Viewpoints is pleased to launch our podcast, Viewpoints with Brenda. The podcast is a pivot from the mergers & acquisitions and banking & finance commentary, and features conversations with African change-makers, innovators, professionals, entrepreneurs and influencers. Our first conversation features Mark Tinka, the Head of Engineering at Seacom, Africa’s pioneer ICT infrastructure company.
Mark shares his illustrious journey into internet and tech, and his role shaping ICT infrastructure in Africa and Asia. We chat about the future of work, internet governance & policy and harnessing the internet as a driver of economic development in Africa.
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*The transcript below has been generated through software, and may contain errors. Viewpoints with Brenda is designed to be heard. We strongly recommend that you listen to the episode for context and speech emphasis before quoting the text below in print.
BN (00:21): I’m super excited to introduce Mark [Tinka]. Mark is the head of engineering at SEACOM. People in Eastern and Southern Africa would love to know that this is the company that’s providing ICT infrastructure for most of the continent. Mark is also a DJ, you can find his amazing sets on YouTube and SoundCloud [under DJ MT]. Mark is also a foodie. Mark, I think I should just let you introduce yourself, and you know what you do for people who don’t know you.
MT (00:49): I’d like to obviously congratulate Brenda on launching this platform and using the technology around us to facilitate discussions like this, which really is what it’s all about. So good on you for that. And I really do look forward to you developing and growing this platform, you know, I have no doubt that you’re going to make it a big success. Like Brenda was saying, I head up the engineering team at SEACOM. We basically look after building and running for-sale infrastructure between Africa, Asia-Pac and Europe. You most likely would not know about us — we would be the people that would provide the connectivity to folks like the mobile companies, your local ISPs, and so on and so forth who then resell it and provide it to you onward. We’re more in the backend. We’re a very small outfit that’s focused and we kind of like it that way. So yeah, that’s pretty much it.
BN (01:54): Obviously a lot of people want to know what got you into tech and the internet.
MT (01:59): Well, my mother said I can’t fly planes because if I lose my leg, I won’t have a job. Really, that’s what happened. For me, my passion has always been aviation because I come from a family that was flying. We lived in Entebbe right next to the airport, so obviously, you heard and saw the planes land and takeoff every five minutes. But yeah, no, my mom was a bit realistic about jobs like that, that are heavily dependent on you being in good physical shape. So she said, no chance, go to school and figure it out.
MT (02:30): School for me, to be honest, was a little bit boring. I didn’t attend most of my classes in university because I just wasn’t having any fun with it. So I got this little gig at a company called SanyuTel back in the day from the same proprietor who launched Sanyu TV, Sanyu FM etc. It was a small ISP in Kampala, around ‘99, 2000. And that’s how I got into the game. When I was supposed to have been in class at Nakawa University, I was instead at 10pm at the ISP trying to figure out how this thing works. True story. School was okay, but it just wasn’t fun, right? You just always had this feeling that you were studying towards something that you might not be able to get something out of when you’re done. And to be honest, I think at the time, I was into looking for a computer science degree in Makerere, and they did not have one. The closest I think I got to that was the Information Systems module as part of the Bachelor of Business Administration course. So you can see how convoluted that was. And yeah, so it just became boring very quickly. But the good news is that internet had been about what, three, four years old in Uganda at the time, and it was booming. So it made a lot of sense to put a lot more focus into that.
BN (03:45): I know you worked in Swaziland and Malaysia. How did you end up at SEACOM?
MT (03:52): I began focusing more on work in Uganda, because like I said, school was not so interesting. And I ended up, after SanyuTel, in another company called Africa Online. That was an interesting transition because I had the opportunity to join MTN at the time, which, if you may recall was that, the only thing larger than MTN those days was either Michael Jackson or Coca Cola. Their marketing machine was so huge, everybody knew who they were. But I sort of knew at that point in time that I was not ready to be in a company like that for two reasons. One is you’d go in, and you’d probably not be able to negotiate a good package, because you know your limits, they know your limits. And also at the same time, it was a fairly well established organization. So I didn’t feel like I’d have sufficient opportunity to learn my way through the industry.
