should have 50 billion connections and of course that is many more than the number of people on the planet; Africa and Kenya will certainly be part of that journey,” Mr. Rudin explains.

Text: Natasha Elkington.