A struggle for visibility: Onkokame Mothobi

Nobody would (or could) have pictured an eleven-year old boy selling oranges and sweets on the street growing up into a man who would wear a suit and address a gathering.

But Mothobi could.

Mothobi pictured himself successful when he left behind everything he loved, when he sold oranges on the street, each time he glanced at the passenger in his cab, and when he failed his course in Medicine.

Onkokame Mothobi sits in the news studio discussing data policy in South Africa. His perseverance has brought him to the position of Senior Researcher at Research ICT Africa (RIA), where he influences policy research and decisions. With a PhD in telecommunications demand and regulatory policy, Mothobi specializes in telecommunication demand, competition and regulatory policies. He uses his expertise in econometrics to understand the pricing of mobile phone plans in the telecommunications industry, and as a telecommunications market analyst, analyses operators’ financial statements as well as supply-side pricing patterns and competition strategies throughout Africa. Mothobi has published eight policy briefs and four reports focusing on data markets, mobile pricing, access and use of communication, and ICT in Southern African countries (Botswana, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, and Lesotho, belonging to the Southern African Development Community).

Mothobi’s story is one of struggle for visibility in an unequal society. When he finally completed his PhD at the University of Cape Town, Mothobi learnt “getting a job is easy when you have a PhD” is just a myth. His initial employment opportunity in an organization as a research consultant threatened to engulf Mothobi as just another faceless researcher with a PhD. But Mothobi did not want to be faceless or forgotten. He presented papers whenever he got an opportunity— “so that they can be aware that I am there”. His big break came when Alison Gillwald (chairperson of the Research ICT Africa board) asked him one simple question: “Where are you working?”

Mothobi finally found the platform that he had been searching for all his life; Research ICT Africa (RIA) had finally noticed Mothobi.

Weeks passed, but RIA did not call him back.

Mothobi had seen the platform RIA had to offer, and he was already smitten. He knew if they weren’t going to reach out to him, he had to do something before he fades away. Mothobi looked up the RIA website and found a vacancy.

When Mothobi joined RIA, he was an excellent academic researcher. However, he had trouble understanding what the organization wanted. They’d want his research, but then they’d tell him “don’t put so many models in your work”. Mothobi had forgotten that the world was not his PhD class.

Fresh out of university with a PhD, and employed at Research ICT Africa (RIA), Mothobi was confident as ever when he submitted his first paper to CPRsouth.

Mothobi was shocked to find his paper rejected, “I thought they were crazy to reject me”. He found it outrageous that CPRsouth would think his paper was not good enough. Although hurt and insulted, Mothobi decided to accept the invitation to join CPRsouth Young Scholars. What Mothobi learnt at CPRsouth Young Scholars granted him the visibility he had been searching  for, all his life; he learnt that policy research and sophisticated academic jargon should not be mixed:

“I was so fresh from academics, and when you’re still feeling that energy and you think you know a lot”.

After three degrees Mothobi still did not know “a lot”.

Mothobi believes what he learnt at CPRsouth Young Scholars altered his career forever. At the CPRsouth Young Scholar program held in Yangon Myanmar, 2017, he finally understood what Alison Gillwald meant when she said, “Mothobi, I want you to write something that is understood by people”.

He now understands the importance of scripting his research to suit the target audience. Now when Mothobi writes, he writes to be understood. Mothobi’s role as a senior researcher at Research ICT Africa has given him the platform he needed to influence policy research and formulation. He makes several appearances on television programs leading discussions on high data costs. In an interview with SABC News, Mothobi talks about the inequality and the unaffordability of data in South Africa. He transforms his jargonized education and economic models to describe the inequality faced by low-income-earners. His work through RIA has influenced the government of Botswana to issue a regulation to reduce data prices by half after RIA highlighted the unaffordability of data prices in Botswana.

Onkokame Mothobi looks back and smiles, he is content with who is. His face is finally known.

At CPRsouth 2019, Mothobi sits at the edge of his chair nervous and fidgety. He skips going out to “network” during the tea break. Waiting for his turn to present, Onkokame Mothobi is nervous.

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