Interview: How MTN Rwanda weathered the pandemic to meet customer needs

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Over the past two years, the pandemic has had a severe impact on the economy. All sectors were affected, many companies closed their doors or contracted sharply. Of course, some companies have played a vital role during the pandemic and tried to mitigate the difficulties encountered with COVID-19.

Telecom companies like MTN Rwandacell PLC, as essential service providers, have acted as enablers in helping businesses, government as well as individuals to keep operating.

Taarifa met the CEO of MTN Rwanda, Mitwa Ng’ambi. She describes what it took to keep the nation’s top tech company running during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Extracts

Overall, the pandemic has hit hard, but you have stood out. MTN has helped other sectors survive as a service provider for the public and private sectors. How did you manage to manage this and ensure that the company does not close and lay off staff?

CEO Mitwa: Today we have 300 employees working for MTN Rwanda and beyond that we have 44,500 agents across the country who are managed by six channel partners.

At the start of the pandemic, our first priority was our staff. We needed to ensure that our staff, who serve our six million customers every day, were prioritized, protected and supported to continue serving.

At the same time, we had to think about our customers who were also affected by the pandemic. Back then, we had to take into account the changing priorities and needs of our individual consumers, businesses, as well as our own priorities as a business. We had to quickly understand the implications and act accordingly.

Generally, in telecommunications, we invest in such a way that at all times we must maintain a minimum of 25% margin. However, with the drastic change in working habits, we have seen traffic increase by up to 100% in some areas, significantly exceeding our growth forecasts. We had planned investments throughout 2020 that we needed to accelerate to meet the immediate needs of our customers by deploying several teams.

The balance between wanting to accelerate the execution of projects to serve our customers but also taking into account the safety of our teams has been one of the biggest dilemmas I have faced as a leader. Recognizing that we are an essential service provider and therefore must continue to serve, but also that the people who are asked to serve are also human beings.

In the community space, we have taken a step back to reflect on what we can do to help healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.

At MTN, we have a foundation that guarantees 1% of our profits each year for community projects.

Generally, the MTN foundation invests in projects related to youth and women empowerment, education and all government priorities of the time. Since protective equipment was the most pressing need, we donated masks and PPE.

We then looked at how we can use our core strengths as a telco to help, to that end we were able to enable Covid-19 task force healthcare workers to communicate with each other for free, provide free data during mass testing as well as zero-rate e-commerce sites to encourage people to stay safe and shop online from home.

You find yourself as a leader in the midst of a global pandemic and failure is not an option. What lessons have you learned about yourself?

CEO Mitwa: I don’t think like a leader during the pandemic, you’ve had the luxury of thinking you can’t. Regardless of how I felt, I had to show up, give that sense of confidence and calm to the team, and be open to the fact that I might not have all the answers.

Many leaders, myself included, have realized that we are capable of much more than we thought possible before the past two years.

Has the pandemic put a strain on your organizational structure? What did you learn about your NTD’s leadership, skills, culture and values?

CEO Mitwa: The strengths we had as an organization were enhanced, but our vulnerabilities were also exposed.

By nature MTN is not a hierarchical environment, we try to be as flat as possible with an open door policy. In a crisis, such as a pandemic, where information must circulate very quickly, this type of environment is a strength.

Additionally, we are an ICT company and had already started experimenting with digital solutions and remote working to facilitate pivoting.

On the other hand, in areas where we intended to improve in the short and medium term has become an emergency.

What have you learned about the skills required to succeed today compared to traditional training methods and recruiting programs?

CEO Mitwa: Today, the greatest skill required by organizations is the ability to move from physical to digital platforms. As an ICT company, many of our programs were structured this way even before the pandemic.

In that regard, it validated the importance and investments we had made in our people. We also had areas like cybersecurity and information security that were valuable before the pandemic, but their importance has been amplified with the shift to remote working.

Let’s talk about this interesting move towards digital payments that has been accelerated by the pandemic.

CEO Mitwa: Rwanda, compared to other countries, is fortunate to have a whole system that works cashless.

When COVID-19 hit, we discussed how to use cashless transactions as a way to limit the level of disease transmission.

It used to be that cashless was a means of productivity and efficiency and now we saw it as a security measure.

In March 2020, person-to-person fees were zero across the financial industry. In this period, we have seen mobile money transactions grow eight times, which shows you that the appetite for digital financial transactions is there.

I think this would be an opportunity for you to clarify some misconceptions that MTN Mobile Money has been turned into a subsidiary to minimize the value of shareholding in MTN Rwanda listed on the Rwanda Stock Exchange.

CEO Mitwa: This is not something that should worry our shareholders because when we listed directly on the Rwanda Stock Exchange in May 2021, all shareholders had a stake in the entire business, including the subsidiary Mobile Money.

The incorporation of Mobile Money Rwanda as a subsidiary of MTN Rwanda does not mean that the shareholders of MTN Rwanda are disadvantaged nor does it minimize the value of the shareholding.

If the story has evolved towards complete separation from Mobile Money, MTN Group’s commitment to all operations is that shareholders will never be worse off.

In Africa we are facing serious problems, locked global platforms have kicked us out. Some platforms can only receive money from Rwanda, which is a form of financial exclusion. FFrom an investment perspective, do you see mobile money developing into a platform where no one is geographically excluded?

CEO Mitwa: Remittances is one of the business sectors that remains quite underdeveloped. Mobile Money Rwanda Ltd, has matured into person to person transactions locally, withdrawals, utility payments, merchant payments but we are seeing the increase in the number of corridors we have with countries outside the Rwanda as a huge opportunity.

Our analysis shows us that MTN’s share of the international remittance industry is around 20%, while around 50% of the customer base are active mobile money users, which tells us that our customers are using alternative means of transferring funds. Next year, one of the main focus areas to expand our reach as much as possible.

ConnectRwanda is an incredible project that MTN has championed. No brand I know that makes a service or product has ever done this. How did you come up with such an idea?

CEO Mitwa: Smartphone penetration is 20% in Rwanda, which is very low. Over the past 5 years, as an industry, we have been experimenting with different things, from introducing smartphones to low-cost smartphones, but none of these initiatives had really proven themselves.

Initially, the idea was that if our 1.2 million smartphone users could just buy 1 smartphone overnight, we would go from 1.2m to 2.4m.

In discussions with the Ministry of ICT, the idea became much broader and broader to include businesses as well as private and public institutions.

We modeled the campaign on the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge to raise awareness for ALS and ultimately raised approximately US$250 million. We calculated that if we could raise even 10% of this, it would make a significant difference in line with Rwanda’s national priorities as well as those of MTN.

Was it successful?

CEO Mitwa: I would say it was 100% successful. Today, more than 20,000 people have received smartphones and are actively using them. In Rwanda, we have over 1.5 million people actively using smartphones now.

Besides the impact I see in these 20,000 lives, it is also proof for all of us in the private and public sector as well as individuals that the unifying power behind a common can yield real results.

Do you think of artificial intelligence like MTN Rwanda?

CEO Mitwa: Yes! This is an area that we are thinking about in the context of big data and the wealth of data that we have built over the last 23 years. We think about our data in the context of how it can make us smarter in how we serve customers, anticipate their needs, or put the power of self-service in customers’ hands.

Watch the video below for some additional excerpts from the interview.

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