Looking at Africa’s telecom growth through the eyes of MTN

Africa has seen a rapid growth in mobile connections over the last decade. To give you an idea of this, mobile connections in Africa in 2000 had a penetration rate of roughly 2% and by 2011 this had grown to around 65%, according to research by AT Kearney. Alongside this growth has been the expansion of a number of mobile network operators across Africa, such as MTN, Vodacom, Bharti Airtel, Orange, Millicom and Orascom.

Zunaid Bulbulia

Zunaid Bulbulia

South African-based mobile telecommunications group MTN has licences in 21 countries across Africa and the Middle East with around 183 million subscribers. A recent article by How we made it in Africa reported that nearly 60% of MTN’s revenues are generated outside South Africa.

Zunaid Bulbulia – the chief financial officer of MTN and the acting head of MTN Business – has worked for the company for over 19 years. How we made it in Africa asked Bulbulia to tell us about what he has witnessed in the development of ICT in Africa over the years.

You have been at MTN for 19 years, what changes have you seen in the company’s business strategy and focus in Africa since you started?

Yes, I have been at MTN for more than 19 years which means that I have seen many changes – not only in the company’s business strategy but also within the broader telecoms and technology market. Certainly, South Africa has, for many years, been seen as the gateway to the African continent and while in many cases it still is, other African countries have fast found their own momentum. In fact as the African continent has continued to blossom, where today it is seen as a rife continent for investment, MTN’s presence has grown and the brand has made a solid mark on the continent.

With broadband subscriptions in Africa expecting to reach 265 million by 2015, where cloud computing, virtualisation and hosted services are positioned to become critical elements to making such growth a reality, Africa is fast realising that ICT is an enabler of future economic growth. With our African strategy in place, MTN wants to be a part of making this a reality. Wide-spread internet adoption has undoubtedly been, and will continue to be, a fundamental contributing factor to the changing face of Africa.

Tell us a bit about your experience in the telecoms market in Africa.

It has been a phenomenal journey for me over the years. I have witnessed much technological innovation within the telecoms space. I recall the ‘early days’ when consumers owned cell phones that did not have colour screens or cameras and [they] could not access the internet and e-mail from their mobile devices. Today, telecommunications, and technology in general, has inspired a mobile revolution in the business sector. It has liberated the employees from the bounds of the office and enabled them to be productive on the go. I have also been privileged to see internet connectivity improve over the years, where we now have the privilege of experiencing the potential of Long Term Evolution (LTE), where consumers can download music, photos and files in turn-around times that were previously unimagined.

The penetration of telecoms in emerging African countries has brought about positive implications for the development of the continent and its people. The telecoms space is certainly one, from my experience, that is most vibrant as well as at times challenging, but has the potential to transform a continent, and the businesses and citizens operating and living here, for the better.

You are now heading up MTN Business. What does this unit plan to achieve?

The MTN Business strategy and vision is one that speaks to an evolution from one of processing requests to serving as a strategic business enabler. As a full 360 degree ICT player, MTN Business is at the forefront of providing integrated, reliable and specialised communication services to corporates, multinational companies and government clients alike. Our goal is to foster long-term trusted-partner relationships with our customers and by working closely with relevant stakeholders, we are determined to revolutionise the ICT landscape. Not only has MTN formed a partnership with Afrihost in October 2012, but we also recently presented further solutions to the market as part of this goal and plan.

How does this unit help companies with their operations in Africa?

MTN Business understands that many companies have expanded (or are considering expansion) into Africa and, as such, require the same level of service and communication solutions they have become accustomed to in their countries of origin. Therefore, as mentioned above, our African strategy is to offer corporations all over the continent and other emerging markets, our “360 degree” service offering – an approach that is designed to offer clients peace of mind in their communication needs, pinned on reliability and availability.

Therefore, MTN Business plans on forming integral partnerships with customers to assist their growth into Africa on the back of their physical presence. We plan to intrinsically understand our customers’ needs when venturing into Africa and, for that reason, before we present the relevant approach. This approach can include mobile communications, fixed line and ISP services, data centre and managed services including security, exchange and even hosted PABX. Customers require reliability and flexibility to conduct business within a foreign country.

What recommendations do you have for those aspiring young Africans looking for a career in the ICT industry?

Considering how dynamic the ICT sector is, I would most definitely recommend a career in ICT as it is not only fascinating, but provides an opportunity for young creative minds to change the face of the industry through innovation and great ideas. If students are looking for a career in ICT, I would advise them to be prepared for a lot of hard work where they need to have a passion and interest for the industry and should be eager to learn. Even though I have been in the industry for so long, I am still learning every day as the IT industry is always coming up with new and faster ways to connect or receive content, which keeps you on your toes and of course stimulated.