In an exclusive interview with The Guardian Post, Mitwa announced plans by MTN Cameroon to officialise loans and savings on the company’s mobile money platform. She also disclosed reduction of charges on mobile money transactions, enumerated mouth-watering offers for youth and women and zoomed on the company’s corporate social responsibility and the promotion of domestic football.
The interview is as revealing as it is engaging.
She spoke to The Guardian Post’s Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, Kristian Ngah Christian, in MTN’s head office in Douala.
Thank you for accepting to talk to The Guardian Post
Thank you very much.
How do you make the transition from the Chief Executive Officer, CEO of MTN Rwanda to the CEO of MTN Cameroon?
It’s really been an exciting and interesting transition. Of course, our continent is so beautifully diverse, so each country is very different but also unique in its own right. I think coming to Cameroon has been particularly exciting because I come into a country which is so different even within itself. I’ve had the privilege of visiting eight out of 10 regions. Every day I discover something new even from the other. It has really been exciting and interesting for me to come to Cameroon; first of all, as a fellow African but more interestingly as the CEO of one of the largest telecommunication companies in the country. I will definitely gain an experience that is going to be one that I will speak about for many years to come.
What was your first impression when you were hinted that you were to come to Cameroon?
Definitely, it was one of interest. I had never visited Cameroon before I got the offer to come here. I must tell you that Cameroon is only one of two other countries that I have taken this role without ever haven visited the country before. I was confident that it was going to be a country which experience I’m going to enjoy. So far, I have not had any reason to regret since I came.
What has kept you busy within the last six months that you have been at the helm of MTN Cameroon?
The first six months have provided me the opportunity to understand the country, the priorities of our stakeholders and the needs of our consumers. I have travelled a lot within the first six months across eight of Cameroon’s ten Regions. I remain only with two Regions to visit. A lot of my time within the first six months has been trying to understand what it is that our consumers need and what is it that our stakeholders deem as important and also for me to get to know the team that are part of MTN Cameroon. This is about 600 people that are with us directly but also more importantly, we have a network of over 60,000 agents.
What became so recurrent, in terms of complaints during your field trips?
I wouldn’t say complaints but definitely recommendations that we have received either from consumers, stakeholders or partners. Some of those recommendations have stemmed around for instance, connectivity. MTN Cameroon covers more than 95% of the population of Cameroon. That means that 95% of Cameroonians today have access to MTN networks; whether it is to make calls, receive SMS and surf the internet. One of the recommendations we received is that in as much as our 95% coverage is good, consumers would also like to us cover 100%. That is the ambition and commitment that we have taken to explore over the near term. Other recommendations centred around access to devices that we’ve built over the last few years. In as much as today we cover 95% of the population, the reality is that not everybody has smart phones. So, one of the recommendations or feedbacks that we received from our consumers was that MTN should continue to explore other avenues through which we can bring into the market lower costs or more affordable smart phones or even provide the opportunity to find different ways of financing so that people can get access to this one. I think another recommendation was about mobile money. Mobile money is a service or business client that we are extremely proud of today. Over five million people are actively using mobile money every month. Some of the recommendations were about our products and services and innovative solutions that we can continue to improve upon. In as much as we have five million customers today, consumers are now looking for products that are loans, savings, credit and so on and so forth. Great feedbacks overall but of course we are never comfortable with where we are. We are always looking for ways to work on these recommendations with consumers and stakeholders.
Another complaint that might have escaped your ears is the belief that MTN charges high tariffs for mobile money services. What can you say about this?
Mobile money services are very comprehensive. When we talk about mobile money services, for example; there are present transfers and payment to merchants. There are also withdrawals that consumers do. What we do as much as possible is balancing the fees that we charge to consumers across all the products, not just looking at one. For example, if a customer is making a payment in a supermarket or pharmacy, the service is free of charge. Since Monday this week, we are also running a specific time bound promotion where if you would like to transfer money from one person to another within the MTN network, it is free if it is done through mobile money app. We are encouraging people to download the mobile money app so they can have access to free transactions. We have, since last Monday, reduced by half, the charges for customers using the normal *126# to send money. We are trying as much as possible to balance the fees across the ecosystem. Our job at MTN is to make sure that we enable every point of sale where people can exchange money for goods and services to make sure that mobile money is present there so that you don’t have the need to take out your cash. You can actually just pay via mobile money. Till today those services still remain free.
