Africell Makes its Mark in Sub-Saharan Africa
Africell is a mobile telecommunications operator serving over 12 million subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa. It offers mobile services including ultra-fast 4G connectivity and mobile money and pursues high-impact social initiatives in the fields of education, healthcare, sport, entertainment, media and humanitarian work.
In this interview, Sam Williams, Group Communications Director at Africell discusses Africell’s attraction and retention strategy, the reasons behind its expansion into Angola, and what the world can expect from the company in 2022.
After almost 2 years of uncertainty and change caused by the pandemic, how has 2021 been like for Africell, particularly in comparison to 2020?
2021 has been a year of change and growth for Africell.
Like other businesses, Africell had to contend with the operational challenges presented by COVID-19. When the wave of the pandemic first crashed, causing a riptide of infections and restrictions across Africa, we had to respond fast, in unpredictable circumstances. We added capacity to our networks, sped up the transition to digital-first services, and changed our working patterns to minimize risk to employees and customers. We also embraced our broader social responsibility. In Africa, where public infrastructure is still developing, private companies like Africell can have a big impact during crises. As we did during the Ebola emergency of 2014-16, Africell took the opportunity in 2020 to deploy our team, resources and skillset to the task of supporting customers and working with partner governments to accelerate recovery from the crisis.
Although the pandemic had a harmful effect on many livelihoods and sectors, telecommunications pulled in the opposite direction. Lockdown restrictions exposed the power, value and appeal of digital connectivity more clearly than ever. Demand for our mobile products and services (including mobile money) grew significantly as the populations of our operating markets adjusted their work habits and lifestyles. For Africell, it was critical to seize this opportunity: partly because it has always been our principle to be there when customers need us most; and partly because, in business, potentially transformational moments like these don’t come very often. The pandemic recharged our sense of purpose and spurred us to do things better.
The upshot is that in 2021, Africell grew at the fastest rate in its 20-year history. We are in the middle of our biggest ever network expansions in DRC, Sierra Leone and The Gambia. We are also preparing to launch services in Angola. Angola is market with extraordinary potential and bringing it into the Africell portfolio will enhance the profile of the group as a pan-African operator.
Africell’s success in 2021 is down to a few things. One is a strong group strategy which has enabled us to maintain a steady long-term perspective while being flexible enough to grab short-term opportunities. Another is the generally positive direction of telecommunications market dynamics; one could argue that it has truly come of age in the past twelve months, especially in Africa. And a third factor is the resilience, enterprise and hard work of our employees, who in the most testing of conditions have served customers by example and propelled the Africell brand to new levels of trustworthiness.
You will soon launch services in Angola – what inspired this and how is that going so far?
Angola is one of the most economically significant countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It has relatively high levels of wealth and an aspirational population.
We are excited about expanding into Angola because its telecoms sector is ripe for disruption. Despite the country’s relative affluence, the Angolan telecoms sector has experienced a generation of underinvestment. The market is a de facto monopoly. As a result, Angolan mobile users are poorly served when it comes to choice, price, and quality.
Africell excels in bringing competition to monopolistic markets and giving consumers better choice of products and services. We have a successful record of investing in frontier markets with major potential for growth and modernisation. Angola’ relatively low mobile penetration makes it an appealing investment destination for Africell, given our unique strengths, and offers a perfect opportunity for Africell to build a high-quality, high-speed, data-centric mobile network.
Africell operates in smaller African markets such as the Gambia, Sierra Leone and the DRC – what is the talent pool like in these countries?
The availability of talent varies sharply within and between our operating markets.
These are countries where the education systems are developing fast but still struggle to penetrate rural and remote communities. Although big cities like Kinshasa and Freetown yield plenty of candidates with interesting credentials for corporate roles, including candidates with germane international experience, the talent pool is much thinner elsewhere. This necessitates the strategic transfer of people within and between Africell’s operating companies, so that local employees can be exposed to best-practice expertise and our company culture trickles to all parts of the organisation.
Another problem is that, as our business grows, local talent pools take time to replenish. When people join Africell, it is because we have spotted potential. On joining, their skills and knowledge are augmented, as they earn hands-on experience working for a dynamic and proactive technology company. Africell invests considerably in building the capabilities of individuals and teams – and as we grow, we find ourselves undertaking this process more frequently.
What are some of the strategies you use to attract your desired talent, locally and from the diaspora?
Africell is a US-owned firm. This gives us a special profile and differentiates us from other African operators. Bringing international perspectives to Africa (and vice versa) is part of our mission. Hiring people who have a foot both on the African continent and (for example) in the US or UK helps us to achieve this. There are several examples of successful and senior employees at Africell hailing from the diaspora populations of our operating markets.
The most important recruitment tool among the diaspora is our reputation. The quality of service we provide to friends and family back home is the main determinant of whether a member of the diaspora would consider returning home and working for Africell. In virtually every case that we have hired from the diaspora, the baseline was set favorably by the good impression the candidate had of Africell, our corporate identity, our trustworthiness, and our profile as an employer. Guarding this is the most important thing we can do.
Due to Africell’s talent being highly-skilled and likely also being sought after by other organisations – what is your retention strategy?
In DRC, Sierra Leone and Gambia, Africell is both a leading corporate entity and a household-name consumer brand. As a result, we are usually the first port-of-call for ambitious professionals looking to develop a career in the telecoms sector in these markets.
