INTERVIEW: Does MTN Rwandacell take its subscribers for granted?

Mobile Telephone Network Rwanda chapter has for the last three months had difficulties providing a reliable network to their customers countrywide. Many calls do not go through while others drop in the middle of conversations.
MTN Chief Executive Officer, Themba Khumalo.
MTN Chief Executive Officer, Themba Khumalo.

Mobile Telephone Network Rwanda chapter has for the last three months had difficulties providing a reliable network to their customers countrywide. Many calls do not go through while others drop in the middle of conversations. In the wake of several complaints from users, our readers, The New Times’ IGNATIUS KABAGAMBE and EDWIN MUSONI last Friday went for CEO Themba Khumalo, finding him in the company of the Chief Operations Officer (COO) Andrew Rugege and the Marketing and Sales Manager (MSM) Yvonne Makolo at their headquarters in Nyarutarama and put the trio to task. Below we bring you their answers to the probing questions posed.

TNT: For the short period you have spent at the helm of MTN Rwandacell, how has business been for you? 

CEO: Thank you, I think on my side it has been very exciting mostly when you look at 2007, it was a busy year for the company and I came at a time when there was review of the whole strategy for MTN Rwanda. We are re-positing the whole company for the great future that we see in this country and I believe as a company we have really taken significant steps in many areas. I believe our company will grow from where it is to where it is supposed to be.


TNT: What was your previous assignment before you joined MTN Rwanda and how competitive was the environment there?


CEO: my previous assignment was in the Kingdom of Swaziland. I think if you look at MTN per se regardless of the market situation, it is a company that tries to be the best and strives to really do what it does in competitive a environment, which differentiates us from an average company.

We take our functions very seriously, we have a business strategy and plan in place to ensure that we go about business as if we had a strong competitor and obviously the future does change and things change very fast. So, if you are not ready, you will be taken by surprise, you really need to be having that strategy and proper planning in place for you to be competitive and remain competitive regardless of the market conditions.


TNT: Of late the MTN network has been very poor, with extremely serious failures in making calls; what has gone wrong?


CEO: To put this in a direct perspective, any environment whether you have competitor or not, there are times when you do face challenges and I think one is to look and see what we are today as MTN Rwanda.


We have been in a very busy period, obviously one of up scaling in terms of capacity to ensure that we are ready as a company, modernizing our network to ensure that we meet the expectations of our customers now and in the future. And at the same time to create more excitement in the market place to be able to deliver new products and new attractive features in our network, as a way of meeting all our customers’ needs and hopefully to exceed there demand and prepare for the future in terms of what they should be using.


There is one aspect, obviously as we do all that in a market like this one, you face challenges, and we are in a real situation where the country is facing some challenges in other fields. For instance we have to provide sufficient capacity to our staff to carry on with the demands of the service we offer. And the only ground where we do this as I can confirm is at MTN. But of course when you are working, there are some other new challenges that do come up. For example the interruptions in power supply and in some other areas which have a negative impact of reducing your capacity. And there is a challenge of not meeting the demand at a certain time, though it is not something that is permanent. My management team and technicians are working together right now, trying to fast track those challenge and trying to make sure that we over come them and to put some counter measures in place to ensure that regardless of what happens, we have a more manageable situation for people to be able to make calls efficiently and effectively going forward. I must say that it is something that we have been working on seriously as MTN itself and of course being a high-tech environment, it requires bringing experts from outside to come and assist in this intervention.


Currently we have experts from our suppliers, others from Sweden, Israel and South Africa, who are on the ground. Some have come and gone, while others are still arriving because it is a collective effort of trying to ensure that we bring a difference and sort out some of the difficulties that are still in place.

 There are two aspects here. One is to look at our coverage where we are and look at the co-network. I am very happy to say that on the co-network side we have a stable environment. As you recall, last time we tried to upgrade and we have provided capacity. Being in a very dynamic environment, we can not just do it at once and say it’s all done. It’s a continuous process. We look at the demand, the projections and plan ahead. 


We are again continuing this year with the same programme by building more capacity to cater for the demand in the market.


