The Chief Executive Officer MainOne, Funke Opeke, spoke to journalists on the need for government to create the enabling environment for businesses to thrive before wooing foreign investors. Emma Okonji presents the excerpts:
Nigeria attends ITU Telecom World conference every year to showcase the country’s potential and woo foreign investors to the country. What has been the impact of the frequent attendance on the Nigerian economy?
I think we can look at the impact of Nigeria’s frequent participation at ITU conferences from two sides. There is the technical exchange experience that is being shared on one hand because ITU is the custodian of standards for the telecommunications industry globally, which gives Nigeria the edge to collaborate and learn from other countries that also attend ITU conferences. But on the other side, and in terms of business growth and commercial activities, I do not think that Nigeria and the Nigerian businesses are still getting the value they used to get in previous years. This year’s ITU conference for instance, was dominated by African and Asian countries, but countries from Europe and United States that have used technologies to develop their economies and are generating good money from Information and Communications Technology (ICT), did not attend the ITU conference. So, I think ITU has relevance in terms of technical standards and regulations in areas of satellite slots and spectrum allocations, but in terms of commercial activities, I do not think there is more of an impact.
So what is the best method that Nigeria should adopt to attract foreign investments to the country?
Success begets success and this is one thing government must understand, while pushing for investors to come to Nigeria and invest. When investors want to invest in a country, they may go to government, but their preferred point of call is the local business operators, operating in the country. They will like to hear from local business owners, about how well their local businesses are thriving and how much of enabling environment do they have, doing business in the country. They also want to know from the local business owners, how easy it is to solve business challenges that could emanate in the cause of doing business in the country. It is the feedbacks they get from the local business owners that informs their decision making on whether to come to Nigeria to invest or not. They do not rely only on what the government tells them, they also do their feasibility studies and ask questions from businesses that are already on ground. So it will be right for the Nigerian government to fix its country and create the enabling environment for businesses to thrive, before wooing foreign investors. So like I said earlier, success begets success.
There is a global shift from voice communication to data communication, which could be the reason why there was so much display of 5G technology at this year’s ITU conference. How has MainOne positioned its business to take advantage of data and 5G technology that are now trending?
At MainOne, we are well positioned to drive data penetration. The 5G technology is a faster technology in terms of speed of broadband and capabilities at reasonable cost. But for 5G to be effective, we need enough fibre infrastructure and data centres, and MainOne is at the forefront of building the infrastructure to enable the implementation of our InfraCo licence, which covers Lagos and be able to rollout in other parts of the country. All these will however be possible if we are given the opportunity to rollout. Nigeria has a lot to do to catch-up with global technologies. At ITU, so much were seen and heard of countries like Korea and China that have gone far in the use of technology to drive their economies and there is a huge gap between Nigeria and these developed countries, in terms of technology advancements. So Nigeria has a lot of work to do to catch up with the developed countries of the world.
The telecoms industry regulator had since licensed two InfraCos and they kept saying they were in the process of licensing additional five InfraCos to address the infrastructure deficit in the country, yet the two licensed InfraCos, which MainOne is one of them, are yet to rollout their services. Are you not disturbed about this situation?
Yes, I am disturbed about it, but there are challenges, which I think are in the bureaucracy of government. For MainOne, we are ready to roll-out because we have concluded all the necessary connectivities, we have the fibre in the warehouse for over one year now, we have all the corrugated optical ducts, our contractors are selected and ready, but the challenge is that MainOne cannot commence the building of the infrastructure without permission to do so. Until we get the permission, we cannot do anything. Most times government comes with various rules and we try to work with government and we are looking up to government for permission to start building telecoms infrastructure.
MainOne has been licensed by Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) as one of the two InfraCos, so what kind of permission are you still expecting from government?
Yes, we have been licensed as InfraCo for the Lagos zone, but licences have conditions. Some state government laws do not allow telecoms operators to excavate the ground to lay their broadband fibre cables in certain jurisdiction. So the conditions attached to the license from the NCC and the Lagos State government, are some of the things that are slowing down the rollout process, even though we have the licence. At the time we got the InfraCo licence, if anyone had predicted that we would not be able to rollout by this time, I would have disagreed with such prediction, but here we are today, faced with several challenges that are impeding rollout plans. Initially when we were going through the processes of getting permit, we thought it was going to be easy, but today we have found out that the process is cumbersome. We have the infrastructure stored in warehouses for over a year now, but we can’t deploy them because of government bureaucracy.
