MTN of South Africa, the biggest operator in the continent, to focus entirely on pan-African market

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Mar 22, 2021

via Flickr © Mohammed A. Fadil (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © Mohammed A. Fadil (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Operator already active in 21 countries across the continent
  • Ambition 2025" blueprint will see fintech and fibre assets spun-off to raise cash for further growth 
  • Mobile money service "MoMo" a huge success
  • Big Data and common infrastructure standards will provide motive power

The MTN Group, headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa is a multinational mobile carrier specialising in emerging markets and operating in many African countries. According to the latest figures, MTN has some 280 million subscribers and is thus the largest mobile operator on the African continent (and the ninth-biggest in the world). Although it is active in 21 countries, 40 per cent of MTN's revenues come from Nigeria where the company enjoys a 35 per cent market share. However, MTN HQ has been experiencing major delays in "cash upstreaming and "repatriating" $150 million cash owed to it from Nigeria, a situation that will be all too familiar to many other companies that have commercial dealings with Nigerian companies and the government.

MTN Group's strong annual financial and operational results for Q4, 2020, announced last week, show the carrier withstood the Covid-19 onslaught with considerable resilience. Over the course of the years it added 29 million new customers to its subscriber base and doubled its cash-flow. As digital transformation continues and accelerates  MTN will invest US$1.9 billion in its network, technologies and digital services platforms this year.

Beyond that the newly-announced and far-reaching strategic four-year plan, "Ambition 2025" is the blueprint for the operator to "maximise the value of its existing infrastructure and platforms." In practice it means the spinning-off of assets such as its fibre and fintech divisions into standalone businesses to help pay down debt and realise cash to help fund the carrier's stated ambition strategy henceforth to focus solely on the pan-African market. (MTN exited the Middle East last year). The company expects to raise $1.68 billion from the spin-offs. MTN Group's CEO Ralph Mupita said, "As part of this strategic repositioning, we are looking to structurally separate our infrastructure assets and platforms to reveal value and attract third-party capital and partnerships into these businesses, over the medium-term.

As far as fintech is concerned, MTN's popular Mobile Money service (MoMo), which bypasses banks to allows subscribers to send and receive money and make payments using electronic wallets on their mobile handsets now has 46.4 million users across 15 African countries, up from 34.6 million a year ago. More than 12,000 transactions are now processed every minute and more than $147 million went via the MoMo platform in 2020, (and that sum excludes transactions completed in Nigeria and South Africa itself). MTN expects the number of MoMo users to hit 100 million within four years.

Ralph Mupita commented, "If we were a bank, we would be a very big bank. We see a separation and carve out of our fintech business as something that we have to do. He added, "We expect the fintech business to rapidly increase in value over the coming years, as smartphone penetration increases throughout Africa''. At the moment the fintech division contributes just eight per cent of the MTN Group's revenue but the CEO expects this to rise to 20 per cent by 2025.

On the fibre front, MTN has a network spanning 85,000 kilometres across several African countries. Demand for broadband access is growing rapidly and the company knows it will have to invest heavily as well as attract independent capital and join "smart partnerships" to meet the burgeoning demand for digitalisation, hence the spin-offs. According to MTN's most recent financial filing, the Ambition 2025 programme is geared to speeding-up the Group’s policy of de-risking and growing into platforms that will provide digital solutions for the markets it serves. "At the heart of our ambition is to continue leading the drive for digital and financial inclusion in Africa", 

Bigger, better and more data the key to development

Late last week TelecomTV also held a video interview with Nikos Angelopoulos, the Group CIO of MTN, the man responsible for the carrier's network and all its infrastructure, including IT architecture, design and delivery across the entire MTN Group, to drive transformation, foster innovation and maximise the development of beneficial customer experience. 

His remit covers everything from the implementation of MTN's overarching digital transformation policy through to the nitty-gritty of IT and BSS systems and everything in between, He says his job is about "data, data, data and data and its use in every possible facet of the organisation", and that he is "laser-focused on value creation and providing the analysis and metrics tools' that prove and validate MTN's core vision that all its subscribers should reap the benefits of a digitised connected life." 

He says that as far as the carrier is concerned, "2020 was not lost entirely to Covid-29" because MTN was able to continue to work on network transformation and on core technologies including the functional capabilities of BSS, service management and operational excellence, IoT and the adoption of AI and cloud technologies. Nikos Angelopoulos said "MTN is in the middle of assessing options for a move to the cloud. We are talking with all hyperscalers and will collaborate with someone in due course. Of course, the journey needs to be beneficial in practice and that means measuring results in terms of aspects such as the impact on business on one side [of the equation] and cost savings on the other."

The sheer size and range of MTN's involvement across many African countries and its engineering skills give it the built-in ability to collaborate on technology systems and standards and converge them. Angelopoulos says that should mean that a fully converged network and IT infrastructure will become the norm. MTN is already working towards such a solution with 15 African countries and, thanks to the telco's size and market clout, unit costs of the technologies and infrastructure required should fall for every new purchase made.

MTN maintains close and long-lasting relationships with strategic partners, collaborators and vendors such as the Finnish software company Tecnotree which provides full-stack digital BSS solutions.

MTN's vision for the future is centred on five platforms one of which is Ayoba, described as a unique end-to-end encrypted peer-to-peer instant private messaging platform localised for the needs of consumers across Africa. It is available across 17 MTN markets and its USP is privacy and security. Messages in the app cannot be read by anyone other than the intended recipient, including MTN itself. Users can send and receive encrypted messages, share photos, videos, files, voice notes and even their location, and can also subscribe to live channels which include localised content "to entertain, educate and empower communities."

Other platforms are the MoMo mobile money service, and as befits MTNs reach and scale as the biggest telco on the continent, the provisions of "Network as a Service" Also offered is the Enterprise Customer Platform to foster economic development across wide swathes of Africa and "Chenosis", a pan-African API marketplace where developers and businesses can search and subscribe to what is planned to become the largest library of open APIs published on the continent. Developers will be able to tap into a broad spectrum of API products and services from across Africa, ranging from telcos, e-health, e-government, IoT, fintech, e-commerce, identity and authentication, payments and collections, location and more, from a single marketplace.

The Chenosis Marketplace allows businesses and developers to publish their APIs so that other developers can discover and consume them. The marketplace also provides the tools for publishers to monetise and promote their APIs, by creating subscription plans and product bundles that developers and businesses can purchase. The Chenosis Marketplace portal has dashboards for publishers and consumers to track revenue and credit balances, view consumption analytics and API performance and other metrics.

5G is available in South Africa but not yet widely so Nikos Angelopoulos, who has been MTN Group CIO since 2018 said, "We'll be concentrating on the 5G consumer market first but the enterprise space has great potential and the scope for private 5G networks is enormous given the size and range or primary industries such as mining and agriculture. 

The CIO has worked in various developed and developing countries and economies and told TelecomTV, "Living and working in South Africa and travelling widely across the continent I have learned that this country and others in Africa not only can be but actually already are world-class players in telecoms and IT and as our data resources continue to grow in size and utility so will our value to this amazing continent."

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