Born to a Ghanaian father and Russian mother, Mr. Ray Akwa began his career as a banker. He also worked in various industries, including oil and gas, hospitality and logistics. In 2006 he ventured into the telecom sector in the United Kingdom.
And more recently, he has been appointed Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Smart Mobile, which entered the highly competitive Sierra Leonean telecom market. Mr. Akwa believes his company can find a niche. At the moment, it’s all about planting the seed of growth. In this exclusive interview with Concord Times’ Ibrahim Seibure and Abu-Bakarr Sheriff, Mr. Akwa discusses his company’s prospects and Sierra Leone’s increasingly attractive investment climate. Excerpts…
Concord Times: Why did you decide to come to Sierra Leone to establish Smart mobile company?
Akwa: I believe that, overall, telecom internationally has evolved and matured over the last decade. A lot of countries have already undergone substantial consolidation of their mobile telecom industry. So, there are not that many places left in the world where mobile telecom business is still interesting for an investor. Obviously, there are a lot of countries where operators have established business; and some are still growing. But for any new entrant, the challenges have increased over the years. Africa is probably one of the key markets where this is still possible, although at the same time it’s very competitive, but for the right set of expertise or skills, it’s still a very interesting market for operators. Having mentioned Africa, I think Sierra Leone is one of the few countries where this is potentially lucrative, although like I said before, it is challenging at the same time. But with the right amount of enthusiasm, resources and dedication, the green field market is still interesting for an incoming mobile telecom operator.
CT: Could you please tell us a bit about the Smart brand?
Akwa: The Smart brand is an international brand when it comes to this particular telecoms group. We do have operations in Eastern Africa. Just to name a few countries: Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda. Previously, the same brand was used in Asia – Cambodia. Our brand in some way also has value.
CT: What are your company’s core values?
Akwa: That’s a bit of an open ended questions. First of all, we try to match the competition. As a newcomer company, before we can run we need to learn how to walk, and that is the first step we need to take.
At the same time while this baby growth is taking place we would like to ensure that the quality of customer service is forever present and that the network quality is adequate to provide good value proposition to the consumer, and competition means that it doesn’t have to be cheaper, but rather a balance between value proposition and price is established that is acceptable to the target consumer market. We are also concerned about network quality and everything else that comes with the brand package.
CT: You mentioned countries where you are present – Eastern Africa and Cambodia in South East Asia. Both areas are underdeveloped parts of the world. Do you have a presence in developed regions like Europe or America?
Akwa: No we don’t have a presence in developed countries. The Group only has operations in countries that are developing. In Cambodia, we used to have an operation, but it was subsequently sold. This Group specializes in green field. Specialty lies in coming to a new market and establishing a new operator under a new license, not buying existing operators or some assistance from an operator or anything similar to this. Starting from scratch and building something, and then seeking an exit like any investor would do. That is not to say that we want to come as investors, make some money and leave.
CT: Can Sierra Leoneans buy shares in your company?
Akwa: This is a private company and whenever shareholders decide they want to sell it, we will consider this. I cannot foretell the future, but it never happened before. But then again, to become a public company you may have to look at the laws and provisions in that respect – do they exist in Sierra Leone already? Also, if you do have some companies that the public owns shares in, they also assume some kind of stock exchange in existence in the country, because how are you going to sell the shares on a secondary market?
CT: Your company specializes in investing in green fields, scaling down subsequently and seeking new markets. Do you have a timeline as to when you leave Sierra Leone?
Akwa: There is no fixed timeline and obviously that would depend on how the situation allows and how the business develops – that is not to say that there might come a time for consolidation. So we will be looking at the market option, maybe we would be buying in or buying out.
CT: Could you tell us about your short, medium and long term vision?
Akwa: The vision is to become very competitive, to offer something beyond what the competition is offering to the public and obviously over the next two years to sustain the growth. So that is our short, medium and long term strategic plan; how we are going to do it is a bit of secret.
CT: You have a package for your customers and people have been calling free for about a month now: when is this going to be end?
Akwa: The free ‘on network calls’ promotion has already ended. Those subscribers that activated their SIMs before 31st May will continue to enjoy the 30 days promotion… Therefore, effectively, some customers will be able to call for free within SMART network until the end of June, 2014.
CT: What is your impression so far regarding the investment climate or opportunities in Sierra Leone?
Akwa: Right now there is an ideal climate for investment in Sierra Leone. The country is undergoing very rapid transformation, and I also personally believe that within three to five years, you will not be able to recognize your own country. The business climate is good and obviously any country that undergoes fast transformation will have its fair share of difficulties along the way. But this Group has never been afraid of any challenges, so hopefully we are in the right market at the right time.
CT: What makes you stand out from other competitors?
Akwa: I think what I would like Smart to be aspiring to during this period of growth is the integrity – meaning that SMART will not want to promise anything to subscribers that we would not be able to deliver.
CT: Are you limiting your operation just in Freetown?
CT: So which other areas are your targets?
Akwa: At the moment it is just Freetown, but we have plans to cover the whole country and already the process has started. Hopefully, by the end of the year we would have our presence in the provinces as well.
CT: Besides Freetown we are talking about twelve other districts. What special packages would you be taking to people outside of Freetown?
Akwa: Definitely we have some special offers and packages. What exactly will be offered to our potential subscribers is obviously a bit of a secret for now, but in order to win their hearts and minds, there must be something special. We’ll definitely be everywhere. The competition is in terms of geography and coverage.
CT: So how is the expansion going to be like –piecemeal or ….?
Akwa: It would be everywhere at the same time. So all the major towns would be covered like Bo, Kenema, Makeni and so on… So we will try to roll out in all of the provinces at the same time.
CT: Now that we have the Local Content Policy in Sierra Leone, how do you intend to strike the balance between employing local staff and recruiting people with experience and expertise from abroad?
Akwa: This is always a bit of sensitive issue for all foreign companies making investment in other countries. The reason being that there has to be a skills level balance. Initially, when you come into the market you may not find very quickly the right level of expertise to be employed in your company and even if there was one, there still needs to be a period of transition, because there is always an issue of corporate culture… various companies operate in different ways around the world. When you come into any market, investors want to protect their money and those people that they bring with them at the very beginning have a common understanding with shareholders. Later that understanding is shared with the local experts. It takes time…
CT: How many different Services will you be providing to your customers?
Akwa: Anything the competition is providing we will be providing as well. For now, it is voice, SMS; we shall be offering data and other things soon.
CT: Is your Group registered on any stock exchange around the world?
Akwa: NO, we are not that big…
CT: So within the sub-region you are only in Sierra Leone?
CT: What are the challenges you have faced since you started operations?
Akwa: Competition is growing, competition is big and strong, and we are the underdog – that’s the main challenge. The second challenge is we’re a new comer; our learning curve is very steep. We still need to roll out our network service in the provinces. So our challenge is to do the job very quickly.
CT: What would be your last word to your customers, both new and old?
Akwa: For those who are already with us, I would like to say a big thank you for choosing Smart mobile, giving us a try; and hopefully, you can already see some benefits in using our network. I certainly hope you would stay with us, once we start providing services that would not be free. Going into the future, we would bring in more interesting products, anything and everything else any mobile company would do. Coming back to the point of transparency and integrity, customers have the right to know how much they are spending, and based on that they can make a decision whether our services are at par with what they pay for, since we are charging in Leones, and not ‘units’…
CT: Thank you very much Mr. Akwa for speaking to Concord Times
Akwa: Thank you