Connecting the unconnected: building partnerships to accelerate digital inclusion
“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
So goes the African proverb, which has been a critical mantra for Vikas Menon as he leads Meta’s efforts to build strategic partnerships with telecoms companies and infrastructure providers to advance both digital inclusion and connectivity in Africa and the Middle East.
While many of us may perceive internet access as a standard and ubiquitous part of daily life worldwide, more than three billion people still struggle to access the most basic mobile internet connections. In some emerging markets and African countries, average mobile internet penetration rates are lower than 50%.
Meta is one of many companies trying to bring connectivity to some of the most underserved regions by tackling the lack of affordability and infrastructure, complex geographies, and cultural considerations that make improving accessibility in some parts of the world severely challenging.
As Director of Telco Ecosystems Partnerships for the Middle East and Africa region at Meta, Menon recognizes that tech companies, or any other stakeholders in the tech space, cannot do it all alone.
“I often think of the partnerships team as an important bridge between these two industries, with the fast-moving Silicon Valley upstarts on one side and the large telecoms providers operating in complex environments and dealing with significant operational challenges on the other side,” he said.
Menon’s previous experience in sales and business development serving Telcom clients gave him a deep-rooted appreciation and respect for the telecoms industry. “There was a time when the Googles and Metas of the world were nascent; it was exciting and a dream to be working for telcos, which were at the forefront of technological evolution,” he recalled.
Before joining Meta, Menon worked as a strategic partnership lead at Google, which helped prepare him for his current role and gain exposure to diverse partnerships across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
He said that at the heart of partnerships must be a deeper understanding of the partner’s industry, ambitions, and, most importantly, empathy for the partner’s business challenges. Menon’s year at IMD, particularly the leadership stream, has helped him hone the teamwork skills crucial in his current role.
Affordability and access
While more than 89% of the world’s population live in areas with existing 3G or better cellular coverage, mobile data is frequently expensive and can be difficult to justify.
In collaboration with telecoms operators, Meta provides platforms and programs that help users quickly access the internet and a version of Facebook that allows users to stay connected for free. Connectivity helps them maintain contact with friends and family and experience the power of the internet. The team is also responsible for exploring and building partnerships supporting telcos with their infrastructure challenges and providing a portfolio of Meta analytics tools, enabling them to make business decisions powered by insights.
This approach has contributed to significant progress in bringing connectivity to those who need it most, but the scale of the challenge ahead is not lost on Menon. 2017 was a watershed moment in history where, for the first time, half of the world was online and able to connect to the internet, but the remaining 50% will be even harder to reach.
“This is not CSR by any means; it is years of partnership experience and learning tied into a sustainable business model for our partners.” -Vikas Menon
With the pandemic underscoring the need for connectivity to allow people to work and attend school and exposing in stark fashion the existing and widening gap around the digital divide, Menon is clear that now is the time to build traction and unlock new opportunities. Some 800 million people in Sub Saharan Africa remain unconnected, highlighting the scale of the challenge. “It’s essential that we find ways to make these partnerships sustainable in the long term and meaningful for partners given their economic pressures and realities,” he said. “This is not CSR by any means; it is years of partnership experience and learning tied into a sustainable business model for our partners.”
Undeterred by the challenges ahead, Menon says Meta is committed to its efforts over the coming years and is particularly excited about the opportunities the metaverse will bring. “The work we do today to bridge the gap on internet connectivity will be the foundation to bring the metaverse to everyone in the future,” he explained. “The Metaverse will bring so many opportunities globally, and I’m particularly excited about the educational opportunities it opens up to underrepresented and underserved communities in the Middle East & Africa; imagine seeing and experiencing historical monuments within the metaverse if you’re unable to travel to them!”
Vikas Menon’s top tips for building strategic partnerships:
- Know your partner’s business: Invest the time to understand your partner’s industry and their challenges and priorities. Be curious, and don’t shy away from getting deep into the details of the complexities. Ask the stupid question and challenge the norm.
- Relationships based on trust are the foundation of a strong partnership: When partners are not aligned with your proposals or refute data, dig deeper to understand if it’s genuinely a “data issue” or a lack of trust. For years, the telecoms industry has perceived OTTs (over-the-top) players like Meta as threats. Data alone will not bridge that gap so you need to invest time in building relationships at every level and getting partners to trust you. Once trust is earned, those partnerships will eventually fall into place.
- Understand and consistently demonstrate your unique partnership value: Why should partners work with you, and what value do you bring to their industry and business? Be clear, and do not hesitate to articulate this at every opportunity. Finally, big deals and partnerships are launched one step at a time, so you must deliver consistently on small wins and milestones to achieve the long-term goal.
- Negotiate with the long term in mind: Unlike most partnership colleagues, I do not believe in win-win. If both parties could win in the same time horizon, you wouldn’t need partnership professionals. Keep the end goal and long-term partnership in mind – and if that means sacrificing immediate gains, be open to that and build internal awareness to do so within your company.
- Resilience, resilience, resilience: None of the above matters if you can’t hold it together through the tumultuous rollercoaster of a journey that long-term partnerships can be.