The nature of our work as a mobile operator, paired with our willingness to evolve as a business, means that we have a relatively high tenure of employment. People join Africell because they are interested in what we do and wish to help us expand digital connectivity in frontier markets. They stay because we aren’t static and generate a regular stream of new professional opportunities.
For example, we are proud to have a culture in which people can change their specialism. This doesn’t happen arbitrarily, but it can when an employee’s interests evolve and their skillset branches out in unexpected directions. Being flexible in this regard is a sound retention policy because it allows us to keep the best people fresh and motivated while deploying their talents most efficiently, for themselves and for the business.
How would you describe the culture within Africell and how has the pandemic changed it if at all or have you managed to maintain your “pre-pandemic” culture and if so, how?
Africell’s culture is like our brand: bright, vibrant, and enthusiastic. Our sector rewards creative thinking because, in Africa and elsewhere, telecoms is at the forefront of innovation and change. Africell employees are encouraged to generate and act on ideas for improving how we do business. Many of the initiatives that have been most successful for Africell (whether technical, commercial or related to social impact) have their origins in the great ideas of our more junior employees, and we are proud to have a culture in which employees have the opportunity to be creative and fulfil their potential.
As a major private sector company in each of our operating markets, we also recognize a responsibility to business in a professional and transparent way. Integrity is at the heart of Africell’s culture. Africell employees are required to do what is right, rather than what is convenient. Our reputation is one of our most important assets and offers a source of legitimacy within the communities we serve. Employees are expected to conduct themselves to high standards at all times. The result is a team and company we are all proud of.
In the past twelve months, the tenets of our culture have remained consistent. This is as it should be, because a culture is something that takes time to form and ought to have deep enough roots to withstand even the most exigent external forces. In fact, we would argue that it was Africell’s culture that helped us grasp the opportunities presented by the pandemic, turning what could have been a traumatic period into an experience of progress and expansion. That said, no culture is permanent, and the move to digital working, working from home, and remote collaboration engendered by the pandemic are likely to have a lasting and hopefully beneficial effect.
How would you describe the employee experience of an Africell employee and how would you say it differs to the experiences of people who work in larger African markets?
As a mobile network operator in emerging markets, Africell seeks a positive legacy not only in our core telecoms business but also in our interactions with the wider community. This has implications for the employee experience.
First, by working on the front line with customers, employees engage with ordinary people every day, ensuring that the benefits of mobile communications feel welcoming and accessible to them rather than confusing and exclusionary. In markets such as ours, which have historically been neglected by equitable international trade and have received minimal technology investment, this is vital, because we want mobile telecommunications to be seen as a helpful lifestyle booster rather than an alienating distraction – or worse.
Second, Africell employees at all levels are encouraged to participate in the diverse social initiatives Africell runs in our operating markets. These include sponsoring education, funding sports, conserving heritage, protecting vulnerable landscapes, and promoting gender equality. These initiatives have a local focus and are designed in collaboration local stakeholders, but in aggregate they make a huge difference to the communities we serve. Employees are expected to design, execute and follow-up on these projects.
Finally, as a leading private sector presence in our operating markets, Africell frequently works directly with governments, NGOs and other businesses in pursuit of broader social or humanitarian goals. Our network, resources and accumulated know-how make us the partner of choice when significant mobilisation is required. Employees can work on impactful projects such as disease and disaster response, widening access to information, and digital literacy education.
In terms of diversity and inclusion – can you share what this is like within Africell and tell us about any important/stand-out initiatives you have to support this?
Africell has a stated objective to increase the gender balance within the organization, especially at the corporate level and within engineering and technical roles.
The background context is unfavourable. It remains the case in all our operating markets that men enjoy better access to education than women. Work experience in the telecoms sector, which is valuable to us, is also more often possessed by male than female candidates. In our efforts to address this, we expect to have to offer some degree of “remedial” training, to ensure that women have equal opportunity to succeed in technical roles notwithstanding their disadvantaged position as a general social group.
One initiative we are especially proud of is a drive to recruit and train more female drivers in Sierra Leone. Worldwide, the driving profession is dominated by men. This is true in Sierra Leone. But driving is a critical function in Africell SL because, with virtually no domestic rail or air transport options available, cars are usually the only means to move people and equipment around the country, including to remote upcountry areas.
The driver training programme defies the orthodoxy that only men should drive professionally. It gives candidates a comprehensive education in the essential skills required to be an effective and professional driver: driving itself, but also basic car mechanics, navigation, security and first aid. By undertaking this initiative, we want to make it clear that no role at Africell is off-limits to anyone and that we are prepared to invest to bring out the talents of potentially underrepresented groups.
Can you give us some insight into what we can expect to see from Africell in the coming year? Any exciting new ventures or initiatives planned?
Our biggest undertaking in 2022 will be the launch of services in Angola. We are also managing record-breaking expansion in DRC, Sierra Leone and Gambia. These are complex projects demanding intensive investment of time, capital and expertise. As part of these operations, we are continuing to pursue an energetic programme of social impact, supplementing our core mobile telecoms offering with complementary educational and cultural projects. We are confident in the long-term dynamics of Africa’s thriving telecoms sector and feel that, thanks to the quality of our team, Africell is well-placed to capitalise on opportunities and expand our footprint still further.