Ziad Dalloul founded Africell in 2001 and launched first in The Gambia before expanding to Sierra Leone, Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo. It pulled out of Uganda last year but this month launched in Angola becoming the first new mobile telecommunications operator there in two decades. 

What are the most underrated opportunities that remain for mobile operators in African countries?

The demographic and economic characteristics of many countries in Africa make them perfect places to go with a disruptive mindset. Angola is a good example. It is a big, energetic country with a telecoms sector that hasn’t quite kept up with its ambitions. Limited competition and investment have resulted in unreliable services, high prices and dissatisfied customers. In contexts like this, innovative new operators who don’t carry the baggage of the past and approach consumers on a more authentic level can be successful. 

Many commentators fixate on the promise of 5G. But the glitz and glamor of 5G shouldn’t blind operators to the fact that in many parts of Africa, other solutions continue to present equally if not more attractive opportunities. Wise operators will consider the full spread of consumer and business needs in sub-Saharan Africa, shooting after advanced solutions like 5G where appropriate but focusing on getting the basics right elsewhere.

As a new entrant in most of your markets how have you differentiated yourselves to win over customers?

What customers want above all is the ability to communicate without interruptions. And they don’t want to feel that they are paying too much.

In Africell’s twenty years’ experience, we have learned that using a network built by us, from scratch, makes for stronger foundations than buying or trying to convert pre-existing assets. This has given us the flexibility to expand coverage according to our own strategy, and it has allowed us to invest in new equipment as demand has dictated. This approach has required an extremely long-term view, but it has ultimately been better for our customers.

Africell’s relatively small footprint means that we give our individual markets a degree of focus and attention that bigger multinational rivals do not. Our competitors can sometimes feel as if they were made for “Africa” as a totality, rather than for any individual country. 

You’ve talked about Angola’s enormous potential, what unique attributes excite you about this market? 

The fact that Angola’s telecoms sector has been a de facto monopoly for the past twenty years doesn’t tally with the fact the country has a dynamic economy among the most developed in sub-Saharan Africa. The lack of competition and investment in the telecoms sector has meant that innovation experienced elsewhere in the region such as customer-centric marketing, affordable data, and mobile money have so far bypassed Angola. Our mandate to transform the digital landscape gives us an ambitious set of goals: to drive down prices, improve service quality, and establish ourselves as a technology platform which boosts other sectors and industries. 

As more value moves down the chain to digital services, how is Africell thinking about ensuring it retains that value on its own platform?

“Platform” is the key word here. We see ourselves not as providing mobile products and services in a traditional transactional sense, but instead as offering a digital platform on which many other technology-enabled activities become possible. 

For example, mobile money is a digital service which is a transformational technology which harnesses the mobile phone connection to unlock a big social benefit. Education and entertainment are also examples we’ve offered our subscribers in our other markets.  We are taking a similar approach in Angola. Conceiving of telecoms provision purely in terms of SIM cards and recharge is old-fashioned.

What’s your biggest risk factor as a network operator in a developing market?

An obvious risk of working in developing markets is political and economic volatility. As economies grow and political systems change, issues are inevitable. The best way to manage this is to have patience and take a long-term view. If we were to let every political or economic road bump deter us, we would have left sub-Saharan Africa twenty years ago. Instead, we have a conviction that our operating markets are on positive trajectories and that our work as a telecommunications operator is a catalyst for development. Another risk relates to infrastructure. 

Infrastructure that is taken for granted in some parts of the world can often be either very basic or wholly lacking in sub-Saharan Africa. This can make the task of building and maintaining a mobile network – which is composed of complex technical equipment, and which typically depends on functioning ports, airports, roads and rail – very challenging. What works in Sweden or even South Africa won’t necessarily work in Sierra Leone. The biggest risk to any operator in sub-Saharan Africa is to forget that lesson.

*This 3 Minutes With interview first appeared in the Rest of World weekly newsletter. Sign up here.