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Over the past two years, the pandemic has had a severe impact on the economy. All sectors have been affected, many businesses either closed shop or shrank significantly. Of course, there are some companies that played a critical role during the pandemic and tried to mitigate whatever challenges came along with COVID-19.

Telecom companies like MTN Rwandacell PLC, as essential service providers, have served as enablers by facilitating businesses, government as well individuals to continue operating.

Taarifa caught up with MTN Rwanda CEO, Mitwa Ng’ambi. She describes what it took to keep the top tech company in the country running during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Excerpts

Globally, the pandemic hit hard, but you stood out. MTN has facilitated other sectors to survive as a service provider for both the public and private sectors. How did you manage to deal with it and make sure that the company doesn’t close and terminate staff?

CEO Mitwa: Today, we have 300 staff who work for MTN Rwanda and beyond that, we have 44,500 agents across the entire country who are managed by six distribution partners.

At the onset of the pandemic, our first priority was our people. We had to make sure that our staff, who serve our six million customers every day, are prioritized, protected and facilitated to continue serving. 

At the same time, we had to think about our customers who were also affected by the pandemic. At the time we had to consider the change in priorities and needs of our individual consumers, corporates, as well as our own priorities as a business. We had to quickly understand the implications and act accordingly.

Typically, in telco, we invest in such a manner that at any one time we must maintain a minimum of 25% headroom. However, with the abrupt shift in work patterns, we saw traffic grow up to 100% in some areas, dramatically overshooting our growth projections. We had planned investments throughout 2020 that we had to fast track to meet our customers immediate needs by deploying multiple teams.

The balance between wanting to accelerate project execution to serve our customers but also considering the safety of our teams was one of the biggest dilemmas I faced as a leader. Recognizing that we are an essential service provider and therefore we must continue serving but also acknowledging that people who are being asked to serve are human beings too.

In the community space, we took a step back to consider what we can do to help health care professionals at the frontline of the pandemic.

At MTN, we have a foundation that is guaranteed 1% of our profits every year for community projects. 

Typically, MTN foundation invests in projects around Youth and Women empowerment, Education, and any government priorities of the time. Given that protective gear was the most pressing needs, we donated masks and PPEs. 

We then went on to look at how we can use our core strengths as a telco to contribute, to that end we were able to allow health care workers on the Covid-19 taskforce to communicate with each other free of charge, provide free data during mass testing drives as well as zero rate e-commerce sites to encourage people to stay safe and shop online from their homes.    

You find yourself as leader in the middle of a global pandemic and failure is not an option. What lessons did learn about yourself?

CEO Mitwa: I don’t think as a leader during the pandemic, you had the luxury to think you cannot. Irrespective 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 may not have all the answers.

A lot of leaders, myself included, realized that we are capable of so much more than we ever believed was possible before these last two years.

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

CEO Mitwa: The strengths that we had as an organization were reinforced 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, like a pandemic, where information needs to move very quickly, that kind of environment is a strength. 

Also, we are an ICT company and had already started experimenting with digital solutions and remote working making it easy to pivot.

On the other hand, in areas where we were planning to improve in the short to medium term became an emergency.

What did you learn about the skills required to succeed today compared to traditional ways of training and recruitment programs?

CEO Mitwa: Today, the biggest skill required by organizations is the ability to transition from physical to digital platforms. As an ICT company, a lot of our programs were structured in that fashion even before the pandemic.

In this regard, it validated the emphasis and investments we had made in our people. We also had areas like cybersecurity and information security that were of value before the pandemic, but their importance was magnified with the shift to remote work. 

Let talk about this interesting shift to digital payments that were accelerated by the pandemic. 

CEO Mitwa: Rwanda, compared to other countries, is blessed to have an entire system that is driving cashless.

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

Prior to this, cashless was a medium for productivity and efficiency and now we were looking at it as a safety measure.

In March 2020, Person-to Person fees were zero rated across the financial industry. During that period, we saw 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 out there that MTN Mobile Money was carved out into a subsidiary to minimize the shareholding value in MTN Rwanda listed in 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 of the full company, including the Mobile Money subsidiary.

The incorporation of Mobile Money Rwanda as a subsidiary of MTN Rwanda doesn’t mean that shareholders in MTN Rwanda are at a disadvantage nor does it minimize the shareholding value. 

If at all the story evolved into separating Mobile Money completely, the commitment from MTN Group across all the operations is that shareholders will never be worse off. 

In Africa, we face serious problems, global platforms locked have us out. Some platforms can only receive money from Rwanda which is a form of financial exclusion. From an investment perspective, do you see mobile money developing into a platform where nobody is excluded geographically? 

CEO Mitwa: Remittance is one of the business areas that remains quite underdeveloped. Mobile Money Rwanda Ltd, has matured in person-to-person transactions locally, withdrawals, payments for utilities, merchant payments but we see increasing the number of corridors that we have with countries outside Rwanda as a huge opportunity.

Our analysis shows us that MTN’s share of the international remittance business is about 20% while approximately 50% of customer base are active Mobile money users, this tells us that our customers are using alternative remittance avenues. Next year, one of the main focus areas to widen our reach as much as possible.   

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

CEO Mitwa: Smartphone penetration is at 20% in Rwanda, which is very low. Over the last 5 years, as an industry, we have trialed various different things, from bringing in smartphones, to low cost smartphones, but none of these initiatives had really made a mark.

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

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

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

Was it a success?

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

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

Are you thinking about artificial intelligence as MTN Rwanda?

CEO Mitwa: Yes! It 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 is that it can make us more intelligent in the way we serve customers, predict their needs or put the power to self-serve in customers hands.

Watch the video below for some more bits of the interview.

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