With Ghana's oil find, its telecoms and ICT industry has been somewhat overshadowed in recent years. But it is a sector full of opportunities for both local and International firms says Airtel's Philip Sowah.
Writer Ian Armitage
Project manager Donovan Smith
Although mature, Ghana's telecoms and ICT industry is "full of opportunities" says Airtel Ghana's Managing Director Philip Sowah.
According to Mr Sowah, the sector is "buoyant", with network operators increasingly looking at innovation to stay competitive.
"Although mobile penetration crossed the 100 percent mark in the end of 2012, the market continues to show considerable potential," he explains, adding that growth is "being driven" by increased data usage. "I think there is still a lot of room to grow. Take me for example as a consumer: I use four sim cards, all of them Airtel; for different things. I have my phone, router, ipad, and modem. All h ave an Airtel sim card. So I use four sim cards without double-simming or using another network provider. As sim cards get embedded in to more and more devices, I think our market is set to grow more.
"Also, we've been boosted by improved submarine cable connections, which have helped lower prices an d increased availability of affordable 3G-enabled devices."
Mr Sowah is ambitious, tenacious and driven. Prior to joining Airtel Ghana, he was the CEO of Onetouch, now Vodafone Ghana, where he championed its aggressive expansion from 160,000 to 1.3 million subscribers.
"I'm encouraged and excited by what we are doing at Airtel," Sowah explains. "Airtel is going very well. We are consistently growing market share. We focus more on revenue market share than customer market share. Our data business has been growing quite significantly.
"What's that down to? Well, it is a mixture of things. It is the service and the network quality, and we have positioned ourselves well in the data market. We have also put in systems to make sure we can deliver a good service and with the submarine cables that are landing on our shores it has given us access to international internet bandwidth and we have passed the savings onto our customers and the usage has gone up.
"Airtel is the brand name for what were the 16 Zain operations across Africa which Airtel International acquired in June 2010.
Airtel International is part of Bharti Airtel Ltd, a leading global telecommunications company with operations in 19 countries across Asia and Africa. The company offers mobile voice & data services, fixed line, high speed broadband, IPTV, DTH, turnkey telecom solutions for enterprises and national & international long distance services to carriers.
The brand came with a promise to meet the emerging needs of customers with innovative, affordable and relevant solutions to empower consumers, giving them the freedom to do what they choose, providing them with the tools to meet life's daily challenges.
Has it delivered?
"I think we are doing that – we are driven by the vision of providing affordable and innovative mobile services to all, evidenced by the tariffs and incentives offered to customers," Sowah explains, adding that the firm recently won two awards for its Customer Care and Mobile Broadband Services.
The awards – Best Customer Care and Best Mobile Broadband Service of the Year – were h anded to Airtel at the third Ghana Telecoms Awards 2013.
The first award was in recognition of Airtel's dedication to a customer-centrist approach in growing its customer base, Sowah says.
The second award is for its leadership in the mobile broadband sector having upgraded from 3.5G to 3.75G Hig h Speed Pocket Access (HSPA+) network. "It means we have the most advanced network in the country," Sowah says. "We are very happy to have won both awards and are focused on remaining very competitive in the area of customer care and providing products and services that address the different needs of our various customers and make their experience on the network even better. These awards are testaments that the strategies we have put in place are paying off.
"We will continue to invest in the network and, listen to our customers whose feedback spurs us on to do better."
Sowah says Airtel Ghana wants to be the country's "most loved brand".
"What makes us different?" he asks. "A few things: For one, all our promotions and tariffs are clear and transparent. With us, what you see is what you get. We don't have hidden terms and conditions. When customers make a call they get a call notification which tells them how long the call is and how much it cost and how much is left on the tariff – this way the customer is always aware of their usage. It helps them budget and our customers like that type of service.
"Secondly, our call centre is always on hand to assist our customers.
"Thirdly, we continually invest in improving our service, networks and customer service. We never stop looking for ways to improve. We also have extremely fast broadband speeds and competitive tariffs, whilst focusing on providing the best service around."
Airtel recently launched Airtel Premier, a service aimed at creating exclusivity and providing higher levels of services for loyal customers.
"It is something that comes back to offering relevant service," Sowah explains.
He believes loyal customers should get the attention they deserve.
"We realised that our customers want to be recognised. They want special privileges and we want to offer that.
"We don't want to be the largest; we want to be the most loved brand in Africa and the most loved brand in the daily lives of Ghanaians. This feeds into that."
Airtel is using world class equipment in the telecoms industry and working with blue chip partners like Ericson, IBM, Huawei, Nokia Siemens Networks, and Tech Mahindra to ensure highest levels of service and latest generation technology.
"We have made huge strides in all we do and we continue to improve. We've a lot of exciting things in the pipeline and we are excited by the future. In terms of data, the July quarter is what we call our internet quarter. The whole three months is going to be focused on the internet and service around the net – with increased bandwidth, increased promotions, education there's lots of activity around giving a great internet experience."
Ghana is an "extremely important" market for Airtel and Sowah says "many multinationals realise that to be a truly pan-African player you have to have a presence" in the country.
The future is bright.
"Although Ghana's telecoms industry is mature, as a market there is some market share to be gained and revenue to be had. If you just look at telecoms markets across Africa, Ghana is one of the larger ones" Sowah says. "Since we became Airtel, we have increased the Capex spending in the country. Airtel is here to stay. It is here to be one of the major players in the telecoms industry in Ghana."
And Ghanaians have embraced the brand. "What we have done in terms of marketing and education has paid off and the Airtel brand is fairly well recognised in the market."
Airtel Ghana is famous for its mobile money service.
Airtel Money allows customers to use their mobile phones like a mobile wallet to transfer and receive money, pay for bills, goods and services promptly.
"It's convenient," says Sowah. "Typically there is a lot of money transfer from overseas to the country. Right now when that happens you have to go into a bank and there are so many bank branches you can go to. If you are out in a more remote area it is difficult to have access to your money. But with mobile money you can, wherever you are, get access to your money, do a transfer etc on your own terms. It is very convenient.
"Ghana is a cash economy and people used to travel with lots of money across the country to trade. Now you can put it in an electronic wallet and cash it when you get to your destination. There are security benefits there.
"Mobile money still has a lot of growth yet to happen. It is happening, but it is not on the same level as East Africa yet."
Airtel's destiny is in its "own hands".
"We see our market share increasing, quarter on quarter, and we expect that to continue to happen," Sowah explains. "We have our destiny in our own hands in that I think Airtel is a very efficient telecom operator and we are poised to be the most efficient operator in the country. And with the technology and services we are employing there isn't any reason why we shouldn't be number one.
"Airtel as a brand has some very core values. One is empowering our staff, being flexible, making sure that we do what we say we'll do, being open and humble. The culture of the company in Ghana is open and there is little hierarchy. We are also very detail orientated. We track information. We track systems down to very high level of detail. We understand our cost structure extremely well, our revenue structure extremely well.
"I see a bright future and I am extremely excited. The changes that are happening in Ghana's telecoms industry will have a big role in the country's future, with all the businesses springing up in Ghana. There is still a lot of growth to be had. We intend to be a major contributor to that growth."
To learn more www.africa.airtel.com.