MT (04:42): So I stayed with Africa Online for that reason, because it was a much smaller outfit, much less budget, and you were more connected to the ground and seeing what was happening. I’ve been thinking about this over the last 10, 15 years, but I think I carried on through with that methodology because I realized that if you’re patient, and you keep working hard, whatever needs to come to you will come to you. So I wasn’t trying to rush into anything huge. I didn’t know it at the time, but now I can see I decided to take my time to develop my skill set so I can get to wherever it was that I didn’t know was going to be the pinnacle, or the apex. I don’t even think I’ve still gotten there. But the model is the same, you know, stay patient keep working hard, and then whatever is supposed to happen will happen. That’s sort of how the career has been charted.
MT (05:31): So from there, I spent some time with the business in Kenya 2001 to 2003. I then moved to Swaziland, which was massively interesting, coming from Uganda, weather-wise, infrastructure-wise — Swaziland is very small compared to Uganda. I spent some time there, I met my wife there, and then moved up to Zimbabwe for a couple of years. I then left the Africa Online team and moved to Malaysia. I then got the opportunity to move either to Berkeley in California, or come to Johannesburg. And it was a fairly easy decision, I was missing my people. And we came back to Africa. And it’s been great just trying to have some impact on the continent here.
BN (06:15): What prompted you to bring your talent back to the continent?
MT (06:19): To be honest, we had twins. We looked at the cost of living in the US, and we figured that Asia is kind of like South America and Africa, cost of living is relatively low and you can afford quite a lot of things, especially help, nannies, and so forth. Not being around family means that you need to rely on those kinds of amenities. The cost of living in California is extremely high. Even when you have a double income, the help that we would have needed to keep raising the twins would have cost an arm and a leg. Those were the two major factors in choosing to move back to Africa.
MT (06:52): But as it turned out, those were inspired decisions because there has been quite a lot of opportunity in Africa in the last 10 years. I believe that we have at SEACOM played a small bit in charting the development of the internet in the region. So no regrets whatsoever —it just further reinforces the fact that for me, Africa is where I need to be going forward.
BN (07:15): Of all the places you’ve lived, where do you think you’ve had the biggest boost to your career and this journey that you’re on?
MT (07:23): All the countries I’ve lived in have played a significant role. But by the mere fact that I’ve spent the longest amount of time with SEACOM over the last 10 years also speaks to the extent of the growth and the magnitude of the impact I’ve been able to have with this business. I would say it’s definitely Africa by far in the last decade where I’ve seen the growth personally and also within the industry as a whole. And also really for the continent. I mean, where we are now in Africa, compared to 10 years ago, when we launched is completely different. I can’t even imagine what life was like those days compared to where we are, it bodes well for what’s to come.
BN (08:03): Wow. I would never have guessed that cost of living would have been the reason that you came back — quite sensible.
MT (08:11): The reason it was such a huge factor was because, I wouldn’t say I was making a lot of money by any stretch of the imagination. Not because there was no opportunities to do that but because I didn’t want to make a lot of money, where I didn’t feel I made a difference. I could have gone to any large operators anywhere in the world and made a lot of money. But for me having that impact, either for the business or for the region and for the department was much more important. And also having that authentic growth, because you know what you’re doing, and you can contribute. I know, everybody has a bit of imposter syndrome, but you sort of know yourself, when you’re not sure about what you’re gonna be able to do.
MT (08:52): So I wanted to really be patient with my own growth. So that when the opportunity to have a bit of cash, as an income, came, it is something that you can sustain, because you got there on merit, and not because you got there through a channel or through somebody that you know. At that point in time with Malaysia, the money wasn’t too bad but from a Malaysia standpoint was great. From a US standpoint, I think that I was maybe five or six years too early, trying to get into the U.S., so I figured, maybe do something else somewhere that developed yourself a little bit more so you can go to those markets, at the level where you think you can afford to live and raise kids there. And then obviously, you know, just being in Africa totally just killed that idea.
BN (09:42):Speaking of Africa — how do you think we can harness the internet to transform our economies here?
