9mobile – Nigeria’s Telecom Company

We learn how 9mobile’s rebranding demonstrates its Nigerian roots and its commitment to making innovation a part of everyday life.

The number nine has a special significance in Nigeria. In texts or instant messaging, the figure “9”, or “9ja” is often used as a shorthand to signify Nigeria itself. So when Emerging Markets Telecommunication Services Ltd was looking to rebrand itself following a change in ownership, it seemed appropriate to make 9 part of the name.

“It’s deliberately done to resonate with the Nigerian people, showing that it’s a Nigerian brand, 100% owned by Nigerians,” says Alan Sinfield, 9mobile’s CEO.

9mobile is in many ways a new brand to the market. Its new identity stems from when it was acquired by its current shareholders at the end of 2018, after the exit of the original start-up company. Of course, the aftermath of a change of ownership is a busy time for any company, but in 9mobile’s case, the issue was exacerbated by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic- just as they were set to recruit a new CEO.

“It’s not often in the midst of a global pandemic a business hires a new CEO remotely,” Sinfield says. “I took my position at the beginning of June, so my first two months were spent managing the company remotely. Luckily, it’s a communications company so we were able to manage that! It’s quite funny having such in-depth discussions and team working sessions with such a large portion of the business and having never met in-person. It was a novel experience for me. Finally getting to shake someone’s hand once I’d arrived in Nigeria – that was unusual.”

Alan is a seasoned telecoms expert with extensive international and operational experience in the wireless telecom, fintech, and banking sectors spanning over 30 years, making him a perfect match for 9mobile.

“9mobile is an innovative company, seen as a challenger in the market with a good reputation as a data provider,” Sinfield tells us. “We take pride in setting ourselves apart through customer service and quality.”

Of course, while 9mobile is undergoing big changes, it also has to spread the word of those changes to its stakeholders.

“As a telecom company we face the challenge of getting across the message that things have changed,” Sinfield says. “We actively engage with our stakeholders so that they understand the new management, the new owners and that many things are now changing for the positive.”

From Blue Sky to Down-to-Earth

A lot of businesses talk about innovation, and the word is often accompanied by a string of vaguely defined buzz words, but for Sinfield, it’s critical that “innovation” always has a practical application.

“That stems from the digital revolution that is happening internationally, but I guess what we try to do is not talk in terms that don’t make sense. We talk about things that are relevant to people,” Sinfield explains. “Digitalisation is a rather hackneyed term these days so what we try to do is make our brand and the types of innovation we bring relevant to people’s lives by giving it real value, demystifying the technology in ways that are meaningful to people. These include elements such as payment solutions, short-term microfinancing around loans, things that provide value to people’s lives. Nigeria is a market like any other with different segments that have different needs.”

Beyond support through their products and services, 9mobile also attempts to go the extra mile.

“We position ourselves so that we’re seen as a supportive brand to the Nigerian market. We just launched a promotion specifically designed to give the economy a boost and in particular Nigerian people a boost following the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last three months, we’ve made a millionaire every day- in naira that is, but that’s still big money,” Sinfield tells us. “We’ve given two smartphones away every hour, 4,300 smartphones, and we’re doing a one-off super prize to create a 10 million naira-aire. We know COVID’s had an impact and we’re trying to respond to that.”

This has included a partnership with an international health organisation to do online screening and health check-ups for free to all 9mobile customers.

“There’s no charge to access that service. It’s not just relevant, but of use in their everyday lives,” Sinfield says.

A Critical Service

Other challenges facing any telecom company in Nigeria include those around the provision of infrastructure and services.

“We have a lot of fibre outages because the government is investing in road construction and some contractors cut through fibre, taking down parts of our network,” Sinfield admits. “The national grid here is also challenging and we’re reliant on diesel generators and other forms of back-up supply. We as an industry rely on a number of service providers giving us stable power which they often do not do very well.”

This can be a problem when customers, seeing their connection go down, place the blame with 9mobile rather than other entities interfering with the service.

“We speak with the regulator and various government bodies to make sure they understand the impact of what’s happening,” Sinfield says. “We’re fortunate that the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy understands that telecom infrastructure is critical national infrastructure and needs to be protected. Work has been done by him to designate us as Critical National Infrastructure, giving us more tools in our arsenal to deal with crises.”

As well as improving the service they provide, 9mobile has big plans for growth.

“We’re currently the fourth largest mobile operator in the market with 13 million customers,” Sinfield says. “It’s a large market, 200 million people, not fully penetrated by any means with only circa 45% mobile broadband data penetration. So there’s a lot of room for growth and we intend to capitalise on that to deliver innovation and value to our customers.”

Talking to Sinfield it’s clear he also believes Nigeria is fertile ground for the tech industry.

“People come with preconceptions about Nigeria- myths in many cases,” Sinfield says. “I came to Nigeria with an open mind but the most interesting thing for me was that the most impressive thing about Nigeria is the people here. The people are phenomenal, well educated, committed and passionate about what they do. The market here has been incredibly robust with fintech and tech start-ups. Like anywhere there’s room for improvement, but we’re looking to the future and we are very focused on how we invest in our incredible people.”

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