MTN Sudan – Unlocking Sudan’s Potential

Sudan is a country that has endured a great deal of hardship, but as MTN Sudan shows us, there is also a huge amount of potential here.

MTN Group Limited, formerly M-Cell, is a South African multinational mobile telecommunications company, operating in 21 African, European and Asian countries.

Malik K I Melamu is the CEO of the Middle East and North Africa region, and he counts MTN Sudan as one of its success stories.

“We’ve been here since 2006, building a GSM operation slowly but surely,” Melamu tells us. “I arrived here in 2016 when the company had been operating for ten years. This November we launched our celebration of 15 years in Sudan.”

MTN Sudan is the second operator in Sudan with a market share of 37% of the traditional communication and data sectors. The company has also evolved digital and fintech operations alongside an enterprise business unit offering communication solutions for large business operators. The company boasts a network deployment of around 2,400 sites across Sudan. However, Melamu insists that there is still more work to do.

“Sudan at the moment enjoys mobile penetration levels of approximately 74%, so one of the big challenges is to get as many people as possible to have access to the internet,” he says. “We’re providing data services through 2G but also 3G, and we have our 4G deployment growing really, really fast. The big challenge is obviously how to get more access to data to implement. We’re at about 35% and we hope to have 42% penetration next year.”

Stepping in to Help

MTN Sudan’s priorities aren’t confined to opening up internet access to as many people as possible, however.

“We’re self-governed and are known as an honest operator because we have a very tough risk management and compliance system,” Melamu points out. “It’s given us a good name in the country along with our strong corporate social responsibility offering.”

MTN’s CSR work has included an initiative the company funded to assist the prevention of unnecessary blindness.

“It requires only a very small surgical intervention,” Melamu says. “We’ve so far driven 143,000 such operations in Sudan.”

This is just one of MTN Sudan’s projects, however. The company has performed a pivotal role in flood relief and is helping to prop up the inadequate medical infrastructure in the country in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Melamu tells us, “Last week we launched a new initiative to set up telemedicine with our data network. So doctors in isolation can remotely assist doctors on-site in various hospitals. I’m very proud that we’re known as such a caring company.”

Bringing Data to Sudan

Another arena where MTN is making great progress is in building Sudan’s nascent fintech market.

“We are pioneers in Sudan, driving fintech. The MTN Group has a fintech operation in 16 of its 21 countries. Mobile money is a big driver, offering participation in the formal economy to the unbanked so they can make digital payments,” Melamu explains. “In Sudan, we’re at the cusp of a full-blown mobile money launch thanks to two-to-three years of pushing from MTN Sudan. That is an area we are very proud of.”

The perception in the market is that MTN Sudan offers the best data internet quality in the country, is a pioneer in driving internet quality, fintech and other mobile services, and has very rigorous compliance.

But working in Sudan also brings unique challenges with it.

“There are phenomenal challenges around the economy. Sudan is a country with hyperinflation,” Melamu says. “When I arrived in Sudan in 2016 the inflation rate was 17%, the following year the inflation rate was 35%, then 62%, and right now the inflation rate 119%, while in October the inflation rate was 212%. I arrived in the market with the Sudanese pound trading at eight or nine Sudanese pounds to the dollar. As I speak to you today there are 270 Sudanese pounds to the dollar.”

Sudan is in the top five countries in the world in terms of inflation rates, while at the same time it is in the bottom five in terms of data price per gigabyte. It’s a challenging position for a Sudanese data provider to be in.

“I’ve spent this time driving organic growth to keep the business afloat and behind all of those challenges we are still a self-funding operation,” Melamu says. “But the biggest challenge is that economic instability. Sudan faces sanctions, although it looks like they may be lifted to allow us to trade in the world economic space and access international donor funding. We have a transitional government, a combination of military and civilian, from different backgrounds, with different views, so getting decisions from the government during this transition is a challenge.”

While economically and politically Sudan may present challenges to businesses, Melamu is quick to point out that this is not the whole story.

“The business has grown phenomenally from an operational perspective. The potential in the country is massive,” he insists.

Melamu points to a combination of tariff reviews and a growing subscriber base that have allowed the company to grow its prepaid revenue from 2016 to the present by over 600%.

“Sudan is a market rich in potential,” Melamu says. “We run a very tight ship with a constant eye on the budget and macro-economics. We’ve managed to be self-funding. I won’t lie, I’m a very tired CEO, but I think the potential in the market is phenomenal.”

One area where Sundan offers a wealth of resources is in its human capital.

“I’ve now worked outside South Africa since 2005, in eight different African countries and I will say the basic skills in engineering and IT found in Sudan, the basic competencies are the best I’ve seen in any African country,” Melamu says. “There is a strong tradition of maths and science in schools, we churn out huge numbers of engineers and information technology specialists despite having been closed off from the world. We’re blessed with some of the best fundamental skills you’ll find.”

This is why, despite the challenges facing Sudan, Melamu is extremely optimistic about the country’s future.

“The future is outstanding. We still have a journey to get the internet into as many hands as possible. Last year we came up with a smartphone with a cost of $20, so it’s becoming more accessible,” Melamu says. “It’s very cheap by any standards but still out of reach of the majority of people when people are earning less than two dollars a day. In 2019 MTN launched the first African created messaging app Ayoba! which two days ago was voted app of the year in the Africa Digital Awards. It’s an app where you don’t necessarily have to be on a data bundle to use it, and so opens up access to a lot of customers here. Sudan has been a country that has been a pariah in the world because of sanctions and political challenges, but as a foreigner working on the inside, I think Sudan is just about to come alive. It’s just about to open up to the world. Over the coming years it will be a place offering a lot of growth, excitement, returns, surprises and creativity.”

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