MT (09:48): I think to be honest, Africa is the best opportunity to do that. We are not encumbered with legacy infrastructure, legacy ideas, legacy structures, legacy corporations — all the things that sort of make you want to maintain the status quo. At the same time though, what we need to do is sort of have the conversations with our policymakers, our leaders, our children, and so forth about looking at the opportunity that the internet brings to to Africa as an enabler to build wealth to build an economy, because it is something that levels the playing field across the board. Your competitors nowadays are not the mom and pop shop, or the big corporation down the street from you. It is essentially anyone with an internet connection and an idea. Africa does not have a lot of that established infrastructure that we have to maintain. But we do have the internet as a vehicle through which we can get ourselves onto the global stage.
MT (10:56): If 2020 is anything to go by, I think you would have known that the Coronavirus has simply showed that the internet is really this pathway that opens up opportunities if you’re willing to think about how that can affect you and affect the people around your communities. So for Africa as a whole, I think the internet should be much more than a tool of consumption more than than the medium with which we consume movies, videos. But then also to contribute to whether it’s an idea, a thought, a service, a system, and that’s where it starts.
MT (11:31): When we launched the mini enterprise service in South Africa a few years ago, I think 2015 we had an experiment to see how cheaply we can provide high speed internet access to businesses, because of the time you had to pay 1000s of dollars to get even half or one megabit of bandwidth for the office. Those days it was all about, “you can’t use Facebook in the office”, “you can’t use YouTube in the office”, “you can’t download movies”. And we said, it doesn’t have to be that way because that’s what the internet is for. It’s to communicate.
MT (12:03): So we run an experiment where we say for just a couple $100, maybe $200 or $300, you can get 25, 30 megabits of bandwidth to the office. What we saw was that a lot of the businesses began to open up or remove those restrictions to non-productive websites and services. From there, we began to see our customers then actually shifting away from what they were doing to now becoming social media managers or people in charge of uploading videos for local production houses and whatnot. We saw a whole ecosystem building around enabling much greater affordable access to the internet. It goes to show that our opportunity really exists in the internet, and not for its own sake, but just as a channel to solve problems for people that are either around us or even far away from us.
BN (12:55): You touched briefly on governance and policy and our governments’ approach generally in Africa, towards the internet and towards the ICT sector. What are the shortcomings and how can we improve things? Because clearly, the internet is the future. For instance, the recent shutdown in Uganda crippled businesses. This is a shortcoming — the whole being able to “switch the internet off”. What other things do you see in terms of governance and policy where our governments’ approach could improve?
MT (13:22): The internet is one of those things where if you allow it to flourish, you will see good things happening in your market. But if you don’t, then you won’t. Leadership at that level has two problems.
MT (13:34): One is they don’t understand the role of the internet at an international level. They think that the internet is a very localized thing that doesn’t have broad impact beyond the borders. The thinking that if we restrict it, if we cut it off, if we curtail it, there’s not going to be any impact beyond our borders, because it only affects us, right? So that’s the first problem.
MT (13:57): The other problem, obviously, is also one of control — where leadership wants to control access to information and dissemination of information. Like you mentioned, the example of Uganda that’s obviously to control access to information at a period where it might make differences in the political landscape. So those are the two issues we have and those aren’t unique to Africa. I mean, you have them in Asia-Pac, you’ve got them in the Middle East— you’ve got them pretty much everywhere. At some point, we even had it in North America when when Twitter decided to ban Donald Trump. Those are the two big issues. And unfortunately, they’re also interlinked because leadership does not understand that the internet actually has a much broader impact.
MT (14:38): You know, when this thing was shut down in Uganda, people were having trouble transacting credit cards, or receiving payments from outside the country, or sending payments. This goes down to that basic level that I think leadership needs to understand the internet does have a much bigger impact than what we just see. It’s not just all videos and chat rooms — all industries, medical, automotive, computing, etc, everything is affected. The issue will then resolve itself where if Uganda decides to shut down, Kenya will fill in the gap. And as those gaps get filled in, it becomes harder and harder for the neighboring countries to catch up over time. Because once a base has been established, it’s very difficult to unseat it. For example, if you take aviation in Southeast Asia, you know, Singapore developed itself as a hub. And yet, Malaysia, by far has a much wider economic base. But because policy was more favorable in Singapore, you know, they became the hub. Once you establish yourself with with great policy, every other industry follows. The issue will self correct if eventually leadership, realizes that they need to get on board or just be blown out into oblivion, right? And they just, you know, become a nothingness as the neighbours takeover.
