Shaking Up Africa’s Mobile Markets

It’s almost tiring to list all the booming economic sectors in Africa. The telecommunications sector is no exception, with an estimated one million new subscribers every week there is money to be made.

One entrepreneur has brought special telecomms expertise to Africa, and is now invited to scores of African boardrooms to sell his product. If this new service is up and running, it has the potential to shake up the markets all over the continent. But mobile number portability can also be a threat to companies that are used to a fight for market share.

Porting XS is a small Dutch company. It has only a few dozen employees on the payroll, but Porting XS is taking the African telecom market by storm with its highly sought-after product. CEO Ronald Vlasman sells the ability for consumers to move from one telecom provider to another, while taking the old number along. It sounds easy, but it can be a complicated hassle because of all the players involved in the process. Tele-companies with the biggest market shares aren’t interested in losing customers to the competition. So why would these big companies agree to the implementation of mobile number portability (MNP)?

Legal issues

“I am not allowed to talk about it” says Vlasman. Despite the fact that Kenyan newspapers are filled with news about the implementation of mobile number portability in the east African giant, Vlasman is not interested in creating more legal trouble. Porting Access Kenya, a daughter company to Porting XS, faces a gag order issued by a Nairobi Court and is not allowed to comment on the problems surrounding MNP.

In Kenya, the deadline for providing MNP was set on April 1st of this year. But things went wrong. Customers who tried to move their number across to a new provider got stuck in the system, or even lost their number. Patrick Musimba, managing director with Porting Access Kenya said at a press conference that Safaricom was blocking number portability. Safaricom took the matter to court, accusing Porting Access of defamation and economic sabotage.

In Kenya, Safaricom is the biggest telecomms provider with an estimated 23.4 million customers. It holds 78 percent of the market, and is not keen on seeing these customers run off to the cheaper Airtel, that holds almost 20 percent of Kenya’s callers and lures more by lowering rates. Number portability makes it easier for Safaricom clients to run off to, for example, Airtel.

Evelyne Njoroge is a journalist with Radio Netherlands’ partner station Capital FM Nairobi, and she has reported extensively on the MNP implementation problems. “According to Safaricom, there were technical hitches. But the other mobile operators accuse Safaricom of sabotaging the system” Njoroge explains.

Vlasman seems in control of the situation. “We didn’t foresee all the political stuff which surrounds MNP, but that is something we are learning fast now. The most important thing is that in Kenya, MNP works okay at this moment.”

Ghana

Ronald Vlasman flies to Africa on a bi-weekly basis to meet with regulators. These are government institutions that regulate the communications market. “A government usually writes a telecommunications act which at one point guarantees consumers the right to change providers, without losing their number. Regulators facilitate this, and they pick us to get the job done.”

The National Communication Authority in Ghana (NCA), has also picked Porting XS to install the mobile technology in the gold coast country. After months of preparations, mobile number portability will be available to Ghanaian consumers starting July 7th. “I am sure that offering MNP in Ghana will benefit not only customers who will decide to change networks, but also customers who will not. Because the telecom providers will have to do something to ensure loyalty” says Robert Palitz, a consultant that works for the NCA. “Kenya was a disaster, let’s face it. People indicated to me that it’s largely because of the way the CCK handled it.”

Ronald Vlasman is confident that his adventure in Ghana will turn out to be a success. “Mobile number portability has an effect on prices. Wait until July 7th and we’ll see something, I’m sure!”

Recently, Vlasman has been invited to Nigeria and Togo to talk about his product. Apart from South Africa and Kenya, MNP is not available yet in other African countries. And since almost 12% of the average African household budget is spend on communications, mobile number portability is going to be very big in Africa.