There is an executive order on the Ease of Doing Business in Nigeria. How is the order helping investors and Nigerian businesses?
As a business person operating in Nigeria, I will want to see the executive order on the Ease of Doing Business translate into realities, but even at that, I must commend the office of the Vice President for what they have done. But again, I do not have to go to the office of the Vice President to get permit, before I run my business or before I get custom clearance or approval for SON CAP from Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON). What matters is the attitude and adherence to the executive order by the various agencies of government that we deal with. If the government agencies implement the executive order to the letter and allow businesses to thrive in the country the way it should be, then business owners will begin to feel the impact of the executive order. Businesses are yet to feel the impact of the executive order on Ease of Doing Business, but in the areas of implementation of Visa on Arrival, quick registration of businesses and business names, I think we are beginning to feel their impacts, because people now apply for Nigeria Visa on arrival and they get it as soon as they arrive. The Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) is now very fast at company’s registration and this is good for investors and business owners in Nigeria to make quick visits to Nigeria unhindered, and also get their companies registered in due time.
MainOne has been a strong advocate of broadband penetration in Nigeria, but experts have said that less than 10 per cent of the total broadband capacities at the shores of the country, is being utilised. Why the under-utilisation?
Yes, the utilisation of broadband capacities in Nigeria is still very low, not because the people do not have need for it, but because the people do not have access to it, based on the inability of government to build a national backbone infrastructure that will transmit these capacities from the sea shores to the hinterlands, where they are mostly needed. So this has made the cost to be high and something needs to be done to reduce cost and make broadband accessible to all. The remaining five InfraCos were supposed to deepen broadband infrastructure in the country but they are yet to be licensed by the NCC, and even the two that had since been licensed, they have not been able to roll out services because of the challenges, which I stated earlier. So it means we have a lot of work to do in Nigeria.
The Universal Service Provision Funds (USPF) is supposed to assist operators to roll out broadband infrastructure and services in rural communities. How well has MainOne taken advantage of the fund?
MainOne has never gotten a kobo from USPF even though the fund was supposed to assist InfraCos in deepening infrastructure in the rural communities. What we need as a country is a transparent deployment of infrastructure in the rural communities that is subsidised by the USPF funds.
In 2010, MainOne landed its submarine cable from Europe to Nigeria, just to boost broadband capacity and penetration in the county. What have been the challenges and the success stories since then?
It has been interesting and we have been able to make positive impact on data communication in Nigeria since the landing of MainOne submarine cable in Nigeria. As an independent cable operator, we were able to drive down the cost of data from what it used to be, and thereby stimulate the market to have better internet penetration. Although the process has been slow and steady, but we have been able to create that impact on Nigerian businesses and the Nigerian economy.
Apart from MainOne, we have other cable operators that have also landed their sub marine cables in Nigeria, yet broadband penetration is still as low as 21 per cent, even though there are plans to raise it to 30 per cent by 2018. What is your take on this?
It is true that broadband penetration is still low in Nigeria, and if anyone had told me seven years ago when we landed the MainOne submarine cable in Nigeria that seven years after, we will still be battling with broadband penetration, I would not have believed that person, but here we are today, still struggling to boost broadband penetration, because of the challenges I enumerated earlier, despite the avalanche of broadband capacities at the sea shores of the country.
The potential to do more are far much higher than we have demonstrated, but again it shows that we are capable of driving broadband penetration in the country because we have already demonstrated it, but I think we could do more if the enabling environment is there.
The federal government came up with a five year broadband plan from 2013 to 2018, and government is supposed to cover some milestones each year, but there are no indices to that effect. How are MainOne and other operators engaging with government to achieve milestones in its broadband plan?
Of course we are engaging with government to achieve its broadband goals, and that is the reason we are always with government to showcase Nigeria’s potentials at ITU global events. Apart from engaging with government, we are also supporting government to implement its broadband plans for Nigeria.
What is the current level of investments in the submarine cable project in Nigeria, since 2010?
I do not have those figures but I am sure it’s more than a billion dollars across the various submarine cable operators.
MainOne set up MDXi to manage its data centre project. What has been its impact on businesses?
