The lifeline of connectivity

5 min read 20 Sep 22

In the digital age almost half the world’s population – 3.7 billion people – are still offline. The UN has warned that without decisive action, “the digital divide will become the new face of inequality.1 ” But we believe investing with an impact lens can help provide a pathway to social inclusion through services for millions of people, address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and embrace “double materiality” along the way. 

In the heart of Africa lies the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country two-thirds the size of Western Europe and home to vast swathes of the Congo Basin – the world’s second-largest rainforest and a critical lung for the planet, as well as Africa’s most biodiverse protected area – the Virunga National Park whose famous inhabitants include the mountain gorillas. 

“One avenue is to invest in companies which enable access to mobile communication services in underserved regions where penetration is low”.

However, the sheer size of the DRC means that its people are separated by two time zones and huge distances, which makes digital connectivity all the more vital for a population of close to 90 million people where infrastructure is lagging. According to data from the World Bank, as of 2020 14%2  of the DRC’s population use the internet while 46%3  have mobile subscriptions versus 98% and 80% respectively in high-income countries. 

So, how can investors target SDG 94  (Innovation, Industry & Infrastructure) and generate impact by fostering social inclusion for a growing young population who want to play a part in the country’s economic future?

Empowering participation

We believe one avenue is to invest in companies which enable access to mobile communication services in underserved regions where penetration is low. M&G’s Positive Impact team invests in Helios Towers, which owns and operates telecommunications towers in high-growth African markets, including the DRC, Tanzania and Congo Brazzaville. 

“Helios Towers has a high-quality business model and socially beneficial objectives, both linked to growing mobile access in Africa,” says Ben Constable-Maxwell, Head of Impact Investing at M&G Investments. “These regions have Africa’s fastest-growing populations but also areas where mobile and other infrastructure is limited; that combination of a growing population who want to participate in the benefits of the digital economy versus a current lack of opportunity is an anomaly the company is explicitly looking to address.”

With an abundance of natural resources – from cobalt to copper, and cassiterite to timber – the DRC’s traditional economic model has been largely extractive, societally unequal and environmentally problematic. In a region beset by these challenges, we believe there is an opportunity to drive a more participatory development model based on access to information rather than resource extraction, one that seeks to help to close the digital divide by increasing access to critical services. 

According to a joint report on Africa’s internet economy by Google and the IFC5, a 10% increase in mobile internet penetration in Africa increases GDP per capita by 2.5% versus 2% globally. Consequently, improved digital connectivity also provides fertile ground for innovative solutions. 

“The African internet opportunity is driven by the talent of young digital entrepreneurs,” the report notes. “Start-ups are solving some of Africa’s most challenging issues, such as access to healthcare for remote populations, employment opportunities for women, and the ability to securely send and receive money. Advanced technologies – tailored to data-driven, scalable, and pan-African approaches – are providing new ways for Africans to conduct business and earn income.”

Bringing in a ‘double materiality’ perspective

We believe double materiality enables investors to take both an ‘outside in’ perspective, focusing on how the company is managing those external factors that may affect its prospects, as well as an ‘inside out’ viewpoint which addresses the real-world impact the company is having on people and the planet. 

“Helios Towers has a co-location business model where the mobile tower is not just used by one mobile operator, it can be used by up to four operators. This de-risks the use of that tower from an investment perspective, but it also lowers the cost for the customers and reduces the carbon footprint,” explains Constable-Maxwell. “The structure of their business model is inherently lower risk because of that co-location, mobile mast sharing model which reduces costs and increases the likelihood of success.”

Helios Towers is aiming to expand the number of towers by more than 10,000 across the 8 markets it operates in by 2025 as well as increasing the number of sites specifically in rural and underserved regions by about 1,500 by the end of 2025. As the company grows, how can a ‘double materiality’ perspective help investors gain a more holistic picture of its prospects, encompassing both financially material ESG risks and also the company’s real-world impact on people and planet?

For Helios Towers, financially material ESG issues would include employee retention, customer satisfaction and risk management around issues like bribery and corruption, all factors that are likely to affect the company’s growth prospects and long-term financial success. But addressing double materiality seeks to combine what is financially material to a company with what is material to people and the planet. 

“Helios is an excellent illustration of this concept,” says Constable-Maxwell, “demonstrating robust management of those financially material ESG issues (‘outside in’), but also a business model that is inherently driving economic empowerment and financial inclusion (‘inside out’).” 

Impact at scale

Mobile technologies and services contributed to more than $130 billion in economic value in sub-Saharan Africa in 20206 – and this is projected to exceed $155 billion by 2025, but with more than a fifth of the region’s people offline the coverage gap is significant. With its population set to triple by 21007, mobile and internet connectivity must play a significant role in supporting social and economic development. 

“For people and groups with limited economic opportunities the question is: how can impact investors support their economic empowerment via improved access to information and communication, enabling them to access life-enhancing services like mobile health, education and banking, even in a rural community without traditional infrastructure. In this way, people can save, invest and build for a better future, while creating the right environment to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses sustainably,” says Constable-Maxwell. 

1 UN, “With almost half the world’s population still offline, digital divide risks becoming ‘new face of inequality’, deputy secretary-general warns general assembly”, (, 27 April 2021.
2 World Bank, Democratic Republic of Congo, (
3 World Bank, Democratic Republic of Congo, (
4 SDG 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.
5 Google & IFC, “e-Conomy Africa 2020, Africa’s $180 billion internet economy future”.
6 GSMA, “The mobile economy, sub-Saharan Africa 2021”.
7 The Lancet, “Why sub-Saharan Africa might exceed its projected population size by 2100”, (, 17 October 2020.

This is a sample representation of our work with a client. Outcomes will vary and there is no guarantee that we can achieve any particular results with any particular manager in any particular asset class. The value of investments will fluctuate, which will cause prices to fall as well as rise and investors may not get back the original amount they invested. Past performance is not a guide to future performance. The views expressed in this document should not be taken as a recommendation, advice or forecast.