MT (16:08): Those really are the two areas that we need to focus on in Africa. And you have the same problem in Djibouti you have the same problem that in Zimbabwe, it’s widespread. It’s a big problem that we need to figure out in Africa, if we are to really harness. Because the internet is one of our main opportunities to get on to the playing field. Once you’re on the playing field, then you have a chance. But if you’re not on the playing field, then there’s no chance or very little chance.
BN (16:34): I have a question around the role of the internet in business, actually, in particular, just relating to the future of work and artificial intelligence, the fact that the machines are coming. How would you say that we as professionals can improve like non digital skills to remain relevant?
MT (16:58): There’s been a lot of focus on digital and AI, and machine learning and big data, cloud and data center, and all of these things that scare everybody. But I think that just takes the focus away from what really matters. And what really matters is human interaction.
MT (17:17): In the old days, there was a saying in the telecommunications industry that “content is key” and then began the whole discussion about, now we should translate websites into local languages. We should build businesses that are pushing local services in local languages. People tried that, but it didn’t take off. Because you had the local newspaper translated into a local language, people opted to go for all the “fake news” on WhatsApp and Facebook.
MT (17:46): In 2010-ish, 11-ish, when just a few years after Apple unleashed the iPhone, especially after they unleashed the App Store, we began to see that actually content is not king. Connectivity is key — connectivity between people. And we saw that in the way of SMS. For a long time, telecommunication providers made a lot more money from SMS than they did from voice because SMS allowed us to communicate in a much more relaxed way and for a much lower cost. At that time, telecommunications companies were making a lot more money than Hollywood. The content Hollywood was pointing out, which was curated content, someone has decided for me that I need to watch this versus, you know, I want to share my ideas via text with Brenda. And we saw that especially in the last five years have just been cemented by Googles the Facebooks, the Amazons, the Twitters of the world. They’ve created platforms that have allowed us to communicate with one another. To share ideas. You’re more likely to believe and read the stories on WhatsApp, than one that’s from a legitimate newspaper, even on a website, right? Because it’s coming from someone that you know, and someone that you think is in your value chain as a friend. So you’re going to trust it. And it’s going to spark a whole debate which you want to be a part of, because you want to be heard you want to be seen and you want to be acknowledged.
MT (19:14): I think that the conversations about digital and AI and robotics and being replaced and all of that isn’t really discussion need we to be having. I think that’s just posturing by fancy magazines and researchers who are paid lots of money to figure out the future. What’s more important is what hasn’t changed in the last five years since we began going sort of mainstream with the internet — is that it’s a platform that provides a location for people to interact, to be seen, to be heard, to share and to collaborate.
MT (19:47): It’s about people if the internet was not here anymore, but we could all instantly be with one another through maybe telepathic means or whatever, that is the point. But right now, the internet is what we have to communicate.
MT (20:02): I think businesses, to your question, need to be focusing on, you know, “how do I make it simpler for my customer to do business with me”? Or “how do I how do I get more mental airtime with my customers through their device”? Not, “how do I transform my business to digital”? What does that even mean? Not “how do I suddenly now become a programmer”. That’s not what it’s about. I think there’s been a huge misconception of the last seven, eight years about that. That’s mostly because everybody has, so a lot of people have been looking to maintain the status quo or the business culture they’ve been using to operate— which is mostly corporate style, which is mostly, you know, you come into the office in a suit everyday 9am, you have endless board meetings, you’ve got endless presentations, you’ve got things that don’t really add value at the end of the day, but you show that you’ve done something was to tick the box.
MT (20:59): If you look at 2020, you saw that people began cutting back on everything. I don’t need to buy more fuel, because I’m not driving. I don’t need to go to the restaurant, because maybe I can cook at home. All of those transferred over to the internet as an alternative method to compensate. And that clearly showed that people have realized that they have options, they have choices, and then becoming more discerning about where they place their money. What can you Brenda, deliver to me that I find is valuable enough for me to part with my money. That’s really where I think the focus needs to be, because even if your industry does not rely so much on the internet, it’s about understanding how you create value for someone willing to give you cash, or someone willing to give you airtime in their brain, as the kids say – renting space in my brain. The internet just makes it simpler.
