FEATURED: Airtel-Tigo Merger Yields Positive Results

Airtel-Tigo's Managing Director - Amit Chawla
Since the merger with Tigo in 2017, Airtel Rwanda has made headway in growing its business portfolio in Rwanda as well as its subscriber base. Major activities have been undertaken-  slashing of voice and data rates, 4G upgrade, network expansion, Airtel Money growth coupled with the integration of Airtel Money and Tigo Cash and Corporate Social Responsibility. We had an opportunity to talk to Mr. Amit Chawla, the Airtel-Tigo Managing Director. 
What were some of the key achievements for Airtel-Tigo last year?  
Our biggest achievement to date was the completion of the largest merger in the history of telecommunications in Rwanda. The Airtel-Tigo merger saw the combination of some of the most innovative services in the country and these are now on offer to over 5 million subscribers in Rwanda.We successfully integrated our Airtel Money and Tigo Cash mobile commerce platforms and now customers can send and receive money across these platforms with ease.
To ensure that all our customers get the best services, we doubled the number of our service centres across the country as well as deployed over 600 kiosks to bring our services closer to Rwandans. 
Do you think the Airtel-Tigo merger has been successful so far?
Yes. The Airtel-Tigo merger has been successful and this can be witnessed with the uptake of the products that we have integrated and the feedback from the various stakeholders, most especially the customers. We kept our promise to unify the calling rates, the data rates, and still managed to deliver the most affordable and fastest services in Rwanda.
The integrated mobile commerce platform has a base of over 4 million subscribers. Since the launch of the new platform, we have seen tremendous growth in the number of transactions and this growth continues to symbolise how connected our customers are to the brand and our services.
In August 2018, Airtel-Tigo was the first mobile money service in Rwanda to distribute interest generated from its mobile money trust accounts in the form of a quarterly distribution to its customers. The objective of this dividend pay-out is to offer all Airtel-Tigo stakeholders an opportunity to share in this return on their investment depending on the e-value they store in their wallets.
We recently concluded a Rwf 300,000,000 campaign [Yora Kashi Promo] that was widely received and saw over 240 customers being awarded cash prizes over a period of 90 days. This was aimed at giving back to our customers and to show that we appreciate the confidence that they have restored in the brand. 
What are the fundamental standards that are shaping the telecom industry in Rwanda?
Worldwide, internet is one of the main causes of change in the telecom industry and in Rwanda it is no surprise that it has done the same. A fast and affordable internet service is what customers want and through our offer of affordable 3G and 4G services, we are ensuring this. Secondly, the uptake of mobile commerce has increased countrywide and this has positioned the telecom industry in the front row of the financial inclusion bus across Rwanda.
Customer experience is perhaps now the most important thing that the industry is tackling. By offering affordable and easy to use services coupled with a good customer service, the telecom industry will grow even further if the customers continue to utilise the services offered.   
Do you think the days are numbered for voice calls and SMS in the era of internet-based communication?
With mobile penetration at 75-80 percent levels, mobile voice will continue to be the largest component of the telecoms market through 2019, as new subscribers, and mobile termination rate (MTR) reductions drive price competition and increase traffic.
Voice ARPUs (Average revenue per User) have been declining as a natural result of lower price levels, lower income segments being penetrated and customers spreading usage across multiple SIMs to maximise value from various mobile tariffs. Nevertheless, lower prices will lead to significantly higher traffic levels through volume-price elasticity.
While many say that text messaging and other legacy technologies are dead, there is a renaissance of them especially in Africa.
Slow uptake of internet services across rural Africa has ensured many users to still depend on technology such as text messaging and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD).
A clear example is mobile money where a mix of SMS and USSD is needed to finish the transaction. No internet is needed which makes the service accessible to virtually everyone. SMS is important for immediate notification when transacting. It is also important for immediate communication where there is no internet.
Going forward SMS usage may reduce from being peer-to-peer because of OTT (over the top) products like Viber and WhatsApp, but it will be used more for machine-to-machine communication.