The MDXi that was set up by MainOne to manage its data centre operations in Nigeria, is doing quite well. As businesses move online, they need reliable data centre operator to help them do online businesses without any downtime. So MDXi helps businesses to have quality data protection system and it provides reliability to customers, and it has been very impactful. It also gives businesses connectivity, not only from MainOne, but also from other submarine cable providers as well. We have seen a lot of uptake in that area and we will continue to grow our data centre business.
As a business owner, what will be your advice for government in the area of business growth and sustainability?
Government needs to implement the right policies that will enable businesses thrive in the country. We also need to measure our milestones in order to find out how well we have gone. Government must ensure full commitment to the things it is supposed to do that will promote businesses in the country.
Other countries are working hard to use technology to drive their economies and Nigeria should not lag behind. Korea had the same GDP per capital with Nigeria in the 1960s, but today, Korea is far much developed than Nigeria, in the area of technology advancements. So government must stop talking and start acting and implementing in the interest of Nigerians and Nigerian businesses.
So how is MainOne supporting startups to grow in Nigeria?
We are supporting startups in several ways and we were able to provide internet connectivity to Co-Creation Hub (CC-Hub) in Yaba, after they got government permit on right of way. Thereafter, Andela came, Paga came, Hotel.ng came and we supported all of them.
E-BIZ INTERVIEW 2
Ogujiofor: 9mobile Remains Committed to Quality Service
The Vice President, Consumer Sales and Services of 9mobile, Mr. Ken Ogujiofor, spoke on the resilience of the telecoms company and its commitment to quality service despite the challenging operating environment. Excerpts:
The macro-economic operating environment in Nigeria has been challenging for businesses largely across all sectors, is 9mobile on track in meeting its sales targets for 2017?
I want to look at it from the general perspective because 9mobile is not operating in isolation from other companies, especially, telcos in this environment. Lots of things have changed in terms of the economic landscape, and in as much as we are told we are out of recession, we know that the impact of the recession is still present. Until the inflation rate changes from what it currently is, we really cannot begin to talk about recession abating. It has been a challenging environment especially towards the end of last year. Forex issues and difficulty in accessing most of the resources you need to do business in the country and of course as 9mobile, we have had our own challenges aside the macro-economic environment.
So, it has been tough and challenging; however, the business is structured to be resilient in such a way that we keep fine tuning our strategies and targets to reflect the reality on ground and position the business to meet targets. Given that background, I would say that 9mobile is well positioned to deliver on its expectations for 2017 and we believe that we will still achieve that within the time frame.
The recent brand migration from Etisalat Nigeria to 9mobile in a record time, precisely under three weeks, has been applauded as unprecedented. What is the significance of this new brand identity for the company and its subscribers?
We are used to the cliché that the only constant thing is change, we cannot stop change as it will keep happening, it is how we react to change, and what we are able to extract from change that makes the difference. Changing from what we used to be to 9mobile has been quite successful considering the time frame we had to achieve and deliver on that. Within a very short time, we were able to replicate what we are known for, which is to be innovative and drive professionalism to ensure quality of service within the constraints and challenges we faced as a business. We have reacted positively and not taken our eyes off customer expectations which have been the driving force behind our success. The new brand creates a new opportunity for us to serve the customer in the same superior custom that they are used to as subscribers of the 9mobile network.
How far have you gone with rebranding over 400 experience centres, call and customer care centres and other touch points across the country, and what is the completion timeline?
If you look at how we started the rebranding process, we had to take it on a phased approach, because there are limitations to how much you can do within a given time frame. We needed to define what was of topmost priority and focus on those, whilst scheduling others for a later date. We have concluded two of three phases as we speak; with the third phase being close to completion. At the end of phase three we would have rebranded over 400 touch points across the country.
So, I can give 9mobile a high pass mark on that, given the limited resources and the cost of doing business, which now is not what it used to be. The value of funds a few years ago is no longer equivalent today due to the devaluation and current inflation rate. We have nevertheless surmounted the challenges and delivered most of our rebranding across all the touch points. It is a work in progress and we are confident that we will complete the phase three within the given time frame.
Earlier in the year, 9mobile hosted its channels partners and some decisions were reached. Have any of those decisions been altered following recent developments including the brand migration?