TNT: Be more elaborate on the network failure; what exactly is the problem?


CEO: To break it down to the ground, in a network you need more capacity to cater for the demand. Now for a mobile network, a person might be moving from place to place, so you try to ensure that you provide that capacity, to be available from point to point of coverage.


Now, I mentioned one problem area that we have in terms of power supply and as a company that has gone to almost all parts of the country and we are providing alternative supplies countrywide. So if it happens that we have a failure of that supply, it is so obvious what we are creating is insufficient capacity in that spot where you are in the network. So as a customer making that call when you get to that spot the call will drop and that is one reason which is an obvious one.


We are currently trying to go deeper in those areas, even duplicating infrastructures to ensure we meet the demands sufficiently.


TNT: So what assurance can you give to your clients; that this problem will come to and end soon and never happen again?


 CEO: I think I mentioned an issue of capacity earlier. When you lay out your network you have to carry enough capacity for your current and future demand that is currently in place and as a company we have insufficient capacity as we speak to carry our customer base.


Of course you might have a failure here and there. That is something that happens in any network and its part of the challenges that we have been facing in the past few weeks.


Failures are inevitable. We reach a certain stage in our maturity stage of our operations. This network has been around for about nine years and we can’t keep the same hardware again operating on the same ground. You need to work on them, remove those elements and put new ones to make it more efficient. Currently we are on a massive upgrade of our network infrastructure. A case in point are some of the elements we changed late last year to ensure that we are on the right level of technology to support our plans for the future and to solve our immediate demands in terms of product and service capacity.


So really MTN is not sitting. We are trying to bring our clients on board and expanding the capacity. Being a major investment initiative, last year we announced over US$20 million in expanding our network and this year we announce a figure of US$ 32.2million, still for expanding the network. All this is to ensure that we are a step ahead of the demand we have.


That process is ongoing but of course being in a technology-trifled environment, this may fail here and there and the challenge we have is that we speed up the ratification and also minimize possible similar failure in the future. This is because it is an evolving process and we are having a team of experts on the ground that is getting exposed to new challenges and they are learning. That is why we bring outside expertise so that they help them grow in the knowledge.


TNT: Are you satisfied with the way you have been updating the public on the progress of the whole of this process? 


COO: I think there can never be enough information because we are in a dynamic environment. For example the issues we had at the end of last year are not the same issues we have now. For instance we had an issue with the short message service, and those were different and they were treated differently from anything we might be having now. Which means if we had given enough information by now it wouldn’t be enough.


However, when something drastic comes up we feel concerned and make sure that we let our customers know because we always want to treat them in the best way possible.


CEO: I think your issue is really valid, communication is really important, we do value our customers quite sincerely and our efforts are being pushed to ensure that the customer experience is really improved. So I must say that at times when you focus on the real issues of resolving the problems you are experiencing, you tend to focus more on achieving quick results. Yes, the element of communication will have to be enhanced and we are taking note of that mostly about what is being currently undertaken to correct some of the bottlenecks.


 I must say that it is not a national or every place kind of problem. If you look at Kigali itself there are some places that we are aware of that are facing some difficulties in terms of calling. That is exactly where we have put all our energies and as I speak it should be in place now.


TNT: So when do you expect to have a reliable network?


CEO: We are hopeful that in a week’s time we will have all things brought back to normal and there will be visible improvement. We are really pushing to make sure that bottleneck is removed and that is where almost all our attention is. We have been working on this for a number of weeks with not just our local engineers but also with our improved resources from outside the country.


 TNT: Do you have plans of compensating your clients for the inconveniencies and losses incurred?


CEO: As a company, our first objective is to overcome this problem and bring a better experience to our customer and see that all requirements are in place and we are now seeing an improvement.


We will be looking at the issue of our clients’ reaction and what we can do to appreciate their understanding and support during the difficult phase we shall have gone through. We will come with the best customer way possible of saying thank you.


TNT: Are you worried that some of your clients may migrate to your competitor – that is if you have one anyway – as a way of protesting what they may see as being taken for granted?


