21st October 2004.
Imagine life without MTN!

Six years and more than 600,000 customers. Once again MTN Uganda is celebrating their anniversary. The company, which set up shop here on October 21, 1998, has over the past six years set the trend for telecommunications growth and development, not only in Uganda but also in the region. In this interview with Elizabeth Kameo, the Chief Executive Officer Noel Meier says the company is still committed to meeting the expectations of the public:

Can you briefly take us through the milestones MTN has achieved in the last one year with you as the CEO?

I got here a year ago and we saw a complete change in terms of management in MTN. We saw people like Thomas Bragaw, my predecessor; Erik [Van Veen], leaving the company, and a lot of changes took place from the management perspective.

Noel Meier

This brought a lot of sensitivity amongst the people, wondering if there would be life after these guys. My arrival coincided with MTN achieving its vision of being the leading telecommunications operator in East Africa after a mere five years of operation. That is no mean achievement.

Today we have just achieved over 600,000 customers. We have been achieving something like a 65 percent share of the monthly growth in connection. This illustrates a lot of things about this operation in terms of quality and breadth of coverage.

We kicked off this year with complete replacement of our prepaid platform. Our whole prepaid switch was replaced with state-of-the-art Ericsson product, and then we came to market with some changes to our whole way of offering products.

For example, the official launch of Kapyata. And the mere fact that we had taken the huge step of doing away with service fee seemed to be lost in the clutter. Bottom line is we have seen incredible growth over the past five months. I think to illustrate the growth, we have actually acquired more customers in the last five months than one of our competitors has acquired in eight years.

After six years in operation, is MTN still rolling out coverage, and if yes, why?

Our coverage rollout is not stopping. We have rolled out about 30 base stations this year throughout Uganda, and what is interesting is, I attended the launch in Kazo two weeks ago and even after six years of existence and after seeing this enormous growth in mobile [phone use], you could still see the excitement being generated in the rural areas. So we need to make use of basic telecommunications.

Over the past year, MTN Uganda has launched new products on the market; how successful have they been?

If we look at some of the products we have been able to launch, there is Me2U, which is an SMS-based service that enables one person to transfer money from his phone to another.

Prepaid customers can now select a package to suit them. It is incredible the way customers have taken to the YelloGo product. We are looking to increase our dealer footprint with an innovative philosophy and strategy “Y’ello store next door.”

This is part of our initiative to ensure the arms-length distribution so that when customers run out of airtime, they stretch out their hands and there is a distributor or dealer.

We have also enabled the availability of our products through more of the fuel companies. The look and feel of our service centre has changed and the typical example of that is the new service centre at Lugogo, the first of its kind to be built outside South Africa. Our call centre right now, thanks to a real focused approach, is achieving an answer rate of 85 percent. We are meeting the quality standards we set.

Other developments are in the public accessory. The MTN village phone initiative continues to grow from strength to strength. Then there is the MTN Publicom, and it is probably one of the few profitable pay phones in the world.

How far has MTN Uganda gone with installing the Fibre Optic project?

As you know, MTN Uganda achieved an Africa first in terms of its fibre optic project here in Kampala. Besides, fibre has also been extended from Kampala to Masaka, and we are in the process of installing a fibre from Masaka to Mbarara. Once the fibre has been installed right through to Mbarara, we are also providing a link by microwave from Mbarara through to Masindi and from Masindi back to Kampala. This basically gives us a complete transmission ring, which in technical terms we refer to as a self-healing ring. In the event of failure in any particular segment of the network, the calls and transmission are basically diverted into another direction. The end result is high quality service. We have targeted to complete this initiative by the end of December.

Six years down the road and MTN Uganda is still a success story; what is behind this success?

Very strong brand and I think our approach, is in building a brand that also engenders trust — doing what we say we are going to do and maintaining a high level of quality and listening to our customers. I think what is also vital is to be seen to be ploughing back, having effective Corporate Social Responsibility programmes.

What are MTN’s plans for the future; where do you see MTN five years from now?

I think five years from now, still at the top, we will be providing converge service in mobile and fixed services. Let us not forget that July next year we shall see the lifting of exclusivity in the market. I am positive in what the future holds in that regard and I believe that the telecommunications environment in Uganda is in good hands; we have a very adequate and efficient regulatory authority. With the lifting of exclusivity next year, I have confidence in the fact that it could be done on control basis, because certainly if not controlled, it could lead to chaos as has been seen in other countries. There will be a move toward convergence of fixed and mobile lines. Technology will continue to grow and we shall continue to keep abreast of those technological advances. I believe that MTN will be a shining example in terms of successful Ugandan operations run by Ugandans.

How has MTN transformed people’s lifestyles in rural areas?

In the absence of telecommunications, people had to get on to a taxi to go see someone. Now with the advent of telecom, they can pick up a phone and, for a couple of shillings, make contact. Certainly it has made life easier and enabled people to save money and reinvest the little money they have in education. In the agriculture arena, this advent has enabled them to make phone calls to find out prices of various crops in various cities and arrange the delivery of their crops to the best-priced venue. So I believe it has played a major role in stimulating growth in the rural areas. It has certainly made life better.