Minister Mba Olo Bahamonde talks about the country’s aim to diversify its economy away from oil and gas and how telecommunications and technology will help to achieve this ambitious plan.
To begin with I would like to ask you a personal question. Who is the person behind the Minister of Transport, Technology, Posts and Telecommunications of Equatorial Guinea?
My name is Francisco Mba Olo Bahamonde and I am from an opposition party called Alianza Democrática Progresista; I am the Minister of the Department of Transport, Technology, Posts and Telecommunications. I have been a minister for the past 2 or 3 years but I have been a member of this government since 2003. Since then I have always worked in the ministry except for 2 years that I spent in the Parliament in between. I have no academic background apart from my primary school education; I have not attended universities or professional schools.
Last year, during the Session of the African Union Conference of African Ministers of Transport celebrated in Malabo, Mr. Elham Ibrahim, Commissioner of the AU for Infrastructure and Energy, acknowledged that the continent has the lowest rate of access to modern energy infrastructure, ICTs, water, sanitation and transport services. In this respect, how would you say Equatorial Guinea is positioned inside the continent?
The position of Equatorial Guinea is one of an emergent country as the country has indeed been rather isolated and underdeveloped in every aspect, including the energy sector. However, Guinea has actually given gigantic steps to position itself better. The general analysis by the Commissioner of the AU is indeed right, but it needs to be noted that Equatorial Guinea is a small country with a small population and we have made an effort to have sufficient energy supply so that from now until 2020 electricity will be able to reach all the population of Equatorial Guinea. Nowadays we can be proud of having an infrastructure all along our country; there is no area you want to go where you can complain about the roads. As far as this goes I think we are very well positioned and besides in the telecommunications sector Guinea has moved forward a lot. The telecommunications are moving at high speed because its development is practically done every second through constant innovations. What Equatorial Guinea has done is to improve its infrastructure system and allow both terrestrial and underwater infrastructures to reach all citizens.
Nonetheless, there are still difficulties today. We are partners of the ACE consortium who owns the European submarine optical fiber cable that goes from France to South Africa passing between the African coasts. We are part of that consortium and we have also built our cable. Instead of keeping the country divided in two areas (the insular one and the continental one), we have joined them. We have developed another optical fiber cable as well, which is the terrestrial cable that connects all provinces and villages in the country. The government does its investment and as there is no market competition then it is open for private users to connect to optical fiber so the development of telecommunication can reach in quality and quantity up to the last corner of the country. In this concern, the government while putting up these submarine and terrestrial optical fiber cables has also created a regulatory body to manage this infrastructure.
I believe that at this point the statements of the Commissioner, who is the responsible for energy and infrastructure, are true. This however does not mean that countries are not moving forward and that Equatorial Guinea is within reach of achieving the Millennium Goals, at least with regards to roads and telecommunications infrastructures.
The telecommunications technologies have an impact in almost every economic and social sector. How would you say ICTs have changed the lives of Guineans during this last decade?
The change is quite substantial and it is actually visible. I remember that when mobile phones arrived to Equatorial Guinea, they were a boom and statistics back then showed that 9.5 out of 10 citizens owned a mobile phone, which meant that phones arrived within reach of everyone. As nowadays the development of telecommunications is an attraction and a motivation, everyone is interested. The government, in his eagerness for the benefits to arrive to the population, has its projects; for example the ministry through the telecommunications body has a project of investing in schools so the new technologies can be accessed from the young people to the older people. There are some schools which are already connected to optical fiber; the informatics service is being implemented in 3 or 4 schools but because that is not enough we will keep on with that project.
The oil extraction, which amounts to approximately 90% of the country’s exports, has allowed the State to focus on the development of infrastructures to guarantee basic services to the Equatorial Guinean people, opening up the possibility of diversifying the country’s economy, the biggest challenge of Equatorial Guinea. What role does the ministry and the sectors you influence play in diversifying the economy of Equatorial Guinea?
The Ministry is crucial. In the development of any country the Ministry of Telecommunications is crucial. Therefore, I do not think it is possible to talk about diversification or development without telecommunications holding the preponderant place they should hold in development. For example, nowadays we are trying to attract investors to Equatorial Guinea, but if there are no telecommunications then they cannot come. If there are no energy sources it is not possible to talk about development of investment of any kind. Hence, the Ministry of Telecommunications is a central concept for the development of any country in the world.
We know you are working towards expanding the coverage all around the country, strengthening the regulations, improving the telecommunications and the development of ICTs, and promoting the development and adoption of new applications and services among different sectors of the economy. How advanced are these plans and which response are you getting from the public and companies overall?
With regards to the development of training, it is definitely one of the main objectives of the government. I am referring to the training and teaching so as to have professionals in the area; we lack professional personnel to face the challenge of development. For example, in the Ministry of Transports there is an intense training concerning telecommunications. With regards to the field of optical fiber we have a first group which is currently in China being trained by the company ZTE, which is the responsible for the construction of the terrestrial optical fiber. These students have a 5 year training fully covered by the company ZTE and we are dealing with a second group that we are going to negotiate with the company this year. We must also take into consideration that together with this company, through the government, we have developed the telecommunications in the city of Sipopo. These telecommunications are already connected to the terrestrial optical fiber on top of the international submarine one. There is a group of Guineans that has already been trained and another one waiting to go on another training, because the important thing for us is to be taught how to fish and then to eat the fish. In this sense it is better to keep training instead of being in a situation of dependence. Telecommunications imply independence.