MT (21:56): We need to move away from, you know, let’s create this $5 billion business in the boardroom and a couple of spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides to actually find a problem in your community, that if you fix it will actually make a material difference. And when your community sees a material difference, then you have the opportunity to scale that solution out and maybe take it regional or global. But it starts with just finding the problem within your community that needs fixing. For you, for example, like the way you started this channel, right? You found a need, and you found you wanted to find a way to fix it. That’s really what the messaging needs to be. We don’t need to worry about all of this, I need to be a coder, I need to now learn AI and machine learning need to be a program I need to this that’s not the message. That’s not the message,
BN (22:45): I want to shift gears a bit and talk about leadership. What would you say would be the biggest challenge you’ve had to face in a leadership position?
MT (22:56): The biggest challenge was actually accepting that it’s time to move on. I say that in the sense that we’ve been fortunate in Africa to develop a lot of talent in the internet space in the last 15 years. And I came to the realization at some point that I’ve done what I can, and I need to get out of the way so that others can come in and keep the momentum going. Because to some extent, I realized that I could be in the way of others now simply because of all the experience I’ve had, etc, etc. But then also, at some point, after you have developed the skills within the team, then it makes sense for you to allow them to harness those skills. And you just let them fly and just hang around in the corner for when they need your help. For me, that was a big challenge because I’ve always been very, very hands on. But then I realized that you can actually play a much bigger role in being a support pillar for the team that needs to do the actual work but also be experience it so they can be in your position at some point in the future, and hopefully return the favor with their own staff. So I think that was the challenge, just sort of letting go and stepping back and just seeing you know, the baby grow that I would say would have been the biggest challenges leader.
BN (24:20): If there was something you could change in your industry, what would it be?
MT (24:28): It’s about culture. And the culture that that has been, you know, fostered through industry comes from the Industrial Revolution, where you know, nine to five rockin do some work, you leave maybe you affect somebody, maybe you don’t. And I think the culture needs to shift towards how do we actually improve the experience of customers of the end user of where the rubber meets the road? How do we improve that experience? Because the only thing that a business can do to protect itself, financially that is, is by offering a good service. And we’ve seen many instances where companies try to legislate their way to profitability, you know. Take the US Postal Service, for example, that was trying to legislate against Amazon delivering packages, because I wasn’t gonna do it much more cheaply, much more quickly. Local telcos who tried to impose taxes on Netflix, or YouTube or social media. That’s just to delay the inevitable, because they see they’re not offering a better service. If a business offers a service that your customer sees as valuable, they are your protection — a happy customer will always be a happy customer. So you can’t force them to stay just because you’re the monopoly.
MT (25:37): That comes from culture. It comes from a culture of we need to find out what our purpose in the business is. What’s our purpose for having this business, because most businesses assume the purpose of a business is to actually make money. But actually, if you look at the most successful companies right now, easily, almost 100% of which are tech companies, that purpose has never been about making money. The purpose has always been about how do we create impact and change the lives of people in a positive way? Be it, how do I get someone to open a Google map from A to B and find a way there in five minutes, to how do I post a picture and share with my friends and we all laugh about it, to how do we have fun with Snapchat for 24 hours type of thing.
MT (26:19): That’s what those businesses are about. And they never set out to become billion dollar businesses. They set out to fix the problem in the community, to make the community actually better. If you have conviction, and you have purpose in what you are doing. There’s no way that money is not gonna come to you. Customers will respond. When the customers respond, they come with the money as long as your service offers value and changes lives in a meaningful way.
MT (26:45): You as the user, Brenda and everybody else on this on this channel today, right? You get up in the morning every day. First thing you do you is pick up your phone, you maybe look at one or two or three times, right, those one or two or three apps are the same apps you look at every morning, first thing before you brush your teeth. But you’ve got 100 other apps, maybe 200 other apps that you don’t look at. And why is that because you realize that those are the apps that offer you the same value, the same satisfaction, the same pleasure, the same comfort, whatever it is you want to call it that makes you happy, they don’t offer that to you. So you just innately do not notice. In fact, at some point, you might delete them if you’re running out of space.