Decisions reached with channel partners are binding irrespective of whether the brand is changing, it does not affect agreements or commitments that has been reached with the channel partners. However, as the brand is changing, the market environment is also changing. Business is dynamic, so we equally need to redefine touch points and the expectations of our channel partners to be able to meet them and ensure that what they expect from us is delivered in a timely manner. We always refer to them as our partners and beyond any previous engagements, we need to engage them even more with the brand change to reassure them that we will continue to play our part. New commitments may come in because the business is changing and I believe our channel partners are very happy with the way we have managed the situation so far.
There were concerns about the channel partners and distributors incurring losses because of their large stocks of merchandise such as SIM cards, recharge cards and MiFi which bear the old brand identity, Etisalat. How has that situation been managed?
There was no acrimony between the old brand and the new brand during the disengagement. It was a mutually agreed pattern of disengagement. Everything was considered and timelines agreed to phase out brand collaterals already in the trade. So, the fact that some merchandise still bear the old brand name does not expose any partner to any financial risk or loss as this scenario was already accommodated in the discussions with our former partners.
In terms of feedback from your frontline sales and customer care staff and agents at the call centres and experience centres, what is the level of customers’ awareness of the new brand name, 9mobile?
Feedback from our customers revealed that majority love the new brand and new logo but more importantly, customers want a situation where the changes translate into more benefits for them. This is what we are currently doing and we will keep doing. In my view, and from available feedback mechanisms, the brand change has been a huge success as most of the feedback we have got is quite positive.
Of course, the old name may have a higher recall amongst a very small minority because that name was around for so long. I’m sure if we check, we will find a few people who still refer to brands that changed 10 years ago by their old names regardless of a rebrand. 9mobile though, is more concerned with the brand affinity, the service delivery and customer experience. We want people to know that, what makes a brand really are the people behind the brand.
The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria recently disclosed that 9mobile remained financially stable throughout the period of turbulence that led to the brand identity change. Going by figures and returns from sales, is 9mobile really financially stable and profitable?
With respect to stability, yes 9mobile is very stable and with respect to profitability, we have to wait till the end of 2017 financial year to determine that because a lot of things have changed and the market environment is not the same. I will leave that to the financial gurus; by the end of the year, we will be in a position to look at our balance sheet and ascertain profitability. But as per stability, I can assure you that 9mobile is very stable and we have never gone back on our part from doing what is necessary to keep the business going.
The telecom industry is highly competitive while operators continue to roll out products and services to gain competitive edge. Can you share with us what 9mobile is doing differently to stay ahead of competitors?
What we have done and continue to do is our commitment to do certain things that make us a force to reckon with in the industry irrespective of the fact that we were the last to come in. The fact is that we are actually building on our successes and we are even doing much better than before irrespective of the challenges that we had. We will keep finding new ways to use technology to improve the lives of our subscribers, we will definitely enhance our network capacity and capability to enable people do more and add more value and certainly customer experience on 9mobile network will remain a key priority for the business. Our focus has not shifted from the customer and we will keep making sure they get quality service. We have kept our word on delivering professionalism in everything that we do and for me, the DNA of a business which is difficult to copy lies with the human resource. Marketing and sales strategies can be copied but it is difficult to copy someone’s DNA. That is what makes me different from you and that is what makes us different from others so we will focus on this going forward.
9mobile is listed as one of the top 50 brands despite coming from an era of rebranding as it is not easy to see a new brand selected as one of the top 50 brands in Nigeria. What do you think you did that made this possible?
9mobile’s nomination as one of the top 50 brands ties back to what I said earlier which is a function of what our focus is as a business. If you define your focus area which is the customer, and you define what you need to do to make sure you are creating value for the customer, it creates a different brand affinity that is difficult to wipe away. Our innovative way of doing things, whether in terms of product development or service delivery, has taken us to a level of recognition that surpasses brands that have been in existence much longer than we have.
For example, if you take a look at what happens in the multimedia environment and what happens with data, you will see that 9mobile has strived to remain top notch. Above all, once you are able to achieve a high level of confidence with your subscribers and stakeholders, the rest is almost a given. I believe these qualities are some of the things that have earned us recognition as one of the top 50 brands in Nigeria. Our focus is on how we can remain in the top 50 brands and even push further because I am sure there will be a story of one of the top 10 brands in Nigeria and we want to be there.
What are the structures being put in place to prepare the company for new investors?
We are not deviating from the key focus of trying to deliver on the day-to-day efficiency of the business and making sure that this business remains sustainable and profitable. This is what we as the management team will be doing more of; remain innovative, keep adding value, remain efficient, remain profitable.