What are your ambitions for MTN Cameroon and the telecommunication sector in this country?
I think for on broad scale, for us at MTN is that every single person in Cameroon deserves to benefit the service of a connected life. Our primary foundational objective is to make sure that connectivity is not only stable but also expended continuously to cover areas where we are not there. Beyond coverage, we have very clear ambitions around improving the quality of the network and increasing the data speed of our network. There is clear investment on our part that is directed at network connectivity space. But like I said earlier, we also recognise that there are areas around smart phones penetration which still remains, I wouldn’t say low because 50% penetration isn’t significantly high when you compare with other markets., There still remains the huge opportunity to bring in lower cost and even innovative financing solutions for smart phones user. This would enable customers to get access to the internet.
What everybody should expect from us as well is a continued expansion on the mobile money ecosystem. Today, we have started and have achieved significant milestones base on the number of people who are using our mobile money service; but still, there is a long way to go. We are in the process of developing innovative solutions within the mobile money space. We are currently negotiating to get a licence that is going to allow us offer different services than we are offering today. If that is closed over the next few months or so, you will see a lot of financial related solutions coming out of MTN Mobile Money. As a brand, we also believe that whatever Cameroon holds dearly as important, we also hold dearly. That is why you will see that we are very present in areas such as soccer. As you know, MTN is sponsoring the MTN Elite Football League. Beyond that, we have, through the MTN Foundation, a lot of community projects that we have focused on just to make sure that we are not just operating for profits but also for the benefit of the population surrounding us. In that space, we have four main areas that we typically focus on. Number one is around youth empowerment and education, the other on women empowerment, you will also see us focus on health but also on the general priorities of the nation which is Cameroon.
What advantages do MTN Cameroon customers have using your services?
First and foremost, as a MTN consumer, you are part of a wider ecosystem that benefits from various dish of solutions. The first one I can highlight is Super App. I will like to call it born and bred in Africa, Ayouba. With Ayouba, consumers are able to send messages to fellow friends, colleagues and family members free of charge. You don’t see this on any other network by the way. All you have to do is to download this app and even if the person too has the app or not, the message gets delivered either through the app or by SMS. This is what makes us very unique. Last week, we saw two million people within Cameroon actively using Ayouba. What this means is that communities in schools, universities or in the religious circles, all have these groups that exist on Ayouba and able to communicate completely for free. This is very uniquely MTN Cameroon. I think it is one of the things that should attract and encourage people to stay with MTN. The second like I mentioned earlier is about mobile money. We have over five million customers who are actively using our mobile money services. What is interesting is that we have over 80,000 agents across the country from who our customers can send or withdraw money. Most importantly for mobile money is that we have strong ambitions for expanding the mobile money ecosystem. We expect to see a lot more services possibly in the areas of loans, savings and credits in the future which should attract people to stay and be interested in being an MTN consumer. These beyond everything else, MTN is an African brand, born out of Africa and for Africa. We understand very intimately what the need of our African communities are. With us, you have not only a solution provided but also a partner who understands what your needs are and is able to develop solutions to these demands.
More than 80% of android users are the youth. What is the special offer that MTN Cameroon has for the youth of this country?
In my six months of being here, it has become extremely apparent as to how youthful the population of Cameroon is. Apart from being youthful, one thing that I have noticed is the enterprising and industrious nature of the youth in Cameroon. Like I mentioned before, the first and foremost thing mentioning is the fact that within the MTN Foundation, which by the way, receives 1% of the company’s profit to fund all its community projects, we have a very clear pillar around the support of developmental community projects around youth empowerment and education. In that regard, we offer a lot of activities in the area of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises, SME’s, incubation of SME’s, educational programs, sponsorship programs and mentorship programs which are solely directed at the youth. We started quite a few of things in the past years. But the youths should expect more of that this year as well. Beyond that, the people who are part of our distribution network are predominantly the youth. We have young men and women, from across the country, who are actively making a living from selling MTN products and services. We see ourselves playing an active part in the entrepreneurial journey also. On the network side, we do have a youth program which is called MTN YAMO. With this youth program, the youth gain access to discounted rates; whether it is on voice calls or data or SMS or other such programs. There are also a lot of events that engage them through the course of their various aspects of life. Once such interesting one is, of course, music where every year through MTN Zig, we scout out musical talents from across the country who are typically our young men and women. We accompany them in their journey and try to seek out who are the best among them. When that is done, we shine a spotlight on them to kick-start their careers. Last but not the least is our participation in the MTN Elite soccer league where again predominantly the youth, we support in terms of making sure that the league is as vibrant as we know it to be.
