The Connectivity Revolution
Roke Telkom is responding to technological trends in its beloved Uganda, the company broadening its expertise and reach to the benefit of business and consumers
Writer: Tom Wadlow | Project Manager: Vivek Valmiki
According to the GSMA, around 40 million citizens (or 44 percent of the population) have a mobile subscription, with around 10 million mobile internet connections established across the country.
And it is a trend that needs to continue gathering momentum if the East African nation is to move towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its Uganda Vision 2040, the rise of digital connectivity seen as crucial in realising almost all of the SDGs.
For Michael Mukasa, Chief Commercial Officer at national telco Roke Telkom, the industry has reached a critical juncture.
“Several things are happening at the same time,” he says. “First, the traditional voice and mobile services are largely low margin commodities, and the dominant players from that space are looking for new opportunities in financial services and data.
“Secondly, there have been a large number of ISP players that had different specialised market niches, yet this is also changing where you find traditionally wholesale companies are now entering the retail and corporate market.
“Lastly, there is a shift from only providing connectivity towards giving total solutions to customers including voice, television and online media.”
Roke has been in operation since 2006, the company expanding beyond the remit of its Public Service Provider license in 2010 when it secured a Public Infrastructure Provider license from the Uganda Communications Commission. In 2013 it obtained telecommunications services licenses in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Adapting with the times
The changing dynamics of the industry highlighted by Mukasa present both opportunities and challenges for Roke.
“In such a situation, a business needs to transform itself constantly in order to differentiate from the pack,” he adds. “This is done by aligning the entire organisation towards innovation, and we have made this a core value.
“Additionally, we participated in the Stanford University SEED programme that gears companies towards exponential growth trajectories and allows exchange of ideas between medium sized and growing firms in the Sub-Saharan Africa region.
“This exchange of ideas allows us to find ways around challenges in accessing cost effective capital, and also technological and social challenges such as unstable power supply that tend to be common between countries.”
Conversation has also transpired in action, Roke investing in several emerging technologies and establishing itself as a go-to provider and authority in many different areas.
This includes cloud solutions and virtualisation of IT infrastructure and applications, the company responding to customer feedback and market research which suggests clients are seeking a provider which can offer a one-stop shop solution beyond simply internet connectivity.
Another value-added service which Roke is making inroads into is the SD-WAN space.
The firm is conducting several trials with clients, the technology allowing customers to have flexibility with their connectivity, described as a real gamechanger by Mukasa as it will redefine the way companies structure their networks and facilitate uptake of cloud services.
“The global telecommunications industry is at an inflection point, in that the technologies that have been dominant for the last few years are being replaced,” he adds.
“Roke Telkom has always prided itself on being an early adopter and forward-looking organisation in regard to technology, as has been evidenced by being the first company in our market to provide a commercially viable hotspot solution.”
As well as technology, Mukasa eagerly describes the way in which the company has been investing in people, both internally through training and development and externally via corporate social responsibility activities.
For the CCO, giving back to the community in these ways is motivation to succeed at a business level, a virtuous cycle when it comes to finding talented local people to grow inside the organisation.
“Africa is more impacted by the shortage of skilled labour than the rest of the world, partly because we can’t offer the same salaries or benefits as more advanced economies,” Mukasa explains. “In particular, the trend of highly educated technicians to work outside the region creates a challenge to identify, recruit and retain talent.
“At Roke we have used a variety of strategies to mitigate this issue, first of all by identifying talented students and engaging them as interns before they complete their studies – many of the current staff joined our company through this internship programme. Once staff are on board, we also offer a very generous continuing education scheme and constant training on new technologies.”
In the way of CSR, Roke is also changing lives for the better.
Every October for the last four years the company has dedicated itself to community upliftment through its Roke Gives Back initiative.
Through this, it has developed lifechanging relationships with charitable organisations involved in taking care of sick children and orphans, the most prominent example being the work with Bless A Child Foundation, a local initiative to provide support to families of children that come to the main national hospital for cancer treatment.
“This is especially relevant because Uganda has one of the highest per capita incidences of cancer in the entire world and children in particular are affected by it,” says Mukasa. “CSR plays an important role in our company, particularly as we are a locally owned firm and therefore deeply rooted in the communities we serve.”
Increasing its impact on local communities, both in terms of CSR and connectivity coverage, lies at the heart of Roke’s plans for the coming years.
Although regional expansion is an important objective, the CCO wants to extend the company’s network to all areas of Uganda, especially the marginalised and underserved areas. For example, it is currently working closely with international agencies in charge of taking care of the large refugee population being hosted in Uganda.
Another grow opportunity lies in the consumer retailer space.
“For the last few years we have built a strong customer base in the enterprise and SME markets and now we have shifted focus to the residential market,” Mukasa says. “The rapid drop in connectivity prices around the region has opened up new possibilities to give a competitive offer to home users, and this is especially relevant now given that most entertainment content has shifted online.
“Making this change within our company is not easy, however, as it requires a completely different approach to support, customer service, payments and customer acquisition compared to the business market.”
This shift will rely on deep cooperation with suppliers, a combination of brining on new partners and expanding relationships with existing companies who continue to reliably serve Roke.
Mukasa continues: “Suppliers are critical to our success because they enable us to provide services to our customers, as well as providing guidance on the direction we should take with our purchasing decisions.
“We usually look for suppliers we believe can provide us with the right kind of advice for the future, especially as they are usually more informed about trends and opportunities in their areas of expertise. Additionally, we look for suppliers that can facilitate our growth by providing credit facilities that release our cash flow to ease operations.”
And it is the prospect of a growth-fuelled future that leaves Mukasa bullish about the future, not only in the context of Roke Telkom but also Uganda’s wider digital development.
In an upbeat end to the conversation, he concludes: “Connectivity drives development in developing countries like the ones where we operate. We believe that the current economic growth trends and favourable regulatory environment are conducive to our business and encourage further investment in developing our infrastructure.
“As previously mentioned, there are still several areas of the country that are marginalised in terms of broadband connectivity, and our ambition is to reach all of them.”