How would you describe the competition between the operators and the providers of telecommunications services in Equatorial Guinea?
We would be simply talking of unfair competition, because so far the ministry has not regulated the competition between the operators. For the time being this does not create very serious problems. Basically, the citizen is free to choose the operator that offers him the best services; however the leading company, which is Getesa, is developing 3G (although this is not of great importance as nowadays we are talking about 5G). I think they are in the correct path of development although they have run into the problem that the previous infrastructures are obsolete. This is why there are small differences in obtaining telecommunications services. However I believe that the assessment from the ministry is that not everything is done, that there is a long way to go and the ministry will not be satisfied until the last citizen or student is able to start receiving these knowledge of telecommunications from a young age.
The Equatoguinean government has established a co-investment national fund that will support national and foreign private initiatives in the productive sectors of critical importance, whose capital amounts to a billion dollars. “We are to create an environment of trust to facilitate the investment of foreign capital in Equatorial Guinea” has stated the Chief of State. What opportunities inside the sectors that the minister encompasses would you like to describe to the readers of Newsweek?
Mainly, the sectors which I could invite them to are the improvement of the new technologies and the project we are trying to implement in accordance with the Ministry of Education so that telecommunications can begin from young students to adults. I would like for my grandfather, who is in his village, to have his tablet so he can get to know the world he never lived but could know through the Internet and to be able to be informed through the Internet. For me this is the basic sense of telecommunications.
The US is more focused in Africa than ever, proof of it was the recently held US-Africa Leaders Summit, where President Obiang attended amongst other African heads of state. In his inauguration speech President Obama said “Africa will help shape the world as never before. Moreover, Africa's progress is being led by Africans.” How can Equatorial Guinea benefit from this commitment for the economic challenge of diversification and establish itself as the regional leader that it is?
I do not know if the intention of our country is to be a leader, but if we are labeled as such we could assume that position. The thing is that we are small, we cannot face the giants. However, the remarks of the American president are very important indeed as he has realized that Africa is being run by the Africans themselves, which should have happened a while ago, but it is a delay for which we blame no one. We have simply realized that we have to stand up and try to lift our continent; we must be supportive just as everyone else is. The West is supportive among itself. Europe is supportive: when a European country has a problem Europe does not ignore it, everyone is willing to help. The African countries should do the same thing, we must all go together so we can be a strong block and move towards a common goal: the development and progress of Africa so that Africa achieves a total independence. Without this independence in every sense, be it in energy, economy, politics or telecommunications, Africa will never be free. We must try to lift this burden from the shoulders and face new realities. That is why I think Equatorial Guinea does not aspire to be a leader as our aspiration is for all of us to take each other by the hands so we can move forward. We do not care about leadership, we do not compete; there are countries which are more advanced than us and our aim is to achieve the development our country deserves, not to search leadership. If that would be the case we would assume it, although it would be very heavy.
President Obama also said “Africa's rise means opportunity for all of us, including the opportunity to transform the relationship between the United States and Africa. It’s time for a new model of partnership between America and Africa -- a partnership of equals.” What priorities would you highlight in this sense and what opportunities does Equatorial Guinea offer to the United States in comparison to other countries in the region?
I would talk first about the viewpoint of my minister, which for me is a priority over all the other priorities. The priorities would be the telecommunications and these must be in the decisive point of any subject and challenge we can talk about. Because if we talk about agriculture, industry or any social sector, telecommunications hold a prevailing place as nowadays the big problems are solved through the Internet. This implies less risk, less costs and everyone is satisfied. Hence, telecommunications are the priority before other sectors such as agriculture, education and health; this does not mean that they are less important, they are all important and together we can achieve the aim. The current President of the Republic usually says: It is better to have an educated people than a rich one. This does not mean that wealth is not necessary but that culture is fundamental in order to dominate wealth; if you put wealth in front of culture then the wealth would rule you and you would stay tied.
With which elements or topics would you like Equatorial Guinea to be associated by the American public?
The American public is a very diverse public and it is possible that they do not need much from Equatorial Guinea, but we do need from them. Concerning the image of Equatorial Guinea, there are certain things which we still have pending such as telecommunication. We have developed the infrastructure, what is left now is to develop terrestrial transport – which for me is a very important factor in a developing society –, because the country can aspire to talk about railways and the African Union has recently launched the message that Africa must think on joining the infrastructure and talk about railways and a rail corridor for all Africa. As Equatorial Guinea is an African country we would not stay behind in that project.
Geographically we do have an advantageous position, be it at the maritime, terrestrial or aerial level. We can serve as a bridge for the connection of all Central Africa and the rest of Africa. This is a factor that weights a lot in the development because if Guinea wants to have a railway from the port to any point in the continent, it would be a great advantage. I think that it is better to discover little by little the opportunities we have. First there must be a curiosity to see what Equatorial Guinea really is and where it is, because many countries do not know that. There is a lack of that curiosity and that is the spirit we want to propagate. I know that investors need more guarantees and we are seeing indeed that there are enough guarantees so that if you invest you do not expose your capital to risks. Equatorial Guinea finds itself in the problem that current investments in the country have been financed by the government, which is the opposite situation to the rest of the world. Then the point is that as there are already legal, juridical and social guarantees – as it is a stable country –, and having already telecommunications, I think it is time that curiosity attracts them so they can discover the country by themselves. It should not be remarked that Guinea has few inhabitants but that we are the bridge to the rest of the countries in Africa.