MTN at 25: “We learnt invaluable lessons in Nigeria”

As MTN celebrates 25 years of changing lives by keeping the African continent connected, a lot has been achieved by the company along the way in more ways than one, the organisation has kept its promise of being a leader in giving South Africans and people in other markets a chance of a better network as well as super online services.   

Last year the company had unsavoury relationship with the government of one of its markets which resulted in payment of hefty fines. As a Pan-African company sworn to serve the needs of the continent MTN has a lot of groundwork to cover, albeit less work than has been done in the last 25 years. 

However, MTN aims to “further entrench partnerships with host countries to improve digital access, drive financial inclusion, empower and enable SMEs, create jobs and broad community development, among many others,” this according to media reports.

John Churu, from biztechafrica Botswana Office, filed questions to the MTN SA CEO Godfrey Motsa and  sought to learn more about the path MTN is charting as the world sees unprecedented growth in the ICT space as wrought in by the unpredictable Internet of Things (IoT) and the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR).  I started by congratulating the CEO on reaching 25 years of existence as a company and the promise of another many years to come. Below are excerpts of the interview…

Congratulations on your 25th anniversary, 25 years is a very long time indeed, what are the lessons that MTN has learnt during this period to date?

Over the past 25 years we have witnessed significant progress and most importantly, have had a front row seat to witness how digital access can boost Africa’s growth and the development of its people. We have seen emerging markets get new life as millions joined the digital world, but we have also learned it is not easy. You have to persevere, and truly believe that ultimate success comes when you can create shared value for the people of the continent through the services you provide. We have learnt that together we can create opportunities for growth and wellbeing across the continent we call home. 

It is within our reach if we ensure shared value creation for all stakeholders – both those we serve and those we collaborate with. What is clear is that MTN Group has, since inception, been a significant contributor to the economies and communities within which we operate. 

As a telecommunications company, a lot of this has been with respect to the infrastructure that is the backbone of the economies that we operate in and often that enables connectivity of people in the most remote areas. Our operations have also increasingly become a broader part of the economy through varying efforts including employment creation as well as Mobile Money. 

We are certainly proud of the fact that over the last 25 years MTN has built high-speed networks covering millions of people, created jobs for over 5 million people and through MTN Mobile Money connected 30 million people to the benefits of easy, cost-effective mobile financial services across the continent. Our biggest message from all of this: If Africa succeeds, MTN succeeds.

The market share for MTN has been increasing exponential in other regions of Africa, however, there are instances where MTN was caught on the wrong side of the law, how has that tainted your overall footprint in Africa?

There are challenges of course, and it is not easy operating in emerging markets in Africa. Our recent experience in Nigeria is one example of how tough it can be, but we have persevered and succeeded, while also learning invaluable lessons along the way. We believe the future is a bright place and it is for this reason, that we are pouring our energy into partnerships which will drive digital change broadly and deeply across the continent. However, we have also learnt that we need to be prepared for what the market is going to need and to then deliver exceptional experiences.

Africa has been accused of being the most expensive territory to use the internet compared to other jurisdictions, what efforts has MTN put in place in order to mitigate for price rise in that respect?

MTN is fully aware that data prices can and must continue to fall and as a company which puts the interests of all citizens first, it is wholeheartedly focused on ensuring inclusive telecommunication and data service are available for all. 

From a South African perspective, one of the most critical cost factors is the availability of appropriate spectrum.

To give just a few examples of how we have managed to cut data despite the spectrum crunch, in 2018 we slashed our out of bundle data rates by up to 75% for prepaid customers in South Africa, while effective rates per MB have fallen by 87% between 2011 and 2017. 

We are pleased to have made major strides towards data transparency and cost competitiveness, but our journey to improving customer experience will be ramped up even further.

A connected life for people within the countries you operate might be hampered by regulatory requirements, how much is MTN doing to push for a near 100% connectivity?

We have realised that smartphone affordability is a key stumbling block and so are leading the charge with a $20 Smart S feature phone. This is important as the average smartphone costs $100-200 and even at the lower end, about $40 in the mass market. Our strategy to connect the unconnected has the following pillars: coverage into rural and low-income areas, handset affordability, data service affordability, simplified bundling and selling of data and education.

Mobile money is an innovation that has so far improved many communities in Africa, what market share does MTN hold in the mobile money space?

We have 30 million customers using mobile money across fourteen markets.

Among recent innovations to ensure SA benefits from the fourth industrial revolution, MTN deployed a trial 5G network in an indoor business environment, with standards-based commercial-grade 5G network equipment and devices,” how soon will your organisation roll out 5G to other parts of the country including private entities like homes?

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) recently published its information memorandum for the licensing of 4G and 5G spectrum in South Africa. This is to be applauded, as it should open up more opportunities as the spectrum is auctioned. 

MTN is ready for 5G. We have modernised our radio, core and all connectivity to cater for 5G once the new spectrum becomes available. 

The 4IR as you know it is here to change the way we do business. Do you think Africa is prepared and can catch up with other advanced nations and keep pace with the speed at which the revolution is coming?

A bold new world for enterprise innovation, efficiency and the delivery of services awaits if we can harness the opportunities in time. We are already late to the party, but again, things are now beginning to move fast. There is no doubt that the combination of device, cloud, network and services form an “astoundingly powerful virtuous quartet for innovation and gives African countries an ability to quickly and efficiently harness these changes. Africa is particularly fortunate in that it does not have too much legacy architecture and so once the policies are in place, Africa can quickly leapfrog other countries. 

What major developments do you envisage for the next 25 years?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is expected to be the next big thing in the telecommunication industry. This will result in the creation of smart factories, cities, remote patient monitoring, robotic surgery, driverless cars and mobile augmented reality shopping experiences changing our world – but only if we build the foundations today for innovation to thrive.

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