Under what conditions do you think that countries like Rwanda, Senegal and Ghana, where you have managed mobile phone operators, could inspire Cameroon in the telecommunication sector?
Like I mentioned earlier, every country is unique in its own right. I think what Cameroon has, is a huge potential and lots of opportunities. I think we are on the right track. The efforts that the government of Cameroon is placing around connectivity and quality of service are important. There are also somewhat important in other geographies as well. In the recent past, you have seen us having more collaborative stands within the industry through the telecom association which interacts very regularly with entities such as the Telecommunications Regulatory Board, TRB. This in my experience, has led to a lot of success in other countries where there is a very collaborative approach as to addressing industry challenges and industry opportunities. We started last year with the Quality of Service Forum, this year with business meetings not only within the telecom association but the regulator and other stakeholders as well. We are at the beginning of something really great that can transform the industry as we look to sustainably address the challenges that exist today. The last but not the least I guess will be in the evolution of solutions and technologies. I think a lot of the countries across Africa have been on a similar journey to Cameroon where we have moved from 2G to 3G to 4G. Today, countries are moving to higher technology such as 5G. As for MTN Cameroon, our stand has always been that we will always prepare to make sure that we are technically ready with all our systems and platforms so much so that by the time there is a regulatory framework that is enabling and allowing of 5G launch, we are absolutely ready. So, I wouldn’t say there are things to borrow per say, I do think I see a lot of similarities in the journey that Cameroon is on to other countries. It is just a matter for us to continue to collaborate together.
If you were to score the telecoms sector in Cameroon on 10, what mark will you give?
That is a very interesting question. I will give it a 9 only because for a perfect 10 means we don’t aspire. And there is always in the technology space something more to do. I will give it a 9 for a couple of reasons. When we look back at the last 23 years that MTN has been present in this country, we can’t ignore the progress that has been made. For us at MTN Cameroon to say that we are a network that covers 95% of the population is because there have been investments made in the industry. There has equally been an environment that has allowed those investments to be made. I don’t give it a 10 only because I know while we have come a long way, there is so much more still to be done. With technology, things are evolving every day. In as much as you are trying to achieve a target, the target is also moving ahead.
Recently, MTN Cameroon signed a deal with CAMTEL. Who is supposed to benefit more from that deal? What was it all about in the first place?
Those to benefit from the deal are Cameroonians. We acknowledge that Cameroon is a country that is extremely vast. It is land that stands at over 750,000 square kilometres. We are currently four players in the market. We have come together to see how best we can unlock the connectivity potential for all the citizens of Cameroon. One such way we saw that we can collaborate a bit better, was in the space of infrastructure sharing hence the partnership with CAMTEL. Our goal is to see how we can bring together our strengths to benefit the consumer and most importantly, in order to benefit the Cameroonian citizen a whole lot more. We came together to address the issue of CAMTEL network not present in certain parts of the country. The deal will permit us address CAMTEL consumers’ needs as well. With this deal CAMTEL customers will be able to access the MTN network. This is the first step of many things to come. They are other discussions within the industry across different players, to see how we can we collaborate a whole lot more to make sure that those areas that are not covered today, maybe you know one operator goes in one direction, another operator goes to the other direction, just to make sure that the pace at which we are connecting people across the country is much faster than it would be if we went alone.
Your six months in Cameroon have been marked by an escalation in the relationship with the regulator with regard to the quality of services. May we know what the problem is?
