Africell: Aggressively Challenging the Telecom Landscape
COO Elias Arwadi believes that Africell will play a key part in the development of Africa’s telecoms sector, a sector that is becoming the main driver behind the rise of the continent as a major economic player
Writer: Emily Jarvis
Project Manager: Donovan Smith
In the span of the past two years, Africell has made two major strategic moves that boosted the Group from a regional operator in West Africa to a Pan-African operator; namely its inception in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the acquisition of Orange Uganda.
The DRC operation launched in November 2012 now boasts seven million active subscribers with a market share of over 20 percent, and Africell has ambitious plans to expand its geographical coverage further in this vast country.
The acquisition of Orange Uganda further extended Africell’s portfolio to a country with 37.5 million inhabitants and an advanced and rapidly growing telecom market with an existing 2G, 3G, and LTE network. The acquisition made “perfect sense”, according to Elias Arwadi, Africell’s Group’s COO. “The Uganda acquisition fulfilled all the criteria we look for in our expansions. The country size is substantial, there is sufficient infrastructure in place and we believe there is room for an aggressive challenger.”
With more than 12 million active subscribers as of year-end 2014, Africell is now at the heart of the African telecom scene as one of the fastest growing players. So what does make this company tick?
The journey began in 2001 in The Gambia where entrepreneur Ziad Dalloul (Group CEO) launched Africell Gambia, which was swiftly followed by expansion in 2005 into Sierra Leone, then came DRC and Uganda.
Africell is among very few brands that were not “imported and adapted” as Arwadi emphasises: “International players had to adapt their brands and brand values when entering the African scene. However, Africell was born and bred in Africa.
Therefore the intrinsic attributes of the brand have been directly shaped by the needs of African people.”
Africell today has an impressive 65 percent market share in both Gambia and Sierra Leone; with more than 1.3 and three million active subscribers respectively.
In Gambia, Africell achieved the first rank in market share back in 2005 and was able to grow this market share despite the entry of two new competitors in 2007 and 2009. Today with more than 1.3 million active subscribers in a country of two million inhabitants, every other Gambian is an Africell subscriber.
In Sierra Leone, Africell came as the fourth operator going live in 2005, the first ranking in market share came in 2007 and since then the company was consolidating its position to reach 65 percent as of the end of 2014. In 2009, Africell acquired Tigo (Millicom) in a market consolidation move that Africell was able to close at a time of global financial crisis following the 2008 financial meltdown.
Both operations have a 2G/3G network and own and manage their tower portfolio.
With the lessons learned from previous operations, the growth of the DRC operation was unprecedented, 3.8 million subscribers in the first year of operation, to reach seven million by end 2014 only 25 months following launch. As you read this, 3G will be live in the DRC and Africell is promising nothing less than the aggressive penetration it was able to achieve in the voice market.
Corporate Social Responsibility
Arwadi thinks of CSR initiatives as “sharing and giving back to the communities” as he further explains: “In Africa the term family does not mean only your close family, the term extends even beyond what would be the western concept of the extended family, in Africa you take care of all those around you whether they are a relative or even a neighbour.”
Africell views its CSR programme as an extension of the brand attributes and being an African brand it firmly believes in giving back and sharing with the communities it operates in. “These are the guiding principles behind the Africell CSR programmes that drives our work across as many areas of society as possible, from sports sponsorships to health awareness campaigns, from artistes endorsements to rice distribution, sharing in special occasions to distributing Christmas presents; this extends to everyone and not just our subscribers,” highlights Arwadi.
Countries of Operation
With a population of more than two million people and a mobile market penetration rate well above the African average standing at 111 percent at the end of 2014, Africell began a conservative approach in Gambia as the second operator to enter the country.
“The country’s small market allowed us to focus on maturing the brand and making sure we provide the best customer care and the most advanced call centre in Gambia,” comments Arwadi.
By initiating business in one of Africa’s smaller markets, the company was able to strategically test the waters and learn the most effective ways to make a radical difference not only in communication but also in the community. “At this time, no one was seeing Africa’s potential in the telecoms industry and as such, there were conservative estimates when it came to forecasts and mobile penetration levels. There wasn’t a specific way to see telecoms do well in an African setting,” says Arwadi.
Over the years, increased competition from three rival telecoms companies in Gambia has not slowed down progress of Africell as its market share and subscriber base continued to grow. Today, Gambia has 1.3 million subscribers, a huge achievement considering the population stands at just over two million. “We have been leaders here in terms of market share since 2006 and we have an attractive offering that places us in front of the competition with a 65 percent market share,” Arwadi adds.
As a consequence of continuous dedication year-in year-out, Africell Gambia has won service provider of the year every year so far since 2009.
The launch of 3G mobile broadband service in early 2012 has cemented Africell’s position in Gambia as today, it proudly provides network coverage to 99 percent of the country. Accompanying this is the launch of mobile money during the course of the current year and heavy investment into enhancing the 3G in order to expand its data services.
Having emerged from more than a decade of civil war, Sierra Leone has enjoyed great political stability in recent years, with improvements to its infrastructure resulting from rapid economic growth. Similarly, the mobile and telecoms sector has experienced strong growth and fostered healthy competition among operators.
Africell started its operations here in 2005 in order to further improve services and network capabilities in the country. Initially launching 3G operations in 2011, the company has grown to become the first operator with a 65 percent market share at the end of 2014.
By 2008, Africell Sierra Leone joined Gambia in taking the leading spot in terms of market share, winning the AWOL (All Works of Life) national achievement award as the Best Telecommunications Company in the country in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
Africell Sierra Leone has become the GSM operator with the highest growth rate both as a percentage of subscriber base and in terms of the rapid increase of subscribers, reaching three million to date.