CEO: I think firstly MTN listens very keenly to our customers and we are a customer friendly operation and we always want to serve our customer as much as we can.


We are active and we are not waiting for competition as a company. MTN is used to working in an environment with very competitive players and we believe in our strategy of making our selves competitive.


TNT: MTN Rwanda, and I am told in other countries where it operates, always tends to focus more on acquiring as many clients as possible and less on giving them the best network. What is your answer to that observation?


 CEO: I will clarify that as MTN, what we pride ourselves with is quality and it is non negotiable. And it is our experience that mtn would like to continue giving our customers quality operations and quality service levels.


But also part of our intention has been to improve the country’s penetration but we put much of our efforts in improving the quality of service.


COO: Perhaps I should mention that things change and what may seem as an issue today, tomorrow it may look like the same issue but in actual sense it is another issue altogether. A case in point is the Vodacom sim cards that have of late affected us more than the public know. They caused a terrible congestion in the Eastern Province because people got hold of these cards and their network wasn’t controlling the way they were using them and they could migrate to our network and use it free of charge.


We have blocked the system on our side but we are still working with Vodacom to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.


CEO: it was actually a fault on the Vodacom system; so far we have managed to block the abuse on their network, which was actually affecting ours on the roaming system.


TNT: What is your contribution in terms of corporate social responsibility – giving back to the community?


CEO: We have done much in terms of corporate social responsibility which is well publicized and well appreciated. Like last year we did a lot, even this year. When it came to the floods victims issue, we made donations of about Frw400 million. It was a sizable contribution and a bit higher than a normal engagement. So basically MTN makes a sizable contribution to what goes to the public and it is part of our company’s responsibility.


MSM: we have also supported a number of HIV/Aids initiatives every year and also contribute toward environmental conservation initiatives such as tree planting. This is something we do annually. Gorilla naming is something we gave quite a sizable amount, and also last year we as the MTN family built a classroom block for Remera Catholic School with our own money and our partners Fair Construction.

 So every year we do look at our marketing budget and set aside money for corporate social responsibility.


CEO: we can not be a solution to every need but we try to make a contribution as much as we can. We always look at what we can do in our capacity. In times of disaster we do respond; we sit down and see what we can do.


TNT: How about your expansion plan; how ambition is it in the near future?


CEO: Right now we have 630,000 subscribers. There will be more areas to cover and currently we are looking at more other 20 sites.


I am proud to say that currently we are covering about 92 percent of the population and 82 percent of the geographical area of Rwanda. We are now going to key areas that I will not mention for competitive advantage’s sake.


As for customers, we would like to have as many as we can and this year we have a target of one million customers by its end.


Another strategy we have is to ensure that every homestead at lease has a mobile phone and that is one thing that MTN is pushing so hard for.


COO: I should also mention that in terns of expansion we have built ourselves into a total solution provider so we are diversifying into other areas other than voice. We are now into data products; we are a premier provider of internet services.


This year we will be announcing quiet a number of products that we would like to bring to the Rwandan market.


TNT: Technologically, are you moving further in terms of generations and the implementation of the VectaStar platform from Cambridge Broadband Networks, and why did you go that route?


CEO: Yes as we announced last year we are on 2.5G and we are actually moving further. I can say we are already at the third generation.


About the VectaStar Network, it is already deployed in Kigali and it is working in some other places. It is a fully functioning system as we speak.


One of the reasons we went that route is that Kigali is a fast growing metropolitan city. We had to make sure that we deploy faster and quickly without waiting for these interconnections.


The way it works now is like today I can go and plant a website from wherever I am without waiting for a longer period. So we believe we have made a new system of setting up new sites in Kigali and they can be brought into system as fast as possible.


TNT: Generally what message do you pass onto your customers?


COO: We would like to thank them, and to assure them that we do not take them for granted at all. We know that our network has had some issues and we appreciate that our clients have been patient as we struggle to solve this problem.


Sometimes the technologies of growth and upgrades can be challenging but we have been together through all these challenges. We will commit to having a quality network and also communicate to them more.


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