Understanding the commercial challenges for mobile operators when expanding internet coverage to rural communities
This post was guest-authored by Uthmaan Madati (Tigo, Territory Manager) and Dennis Sakia (Tigo, Commercial). The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the GSMA.
The GSMA championed rural connectivity project (headed by the GSMA’s Connected Society team) is a tri-party (3-way) collaborative project that brings together three of Tanzania’s biggest operators (Tigo, Vodacom, Airtel), in a bid to provide 3G connectivity to selected rural locations in the country. The tri-party rural roaming pilot (which is the first of its kind in Africa) has the three main operators dedicating two sites each in key locations to enable the other operators’ subscribers to roam with 3G data on their chosen sites.
On our part as Tigo Tanzania, we had key technical and commercial goals to see through after the establishment of our pilot sites in Southern Tanzania (known as the “coastal zone” – sites located within rural Lindi and Mtwara); mainly to activate service, awareness and stimulate mobile activity. To do this, there had to be a tactical blend of ensuring up-time of the sites and a corresponding strong push on our sales and commercial activities in the area. To ensure the service receives the proper seamless support from our Dar es Salaam headquarters, multiple internal teams had to be mobilised and aligned, ranging from network and billing to Sales and Marketing. We strategically ensured visibility by way of branding, with a joint road show organised in the areas to officially launch the sites, in addition to the standard channel visibility initiatives. From a sales point, ensuring adequate freelancer coverage, points of activation, availability of stock such as vouchers (electronic and scratch cards), mobile devices and mobile money services were pivotal. Moreover, we continued to optimise the coverage technically to make sure it extended to the nearby village settlements.
For our Tigo Tanzania Territory Manager (Uthmaan Madati), this new service introduction provided for many sales and activation opportunities as well as a unique opportunity to observe social impact; the inhabitants of these rural settlements that were now officially “connected” were very upbeat and excited to have this mobile and digital connectivity for them to engage. The key service being 3G technology (data) in such remote areas, which was previously unheard of for the inhabitants, so to observe and influence their adoption of the services turned out to be a socially rich experience.
Of course, given the socio economic profile of the inhabitants, adoption of digital services was much slower, and as such, we had to increase awareness. Our territory sales arm dispatched ground sales teams from the surrounding urban areas to educate the rural settlers on the potential of the services, as well as provide a forum for all to understand these services, and for us to be able to understand their needs and challenges to start using these services. Most importantly, we worked very closely with the village council to recruit locals to be acquisition freelancers (with required training) for registering new customers and establishing permanent stock points for SIM cards, vouchers, devices and all our products and services. It is quite important to add value to the inhabitants that we aim to serve by providing such opportunities.
The above adoption challenges are a part of broader, inherent challenges in catering for such rural settlements from our (Tigo) side:-
Technical instability – these sites operate under solar power hence during rainy weather they were underperforming, but they have since been strengthened by our tower partners and are now optimised well.
Accessibility – as mentioned, these settlements and sites are isolated. Some context; the sites in Chiwale and Mingumbi (Rural coastal zone areas) both average about 50km from the main road (to the rural district) or 90km (to and from), with rough roads in between.
As you can imagine, there is only one bus service running to and from town to reach these areas daily, so logistics of delivering our stock such as vouchers, devices and any other products also proved challenging.
Literacy– As stated, most of the settlers in these areas have a lower literacy rate hence realising and conveying the concept of 3G internet, mobile services and the convenience that the sites have brought to the area was also a challenge in the beginning.
Conversely, also recruiting and training locals for sustainability and ownership for the mutual benefit of the business became tricky due to this steeper learning curve.
Seasonality effects – It should be understood that, naturally, the rural markets in the area are seasonal, as is the case with such locations. As the inhabitants are predominantly farmers or traders (small scale), there are seasonal cycles related to their produce and their economic activity (.i.e. periods of liquidity / high purchasing power during harvest seasons, and conversely low liquidity/purchasing power pre and post-harvest season)
These geographical and socio-economic challenges also provide rich commercial learnings, and we (Tigo Tanzania) continue to ensure the area and inhabitants receive close sales support and access, given these learnings. This understanding is pivotal to be able to drive adoption of the new services (data being key) and enrich the areas’ socio-economic experiences, and we are now proudly serving more than 10,000 subscribers in these two areas. Finally, the rural pilot is still forging forward given all these dynamics, as there is real value and potential to optimise this initiative further with continued collaboration from all operators and of course, the right steering from the GSMA project team.
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