“As with Africell Gambia, the secret to our success has been to integrate ourselves into the Sierra Leonean society in order to strengthen our brand reach and customer product knowledge,” says Arwadi.
In Sierra Leone, Africell’s elaborate and inclusive CSR programme is in full swing. One of the most notable projects was the sponsorship for the beautification of the Freetown cotton tree, a treasured historic symbol of the country’s capital city. “We renovated the entire area surrounding the tree. The cotton tree represents Sierra Leonean heritage,” says Arwadi.
Africell was actively involved in the fight against Ebola “Our activities included awareness campaigns to keep the public informed and educated on the crisis and donating rice to some of the worst affected communities for every minute a subscriber used their phone. We donated 150 tonnes of rice in total as a result.
“We contribute where it matters and really want the public to directly feel the impact of our contribution, this is part of the Africell spirit; to participate in people’s lives through the ups and downs,” highlights Arwadi.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Telecoms in the DRC continue to steadily develop and Africell aim to help make a serious contribution to the region to encourage rapid growth. The government has recognised the need for a better telecommunications structure and is working to achieve a national fibre backbone rollout. With a total population of 67.6 million and growing, the competition in the DRC is fierce as big operators are in contention to gain a major market share.
Operating in the country since 2012, Africell has seven million active subscribers and is ranked third in the market as a whole.
“Our aim is to include two more provinces in the DRC every year bringing the total number up to six out of 11 in 2015,” Arwadi continues: “A new province can be the equivalent size of an entirely new country and we are proud to say that as a result of this strategy, Africell is now a household name in the DRC known as ‘the people’s network’.”
Achieving the interconnection with the other MNOs was an important milestone; the regulator as well as the Ministry of Telecom has made a serious effort in the direction to harmonize the Telecom sector.
Africell DRC underwent numerous challenges in a very competitive market and in a country equal in size to the whole of Western Europe. The aforementioned interconnection with other operators was a major challenge facing Africell in the DRC; Africell was able to withstand this situation and achieve this substantial growth against adversity. The interconnection issue was solved in March 2015 and Africell successfully interconnected with all the other MNOs in the DRC.
Africell DRC reached positive EBITDA levels and is now very well positioned to further harness the market potential with an aggressive rollout plan throughout the country adding three new provinces to its repertoire every year.
Infrastructure availability remains the biggest challenge and especially in the remote areas. “We are witnessing improvements from this angle also; however given the growing exponential demand for data, the lack of fibre infrastructure poses a serious challenge to MNOs as they strive to bring fast and reliable data to all parts of the country,” states Arwadi.
Last year, Africell acquired Orange Uganda, assuming control in November 2014. The company is currently in the assimilation phase, aligning the business with the Africell brand as Arwadi explains: “We are taking a closer look at what we have and where to spend our money going forward; whether this be on increasing our capacity or studying what the network needs here.”
Africell’s product offering will be gradually rolled out here in 2015 in order to fully encapsulate the Africell way of thinking. Since acquiring Orange, subscriber numbers have steadily increased from 600,000 subscribers to more than one million. “This serves as the very first milestone in a long journey. Not only this but it reassures us that this was the right move for Africell,” says Arwadi.
The introduction of the cell phone and mobile data has revolutionised Uganda’s telecommunications sector and the economy. As a result, there has been a huge level of competition in the country accompanied by significant improvements to infrastructure.
Since 2009, the country has benefitted from sub-marine fibre cables lying on the East African coastline. Subsequently, Uganda is now connected via a national fibre backbone extending to its borders with neighbouring coastal countries, which makes services for the customer cheaper and enables more reliable converged voice, data and digital media services. This will drive short term growth through competitive pricing and network expansion to underserved areas.
“Mobile penetration rate at the end of last year was 51 percent, which shows the potential for our voice and data services. As mentioned earlier, there is a big demand for data across the whole continent and Africell believes it will be an aggressive challenger here as the market is yet to become oversaturated with telecoms.
“Uganda had all the right ingredients pointing to success. For Africell, it was about spotting the right opportunity and I am excited about what the future holds here,” states Arwadi.
The challenges ahead
The business environment and regulatory backdrop has remained challenging for Africell, however Africell’s COO says it is going in the right direction.
A key challenge facing Africell is to keep the “Africell way and spirit alive” while expanding across the continent as Arwadi explains: “We foster creativity and free thinking in the full sense of the word, we encourage entrepreneurial thinking at all levels of the organisation and most importantly we consider the extent to which we are able to grow by promoting from within. This is one of the most critical measures of our success.
“Africell’s management team is a prime example of the Africell philosophy, unlike the customary HR mantra that says we do not make them, we find them Africell kind of does the reverse. All the country general managers as well as a majority of the officers, started their career with Africell at entry or mid-levels and the time they needed to reach senior position is another factor in Africell’s empowerment strategy.”
Spotting the right future opportunities
Africell is looking to continue to organically expand into new countries and will rely on spotting the right opportunities going forward.
Arwadi says this strategy revolves around the company’s desire to be an intrinsic player in the future of what he calls “the new emerging Africa”: “As the continent continues to demonstrate positive development, I believe that Africell will play a key part in its communications sector. Africa is still young and still growing. As a result I believe it will emerge at the forefront of the world economy.
“With ‘born and bred’ African companies such as Africell driving indigenous growth by providing access to fast data and related services, we represent a genuine desire to empower people and help African businesses to succeed,” he summarises.