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South Africa: Can MTN be Africa’s ‘Big Tech’ reply to Apple and WeChat?

By Quentin Velluet
Posted on Thursday, 6 May 2021 01:31

The top priority of Ralph Mupita’s plan “Ambition 2025” is to conquer new markets on the continent. Here, an MTN advertising panel in Abidjan. Olivier for JA

Inspired by Apple and WeChat, Africa's leading telecoms operator - South Africa's MTN - is making a strategic shift, and transforming itself into a tech platform.

MTN’s management team has been smiling since 26 April.

Since that day, the South African operator has been one of only two bidders – in addition to a consortium made up of Vodafone, Vodacom and Safaricom – to apply for one of the two future telecoms operator licences in Ethiopia, which is one of the last African markets to open up to competition in the sector.

In order to mobilise the resources necessary to obtain the licence (around $1bn), MTN has linked up with several investors, including the Chinese government’s Silk Road Fund. “Other partners will be disclosed if the tender is successful,” MTN said in a statement on 26 April.

Platform economy

MTN’s CEO Ralph Mupita, who has been at the helm of this operator since August 2020, defined a new strategy a month ago, the first step of which was accessing the Ethiopian market.

One of the main priorities of this plan, which is called “Ambition 2025”, is to conquer new markets on the continent.

Ethiopia, with its 112 million inhabitants and still rudimentary digital services, is an exciting field of experimentation for MTN, which is nurturing ambitions similar to those of Western and Asian “Big Tech” firms.

Synergies between Ayoba and MoMo

Created in May 2019 during the era of Rob Shuter (MTN’s CEO between March 2017 and August 2020), the Ayoba messaging app is designed to be an alternative to WhatsApp on the continent.

To achieve this, the team of Serigne Dioum, CEO in charge of digital and fintech at MTN, has been taking inspiration from the messaging application WeChat, which was developed by the Chinese company Tencent.

In addition to being available worldwide and in 22 local languages, Ayoba will also – in the long term and just like WeChat – serve as MTN’s main distribution channel. The services it will offer range from finance, with the MoMo mobile-money application, to video and music streaming with the MusicTime! Service. It will also be possible to access external platforms such as the Nigerian streaming service Audiomack, which MTN entered into a partnership with at the end of April.

“By increasing the number of partnerships it has with different services, it is possible that Ayoba will find its place alongside the large messaging applications that carry international content,” says Thecla Mbongue, a senior consultant at Omdia.

Translation:

Now you can do your MoMo transactions (check your balance and transfer money to a contact)? With Ayoba, you can do all this and more

Download the application at: http://Ayoba.me/download

for Android and for iPhone: https://apps.apple.com/jm/app/ayoba/id1495024536

A risky bet

The bet is nevertheless risky. While Ayoba is aiming for 100 million users in five years, the application currently has only 5.5 million active users per month, while WhatsApp, which is currently being used by 2 billion people, is one of the most popular applications in the world. “MTN should be able to achieve its goal of 100 million subscribers. The issue, however, is how profitable they will remain,” says Mbongue.

The problem is that Ayoba may not benefit as much as MTN had hoped for from its MoMo financial-services application (mobile payment, insurance, microcredit, etc.). In Nigeria, its first market, the operator has still not obtained a mobile-money licence, which could slow down the appeal of the messaging application.

In South Africa, its second-largest market, MTN is facing the same impasse as its competitor M-Pesa: the country is already well banked.

“They realised that the service was successful in other markets, and so they wanted to introduce it in exactly the same way in South Africa without adapting their marketing strategy, even though this kind of service already existed there,” says Mbongue.

In January, after a four-year absence, MoMo was relaunched with a new partner called Ubank, which is active in rural areas. This return leaves the door open – although the outcome is uncertain – for synergies with Ayoba.

Pan-African open innovation

But MTN also intends to capitalise on open innovation via its Chenosis app shop, which was launched in August 2020.

Although it does not say much about its ambitions and the shape that Chenosis will take, the application shop seems to be modelled on the Apple Store and Google Play.

With this platform, the group aims to create “the largest open application library” in Africa, although there are currently no figures or results that prove whether it is having any initial success.

Industrial or strategic error is never far away for an incumbent operator in search of innovation. Even more so when this innovation spills over into ‘Big Tech’ territory.

For example, Orange quickly backed down and removed its product Djingo, when faced with competition from Amazon and Google in the smart-speaker sector. “Historically, MTN has integrated innovation more quickly than other operators,” Mbongue says.

Translation: [Thread] Following the end of the Djingo Speaker marketing campaign in October 2020, Orange has decided to permanently remove the Djingo and Alexa services on the Djingo Speaker voice speakers.
On 31 March 2021, the Djingo Speaker will cease to function.

Reaffirming the core business

To protect itself against these numerous risks, MTN continues to invest in its traditional business: telecommunications networks and services.

Managing and marketing these third-party (wholesale) networks via its subsidiary MTN GlobalConnect is one of Mupita’s priorities for the next four years.

“MTN GlobalConnect has recorded a strong commercial and financial performance, as it has invoiced new wholesale contracts worth $28.8m and recorded external revenue growth of +54% to $66.8m,” says MTN.

The group also wants to accelerate broadband connectivity and hopes to connect 10m additional households by 2025. “MTN has not inherited any fixed-line operator in its markets of operation, which prevents it from effectively offering services related to capacity resale and business services,” says Mbongue.

As a result, says the Omdia analyst, the operator is virtually absent from fibre-to-the-home, as it prefers to rely on 4G wireless access.

The path laid out by Mupita, who is known for being at ease with investors, seems to have convinced the markets. “The suspension of dividends for 2020 is a sign that management is prudent and committed to its stated goal of reducing the leverage [debt ratio] of the parent company. […] It is demonstrating prudent financial management and meeting its stated financial policy objectives,” says Moody’s analyst Lisa Jaeger.

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