Will mobile service providers also become banks in the future or is this already happening with the ever increasing growth of mobile money transactions? 
This is a journey that all financial institutions and telecom operators have to work on hand-in-hand. On one side, banks contribute an existing financial network, infrastructure, and strong brand recognition, while contending with regulatory compliance. They integrate to serve their customers better.
Telecom operators, meanwhile, deliver wide distribution networks, mobile network infrastructure, and an expansive customer base. So we are very distinct and varied in our actions and approach. 
MFS is a very complex business environment with several players teaming up to provide these services. People may not have a bank account, but they do have a mobile phone and want to be part of the financial world, be able to send money to each other, and use credit. I firmly believe Telecoms can be a channel for all banks and we are driving this agenda.
Banks and local telecom operators can have a greater impact on financial inclusion by working together to rollout products capitalizing on the popularity of mobile money platforms We shall witness an increase in the use of mobile money and this will enable banks and mobile service providers to work together even further. 
How does Airtel-Tigo plan to deal with the ever changing tech innovations and youthful subscriber base in Rwanda? 
We are already providing affordable internet solutions for the youthful populace of Rwanda. Through our solutions, they have fast and affordable ways to communicate to their peers in Rwanda and across the globe. In the future, we shall have innovations that will be used to support some of the solutions that they are developing.
Furthermore, I am confident that mobile money transfer services will become extremely popular amongst the youth due to low transfer costs, convenience and low risk factors associated with cashless transactions.
What trends will the telecom sector witness over the next two to three years?
The Africa telecoms market is growing faster than that of any other region, and will increase its share of worldwide telecoms revenue over the next 3 years, although this will still remain small compared with other regions.
The telecoms sector is expected to continue the transition, with revenue growth from mobile data services increasingly matching mobile voice growth but mobile data revenue will grow far faster than mobile voice revenue.
Growth of mobile data shall be fostered by the increasing penetration of smartphones, as competition in the mobile phone market has heralded the availability of budget smartphones.
The growing demand for value-added digital economy offerings such as mobile financial services also presents a great opportunity for growth. The sector has been credited for supporting government’s efforts to transform Rwanda into a cashless economy. Through mobile money platforms, we shall continue to support digital financial services through innovation and technology.
How do you compare your 2017 performance to that of 2018? 
The last two years have been challenging and stimulating years for us. We merged 2 large organisations, its people, its network, IT platforms, products and prices were harmonized and at the same time we continued to push for growth and concentrated on customer excellence. Mobile lines cannibalization when Airtel and erstwhile Tigo merged, was a big issue as this is a dual SIM market.
It’s a situation where you either give up or embrace the challenge, fight, and rise from the ashes as we have done. Today in Rwanda, ours is a company of professionals who like challenges and where the mind-set is that we can move mountains and invent our own future.
What should customers look forward to this year? 
2019 will be a good year for Airtel-Tigo and its customers. We have a lot planned out for our customers. This will include more affordable products, more rewarding campaigns just like Yora Kashi or even bigger. We shall ensure that our products suit customer needs and give them value for money. Secondly, we guarantee an exceptional customer service experience.
Most importantly, continued investment in infrastructure will help us further to expand our network and improve its reliability. We plan on further improving our customer service to give our customers an experience that is worthwhile. We shall continue working hard to give the best services and most affordable rates to our customers.
What has been your most life changing business challenge?
The current challenge of running this organisation post the merger is definitively a very challenging but an extremely satisfying task. In progression, what customers will notice are the kinds of services provided on our network. Unless we offer services that are valued, our customers may not recognize that they have any relationship at all with us, and we will end up as mere connectivity providers.
We are aiming to be a state-of-the-art provider and the most loved brand in Rwanda. We are constantly striving to give the best to our customers, in terms of customer service, products, innovation, affordable prices and the best network. We strive to consistently remain relevant to our customers. We believe our contribution has to be quite significant to make lives of people better. This challenge and opportunity by itself is massive. I am sure all of these collectively, is life-changing and historic.