MT (27:22): As a personal user, who is an employee in a company, or who owns the company, if you’re gonna interact with a service, that way that you’re probably not even paying for, but then you go to your business in the morning, and you don’t create or think about creating the same impact for your customers, that is how you perceive value. But we’re struggling to translate that into our own businesses. And that’s your business needs to focus on shifting that culture on shifting the culture towards improving happiness of users and customers. Because once users and customers are happy, everything else just follows, you can’t stop it. As long as you continue to have that purpose as a business.
BN (28:05): I want to move on to like the fun stuff. I know you’ve been waiting for this because you wanted to have a pretty casual conversation. DJ MT. I know you have this passion for Afro house, which seriously took me by surprise. So how did this come about? What inspired you to start DJing and why Afro house?
MT (28:29): I’m not sure if you remember, there used to be a little club in Kampala called Ouagadougou I believe, which has gone through different names now. So we used to play a lot of music there back in 1999, 2000 2001. I think it mostly grew when I moved to South Africa, South Africa is a very house centric country. On a per capita basis that Africa has the largest following of house music in the world, where you know, it’s in commercials, it’s in ads, it’s in shops, it’s everywhere. I sort of got into that on that basis when I moved here in 2012.
MT (29:00) And the reason it became a thing was because house music for me was not an emotional thing. I mean, you feel it, it’s deep. But it’s not an emotional thing in the sense that this is the move that now it’s hot in the club, and everybody must be doing this move. Or this is the song that you have to have a partner to dance with. Or this is the track that everybody’s singing. It wasn’t about all of those things which R&B, hip hop have typically been about. When you’re in the club and R&B hip hop song comes on and you say “Oh, that’s my song!”.
MT (29:32): House has just always been a very neutral platform where people are just dancing, the way they want, how they want with whomever they want, by themselves, in any way, with no pressure. It’s just a neutral platform that just allows people to be in their feelings by themselves. I think I gravitated towards house for that reason. I’d specifically listen to music that is not popular. It’s called underground house, but it’s generally not popular. It will be popular within a group of people that identify as underground house heads. Those typically tend to be maybe 5% to 10% of the club going population. It is very cultish, but not really. I have sort of been always into that side of things, because, heck, it’s different. It’s not the normal. And I’ve always been about that. It’s a bug, the bug has bitten me a bit badly.
BN (30:25): Where you find that creativity for the sets?
MT (30:28): Oh no, with time hey. With time and experience. I mean, DJ me, eight, nine years ago is very different from DJ me today. Becoming a great DJ is actually more about track selection. Not only about track selection, but actually building a story. When you begin a set you start people off slow, calm, and build the story not only to take them to a crescendo, but to also tell them who you are, as a performing artist, right? If you combined track selection with telling a story and sort of lifting spirits gradually, throughout the sense – that really is where the magic is. I’m not trying to be a world renowned DJ that sells out stadiums at 30,000 capacity and I get paid $200,000 for an hour. That’s not what I’m about. I actually enjoy the music and I enjoy the impact it has on me and by extension has on people that listen to it with me. If you’re authentic about what it is you want out of the experience, then the growth will come and whatever else side effects from that positive or otherwise will also come.
BN (31:36): When I’ve watched you live on your YouTube, you always have a glass of wine and you display a bottle. How do you go about choosing which wine you’re going to display for the day?
MT (31:49): It has to have been a wine that I’ve never shown before. Also, it’s about a wine that I know is reasonably accessible, just in case somebody wants to go and try it out as well. But then also it has to be a wine that is reasonably light so that I can play the music technically well. Those are really the major factors. The weather plays a big part. Now we’re going into the winter in southern Africa, the southern hemisphere, it’s going to be a lot more reds, because it’s going to be much colder. In the summer, it would typically be a white. Or if it’s red, to be a very very light red like a Pinot Noir. Those are typically the decision factors.
BN (32:28): I’m really grateful. Thank you for first of all agreeing to do a recorded conversation. Secondly, I know a lot of people picked a lot of stuff from you. You’re super knowledgeable in everything, the internet and the wine and the food and the travel and everything.
MT (32:42): The privilege and the honour is definitely mine. If you think I’ve added some value— for me, that would be a day well spent.
BN 32:48: Thank you for that. I really appreciate it.