In an exclusive interview with the CEO of Safaricom Ethiopia, Anwar Soussa, he gave insights on customer growth, the development of the company and its business, as well as how it is tackling challenges such as sustainability.
What are the main opportunities for Safaricom Ethiopia in the Ethiopian telecom market?
I‘d focus more on the opportunities for our customers and the country. If we successfully focus on benefiting them with our services, then success and growth for Safaricom Ethiopia will follow.
Ethiopia is the second-largest country in Africa by population — nearly 120 million people. Only Nigeria is larger in Africa. It is a nation and a people with huge social and economic potential. It is also a country with an ambitious government that wants to harness the power of digital technology to create a step change in the fortunes of the people across the country’s many regions. That’s really in line with our belief in building sustainable digital societies where no one is left behind.
Prior to Safaricom Ethiopia launching in late 2022, the country had a monopoly in telecom services. One company cannot serve a country as large as Ethiopia. Over time, Safaricom Ethiopia will extend the transformative benefits of mobile access to people in all parts of the country.
What challenges have you experienced while entering Ethiopia?
We are in the process of building an excellent new network, with 4G everywhere. The network is also 5G-ready. We’ll introduce 5G once we have spectrum and a handset ecosystem in place. Our network will be increasingly Safaricom Ethiopia’s source of competitive advantage as it expands.
Building a network from scratch comes with challenges. We have a constructive working relationship with Ethio Telecom, but there have naturally been a lot of discussions to agree on the process of co-location of masts and network sharing while ours is built.
There are other challenges with a greenfield project like this. For example, power: Where do you get the power from? It is not so straightforward in countries where you’re coming in as a new entrant, where you are buying your own transformer, where you are connecting things and especially where land has been an issue.
These are the very basics of getting into a very new market.
How has the country responded since you launched?
It’s been really positive. We had a fantastic launch in October 2022, which saw 300 drones connected to our new mobile network dance above Meskel Square in Addis Abeba. That was an amazing moment that brought home to me, and the VIPs we had at the launch event from the government, Ethiopian society and our shareholders that we are really creating a step change in digital technology in this country.
We have since attracted more than 3 million customers in a few short months. The enthusiasm and warmth of people welcoming us to the country has been great. There is a real energy in our stores.
It helped that we started by offering mobile services before the launch with a friendly user test. That lasted about one and a half months. It prepared the system, and we knew how to tackle the issues. So when we started onboarding paying customers, it was a lot easier; we knew where the problems were, and our Know Your Customer (eKYC) system was working very well.
What new services will Safaricom bring to Ethiopia?
We were the successful bidder for a telecom license, in large part because our bid focused beyond basic telecom services on how we can help the government meet its commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The SDGs are a collection of 17 ambitions to improve the world, which UN member countries have committed to target by 2030.
Let me give just one example: SDG2 aims to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. That’s really important in Africa, where the number of undernourished people is growing faster than in any other region of the world.
Economic growth driven by agriculture has also been two to four times more effective at reducing poverty than growth in other sectors. Digitalization increases yield sustainably and empowers farmers — especially women — by providing access to resources and previously unavailable markets to grow their businesses. This also assists with reaching SDGs in economic development and long-lasting food security.
As the Ethiopian government has recognized, to access these benefits, the country needs telecom networks that reach the rural areas, where around 80% of the population resides and only around 40% of people use mobile phones.
Vodafone Group, Vodacom Group,Safaricom, Sumitomo and BII — who form our Global Partnership for Ethiopia — have a strong track record in delivering technology in agriculture and other public services, from health to education. It will give us a real head start in introducing value-added services over time that sit on top of our network connectivity and are tailored to the unique challenges and conditions in Ethiopia.
Are financial services one of the areas where you intend to compete?
Yes, financial services is a really good example of an area where the experience of our shareholders can help us deliver real value in Ethiopia.
Safaricom is the creator of M-Pesa, the continent’s leading mobile money system. M-Pesa is available in seven countries and provides financial services to more than 50 million people who have mobile phones but do not have bank accounts or only have limited access to banking services. With M-Pesa, those customers get a safe, secure and affordable way to send and receive money, top up airtime, make bill payments, receive salaries, get short-term loans and much more.
We have had a positive reception from the Ethiopian government about launching financial services and are awaiting the final license terms before proceeding.
How do you collaborate with the other members of the Global Partnership for Ethiopia consortium as well as the Ethiopian government and regulators?
The Global Partnership for Ethiopia is a consortium between Vodafone Group, Vodacom Group, Safaricom, British International Investment (BII) and Sumitomo Corporation.
It’s been a new but really successful partnership and a model, I think, for how co-investment in telecoms businesses can operate successfully.
Beyond our shareholders, we have a series of US and local partners who have also been crucial to our pre-launch and post-launch phases. Safaricom Ethiopia is a great example of a company that has thrived through cooperation.
As we go forward, there is a lot of investment needed to upgrade the digital infrastructure of a country this large and to create innovative digital services that will transform public services. So, we remain open to further partnerships in the future.
In terms of our relationships with government and regulators, they have been really positive. Telecom’s liberalization has been a project championed by the Prime Minister of Ethiopia from day one. Of course, we don’t always agree on everything, but we have been grateful to win the license and to be able to have constructive discussions when we have come across the challenges, which are inevitable with a project like this.
We believe in a Social Contract approach that recognizes that telecoms is an essential service in a modern country. So, we want to work with the government to understand how telecoms and digitalization can help resolve some of its key policy priorities.
What are the main components and objectives of Ethiopia’s Digital 2025 Strategy, and how does Safaricom Ethiopia align with them?
Ethiopia 2025 recognizes that the country is yet to realize its potential in the digital space.
Ethiopia has a young population and can be a key player in the fourth industrial revolution. To achieve that, the strategy envisages the creation of an inclusive digital economy.
Telecoms liberalization is a key step in making that happen, and the introduction of competition in mobile financial services will also be a key lever for the digital economy. So, Safaricom Ethiopia will be a key player in helping to achieve the Digital 2025 vision.
How do you attract, develop and retain young talent at Safaricom Ethiopia?
The talent here is amazing. We have a lot of young people who’ve joined the company.
What we are trying to do is start to move them across the world. For example, take people from Safaricom Ethiopia and send them to Kenya or Tanzania.
Some of them are requesting more training, so we are willing to send them to countries such as South Africa, the UK or Italy.
The reality is that when you come from a very big telecoms Group that has a massive amount of skills, you can start upskilling your people as you see fit.
How much are you considering sustainability?
We are building a brand-new network in a very sustainable way. We’re putting in solar panels, we have brand new components, like batteries, and we use less energy. So, from a network planning perspective, we have already built sustainability to a very large extent.
As we transition in the future to full 5G, that will be a further step change. A full 5G network would save 40-50% on 3G/4G energy costs.
We’ve not really started to tell customers about our commitment to the planet yet. But one of our major shareholders, Vodacom, was a headline sponsor of COP 27 in Egypt, so we have great and very real credentials in that area.
Once we start communicating about our support for the planet, I think it is going to play a major role in terms of how we are perceived in the market.
What goals and future plans lie ahead for Safaricom Ethiopia?
We are really at the start of our project in Ethiopia. We want to connect all regions of the country in time and deliver services to many more customers in what is a massive addressable market.
Our focus right now is to build out the network and deliver world-class service to our customers.
Once we gain a financial services license, that will take us into the next phase of our mission to become an integral part of Ethiopia’s digital society.