First and foremost, I will say that between ourselves as MTN and other operators in the country, the regulator and all stakeholders, we share the same objective around ensuring the best quality possible of service is delivered to Cameroonians. Discussions started last year when an audit was done within the industry around the nature of the quality of service. With that audit and engagements, there were some areas within the network that were recommended to be improved. These areas span across coverage, the span across the quality in form of date speed and things like that. We at MTN Cameroon have taken full accountability as to the areas that are directly within our control. We are involved in a lot of talks around the investments we are making and are committed to continue to make in the areas of coverage, network issue resolution and things like that. Consumers should be rest assured that we are already seeing the benefits of ruling out some of those plans which are going to continue to improve the experience that consumers receive. At the same time, you will see a lot of conversations within the industry and also with stakeholders outside the industry. For us deliver a seamless and sustainable quality of service, we have to make sure that all actors within the industry guarantee that level of quality of service. We as network operators are so interconnected with each other, that’s number one, but also interconnected with other stakeholders. Whether it is in the spare of electricity as an example, all the towers that you see that are distributed across the country are connected to some form of power source. Where there is any unstable power supply, we put in backup power solutions like generators. This is because when there are power cuts for an extended period of time, we may see some outages on sight which naturally impacts also the quality of service that customers experience. On top of that, we also had a lot of discussion around the stability of the fibre optic network. We have noticed an increase in the number of fibre cards in the area of vandalised fibre equipment which also impacts the quality of service. It is important for me to mention these things because while there will be investments and efforts made within all our individual networks to improve the quality of service to make sure these things are delivered to the consumers’ expectation. We are still not in a situation where we are not able to deliver quality of service because of external factors. For every new area that we are unlock, there will also be new challenges. The collaborative framework that we have now created, within the industry is going to see to on an improved environment going forward.
The regulator also invited you to propose a systematic and constructive approach to solving the problem of the quality of electronic communication services in the country. Can we have some information on some of these actions that some of these operators project?
We were very sincere in the commitments that we made in the industry late last year. One of those commitments was investment where an excess of a hundred and sixty billion FCFA will be invested across all operators. As MTN, we are also playing an active role in that and just by way of an update, we are now sitting towards the end of the first quarter of the year. Those investments have already kicked off and quite significantly as well. We are making quite good progress as far as those investments are concerned.
We also took the commitment around taking more active stances around infrastructure sharing. The launch with CAMTEL of the national roaming in December but there are also other conversations in the industry to make sure that we can leverage our different strengths across the board. The third and final commitment that we took was to see how we can collaborate together to improve the stability of the fibre network. By way of an update, I will say all the plans that we had laid out are well on course and are in progress. We are already beginning to see initial positive results in that regard.
You and other partners have pledged 156 billion FCFA in the sector. Where will this investment be directed and what will concretely change for the consumer?
Predominantly for us, the bulk of that investment is going into network connectivity, in the area of coverage expansion but also in the improvement of quality. What consumers can expect to feel is improved stability on the network, increased internet speed and also, an overall improvement in the general quality of service. A lot of that investment, I must also say, is going into internal transformation within the organisation of MTN Cameroon so much so that if there are incidents on the network, we are much better prepared to respond to those incidents. We can shorten the amount of time that it takes to resolve these incidents and we can be closer to our customers in order to get feedback on the areas that need continued improvement. A lot of that investment, I will say, is going into ensuring that the services and the quality of the service that our consumers expect are not only met but exceeded.
The first six months of your stay here have been marked by the seizure of MTN Cameroon bank accounts by the businessman, Baba Danpullo. What is he accusing you of and where do you stand with this case?
I must say it has been a very interesting first six months for me of course coming in as new CEO and then being met with a case that I think we consider quite peculiar and very unique in its nature. I must start by saying of course that MTN Cameroon and the MTN Group which is our parent company, we pride ourselves of being very responsible corporate citizens. One that is respectful of the laws of the land that we operate in. One that is very upright in its standing when it comes to dealing with partners or suppliers or consumers or its employees. When we saw this come up, of course, as it was a bit surprising; given that the parties involved in the case, are completely unrelated to MTN Cameroon but of course, we only anticipate that the legal system will run its due course in identifying that MTN Cameroon has no part to play in this particular case.
