A Bold New Digital World
Writer: Matthew Staff
Project Manager: Donovan Smith
As a member of the MTN Group in Africa, Lonestar is successfully leveraging the prominent brand name in Liberia to enrich lives across the length and breadth of the country.
Lonestar Cell began commercial operations in 2001 with Lonestar Cell MTN becoming the new brand name six years later following the acquisition of its mother company, Investcom LLC by MTN Group. The subsequent Lonestar Cell MTN Company became the first operator within Liberia offering GSM services; a pioneering position which the business has maintained over its 14 years of technological evolution.
Entering the 2G domain before evolving further still into 3G, Lonestar has remained market leader throughout, enhancing and expanding its network infrastructure across the country in the process, as subscriber numbers surpassed one million people.
Now, with 1.3 million subscribers, and more than half of the market share, the Company is as driven as ever to saturate the entire country with its unrivalled standard of services.
“We don’t yet cover 100 percent of the country but we are getting close,” Lonestar’s Chief Executive Officer, Babatunde Osho says. “We have evolved over the years from GSM 2G and now into 3G, developing our network into all counties within the country.
“We have also evolved our services from basic voice and SMS in the early days to a whole host of value-added services including music and a lot of other applications and advance data and IP services.”
Investing large amounts into necessary IT infrastructures to support such developments in previously unexposed regions of Liberia has been another pivotal facet of Lonestar’s success, staying true to its overall dedication to improving the general way of life for people in the country.
“I think our differentiator is that we are committed to the whole country and we know how to manage risk,” Osho continues. “We take a long-term view of all our markets so we can make our subscribers’ lives richer in the long-term by offering innovative services at great value for money.
“Through this, we also make sure we are getting returns for our shareholders as well, but the most important thing is the investments we are making and the services being offered to show how important this country is to MTN.”
Expanding the network
Lonestar’s primary aim to this end is to cover 100 percent of the country through the additions it continuously makes to the network, ensuring that the services encompassed within this expansion are being modernised along the way.
Over the past 14 years in line with this strategy, Lonestar has often been the first to form a presence in numerous towns and villages, building its reputation and notoriety in the process by bringing people closer to friends and family via the communication services being launched.
“A lot of the time we are pioneering in these counties, so quite often we also offer a lot of education so that our subscribers are able to get their first handset and make their first calls on the mobile network,” Osho explains. “As we have grown, this same process has been applied to services like 3G as we continue to be efficient within our network and as flexible with our services as possible.”
Each and every year a rigorous capital investment plan is put into motion to help facilitate its external broadening, ensuring that internal procedures and systems are equally advanced enough to cope with the developments.
Osho adds: “We have to serve our customers across the length and breadth of the country so we need to expand our network across that same area too. This means that we also have to invest a lot into the systems and facilities that support our operations and even into the fleets that move all our goods; all for the end benefit of our subscribers.”
Having the financial backing and the market knowledge to achieve such vast and significant growth stems largely from having the MTN name as an influence.
While each market is treated for its individual merits and challenges, the sharing of expertise, market analysis and supply chain relationships is critical for each of the MTN arms spread across the continent, and Liberia is certainly no different.
“Making lives richer is key to everything we do so we are always looking at the way our customers work and play and what we can do to make their lives better,” Osho says. “This means looking at every service and how we can best support them with each, and this is something that being part of MTN allows us to do.
“The MTN name also helps in forming multinational partnerships as well, leveraging the Group’s supply chain to ensure we get the best technologies into the country, while saving energy and being efficient on our side as well.”
While this inevitably provides cost advantages too, the affiliation with MTN as a whole has been essential in supporting its systems and subsequently providing a service to Liberia worthy of its market-leading standing.
“There is a whole lot of best practice that we share among the MTN operations, so we get to understand how customers might respond to services based on what has happened in other countries,” Osho continues. “All the markets are different but we can still learn about where things are headed.
“A culture of best practice and sharing is something we take very seriously and is important as part of our culture here at Lonestar.”
Commitment to Liberia
This culture also comprises a concerted understanding of industry and consumer trends specific to the Liberian population, which has often been conducted during challenging and tumultuous times within the country over the past 14 years.
The recent outbreak of Ebola is one such example to have impacted Liberia in more recent times, but rather than shutting down and remaining passive, Lonestar again demonstrated its commitment to the public at large by directly involving itself in the relief effort.
“It was a general industry effort during Ebola whereby we all stayed and continued to provide our services, and we also supported the many NGOs coming into the country to help combat the epidemic,” Osho recalls. “We supported them and gave them intelligent data so they could map where it was spreading, so they could quickly deploy across the country and utilise the data in the necessary areas.
“We have been through ups and downs over the years but always remain committed to this country.”
Lonestar Cell MTN’s commitment was recognised by the government of Liberia in 2013 as the leading tax payer in the country. This, in addition to its corporate social responsibility campaigns further demonstrates the Company’s levels of commitment and reliability.
No more is this commitment evident than in the Company’s employment strategy, which has been formed to address another longstanding challenge within Liberia.
Skills shortages continue to cause issues for companies in the tech domain, but the combination of MTN’s employer of choice status, and its willingness to invest in the required training, means that the challenge is now a manageable one.
“It is very difficult to find skills but the MTN brand names helps to attract the best talent, both in Liberia and for Liberians looking to return home from other countries,” Osho notes. “We also have the opportunity to bring in talented and skilled people from other MTN operations to help develop the local talent that we have here in Liberia.”
Lonestar, as a result of its efforts in this area, has been accredited by the Investor in People (IiP) for its management of staff and the training and engagement that employees within the Company enjoy.
This has proven especially important given the fast-moving nature of the telecoms industry in Liberia with new services and technologies introduced almost on a yearly basis, and the knowledge required from the labour force having to develop parallel to these developments.
Once again though, Lonestar’s sustainable and collaborative approach to its people has alleviated these pressures and turned them into a differentiator within the market.
Extending the ethos of care even further, Lonestar’s dedication to corporate social responsibility has proven similarly significant over the years as it continues to find more ways to give back to the communities it operates within; whether that is through the core services it offers, or its Foundation’s work focusing on areas of education and health in the local regions.
Osho says: “We always make sure we are part of the community in which we operate by not only making money but also by putting money back into the areas we do business.
“This is something that MTN has always taken very seriously, and fits into our strategy of enriching the lives of our subscribers as well.”
The market analysis and research that goes into this latter facet incorporates a full understanding once again of what customers want now and what they will want moving forward, accompanied by stringent piloting of new services to assess which applications and services customers will be comfortable using.
In the immediate term, this relates to the 3G services that are slowly but surely etching their way into Liberia’s routine network, while the long-term plan includes an inevitable progression towards LTE provision once the market and subscribers are ready to embrace the most modern of data and value-added products.
“We will sometimes have to educate our subscribers so that they can see the full benefits of the services we are unveiling to the market place, but our subscriber base will also grow far more than it is now,” Osho concludes.
“Looking to the future, I expect us to keep our leading market share as we launch the LTE network while also improving our connectivity in terms of transmission, connecting cities with much more fibre than is being used in Liberia at the moment; all combining to offer a far superior quality service than we can offer even today.”