SA Firm Helps Clients Cut Through Communication Tangles in Africa

Poor communication infrastructure is one of the biggest obstacles to South African businesses trying to establish a footprint in the rest of Africa, says Metacom MD Réan van Niekerk -- which is why service providers need to build flexible solutions using whatever technology is available.

"If you are a bank or a retailer, for example, the last thing you want to worry about when entering a new territory is having to build your own communication system from scratch," says Van Niekerk. "Yet in many countries there isn't an existing provider who can deliver the reliable connections a business needs -- or can only do it at an astronomical price."

Van Niekerk says Metacom has built its business around its ability to deliver working, reliable network connections absolutely anywhere on the African continent. "If there is an acceptable fixed-line network, we use it. If there is decent cellular connectivity at an affordable price, we use that. If satellite is the only option, we choose the satellite solution that will offer our client the most cost-effective solution, whether that's C-band, L-band, ku-band, ka-band or whatever else may become available in future."

Metacom makes good on its promise by combining its own range of locally manufactured intelligent modems and routers with a robust, centrally managed private network that quite literally, says Van Niekerk, enables its clients to treat offices in Lagos or Luanda as if they were extensions of the corporate LAN.

"We have a footprint in 10 African countries outside South Africa and have learned a lot in the past five years," adds Van Niekerk. "For example, we know now that when we're asking local partners to install equipment in remote areas, we need to count every nut and bolt in the shipment, because when there's no local hardware store it might take 3 days to source the simplest component."

Similarly, says Van Niekerk, "we have learned how important it is to make the units easy to install and maintain, even where there are language barriers or it's difficult to find people with the right technical skills. We programme as much intelligence into our devices as possible, and monitor them in real time from our Metacom International Operations Centre, so that as much as possible, all we need on site is a pair of competent hands."

The most important thing to remember, says Van Niekerk, "is that there is no one communications strategy that fits every business need -- every customer is different, and each customer's needs are likely to change over time. For example, we started one customer in Angola on an L-band satellite solution which was beautifully stable compared to the congested GSM networks, and financially viable. But as their business expanded and their data throughput increased, they needed higher bandwidth; we were able to move them to a Ku-band satellite solution. The goal is always to meet the client's need at a cost that doesn't destroy the business case."

Pictured: Rean van Niekerk, Metacom Managing Director