Our bank accounts have been frozen for the last six months. While our legal team pursues the case, we are focused on making sure that the services that we provide to our consumers remain uninterrupted. And that is what we have seen in the last few months and that is one of our commitments also going forward. And we expect, you know, through the legal system, the case to be reviewed on merit.
Why has MTN Cameroon not considered making peace with Baba Danpullo, so the matter can be settled out of court?
I think the matter is ongoing in court. I will let the court conclude its due course.
You are young female leader who is holding her fourth position as CEO in four different countries. Today, Cameroon after Rwanda, Ghana and Senegal yesterday. What is your secret and that you believe could inspire the youths and especially young girls in Cameroon?
I will encourage people by sharing my own experience in the things that I believe have led to my progress. I wouldn’t call it a success, yet because you know success is progress. I think it’s first, the fact that I am curious. That is what I did when I was younger, to really try and see what is exactly happening around me. If I was in one department of an organisation, I was always curious to understand what the other departments were doing. And even when things are not necessarily directly not your responsibility, I will always volunteer to put my hand up to experiment and dabble into areas that are not necessarily mine. When you do this, you enrich your experience so much so that when opportunities arise, you can be considered as having maybe the most enriched experience across the various things. So, curiosity is what I will encourage young people to be and continue to be.
The second, of course, would be, I think for me looking back over the years and still the case today. I try as much as possible at any given point in time to be clear as to what it is that I will like to do in the future. People ask me today: ‘You are a CEO, so you have possibly arrived’? I say no there is no point of arrival. I am also thinking about what I can do next.
The reason I constantly ask myself that question is because it motivates me to think about the things that I need to develop in myself. When I was a manager, I would think about being a senior manager. I thought: ‘Okay. what is the ideal senior manager today and what are those things that I am missing that I need to develop within myself’? With this kind of reasoning, you find yourself exposing yourself to a lot of learning material, mentors, sponsors, coaches and things like that, that can enrich your experience and prepare you for that next level up.
And, last but not the least, from my experience, I have seen that taking risks sometimes pays off. I joint companies on token roles that many people were being shy, reserved and conservative to do but I have seen over the years that those risks have paid off. Finally, I have learned that here in Cameroon too.
What would you attribute your successes or your steady rise to positions of top management to? Luck or hard work?
I think luck finds those who work hard (Laughs). The harder you work, the luckier you are.
Some people would say they work even harder than you but are still down there?
I think it is about perseverance as well. I tell young people and other people all the time that one is never too young and never too old. You are right on time on your time zone. What you just need to maintain is that belief that for as long as I persevere, I would achieve. Some people used to consider me as being young in my position as CEO but today, there are even younger CEOs in their 20s.
At what point of your career would you consider quitting MTN for good?
I have been here only for six months. You want me to leave already?
I mean leaving the entire MTN Group for good in the event a juicier job opportunity comes knocking at your door?
I don’t wake up thinking of when I will quit, you know even if I have a more lucrative offer. For me, as an African working for an African brand, its more than just about the job in MTN. It is more about making a difference for my continent. And you know, us as Africans, we are slowly realising that if there is anyone who is best placed to address the opportunities and challenges of Africa, it is us ourselves. So, for me, I will not be satisfied until I see every African connected, every African having a smartphone, our African girls rising to the challenge, believing that they can do it just as good as anybody else, seeing things like mobile money being highly penetrated where we can say: ‘Okay, we are a financially included continent’. Until we see those things, I don’t think one can think about quitting.
You should definitely have a message for MTN Cameroon customers?
I can only say a huge Thank You to MTN Cameroon customers. I want to sincerely thank them for the trust that they have placed in us for the last 23 years. As an operator, a solution provider and as a telecommunication company, we are not perfect but we strive to perfect for the consumers who we serve. We rely and thank our customers for the feedback that they continuously give us through all the various channels that we have; be it through the call centre, service centres and people they contact on the streets. I will like to end by reassuring our consumers that we are fully aware of their genuine needs and recommendations and that all we can do is do better for them.