Will VG Somasekhar restore Airtel Uganda’s past glory?

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By Moses Kaketo
During his tenure [ December 2010 to February 2014] V.G Somasekhar managed to see Airtel Uganda grow and grow. By time he left, it was a matter of time before Airtel would take over MTN Uganda as market leader. He left behind a team focused at a common goal – to overtake Orange Uganda [ now Africell Uganda] and MTN Uganda as the number One data service provider and Voice and Mobile Money service provider respectively.

Unfortunately, instead of building on what he had setup, his successors- Tom Gutjar and Anwar Soussa did the opposite. As he enters the very office he occupied three years ago on 1st September 2017, he might have to start from almost zero on nearly all aspects. The question analysts and industry experts are asking is whether he can restore Airtel Uganda to its former glory- Yes and No. read on.

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The first challenge for Mr. Somasekhar is to halt the massive customer exodus that has seen Airtel market share drop from 43 percent a year ago to 41 percent currently. While MTN Uganda has jumped to 53 percent.
He will have to sell Airtel Uganda more than before to regain the lost glory. However, some of the people who helped Airtel to success, have since crossed to rival MTN Uganda. They know all the games Airtel plays.
It should also be noted that MTN Uganda current MD Wim Vanhelleputte worked with Airtel [ 2015 50 2016] as a strategic business unit comprising of Gabon, Congo, B.Burkina Faso, Niger, Madagascar and the Seychelles. Taken together, the team at MTN Uganda knows Airtel Uganda inside-out.
It’s not a surprise, when he landed in Kampala, he quickly poached four key and experienced Airtel Uganda marketing staff. These have since implemented much, if not all Airtel’s strategies. For example, today MTN Uganda has a package [ MTN Paka Paka] similar to Pakalast- the once selling point for Airtel.

Amid falling numbers, the new MD will have to fight for gross adds – the number of new subscribers, minus the number of customers that drop the service. Airtel which used to have about 300,000 new customers every month, today, Airtel registers only 70,000 a month.
Mr. Somakhar therefore has to undertake an aggressive marketing strategy to boost gross adds. Unlike in the past, today we are talking about quality gross adds. In the past, sim cards were sold anywhere to anyone. The vendors could find you even in your garden or bedroom. Today sim cards can only be sold in a gazetted and authorized place, as per UCC and Police regulation. This has slowed down on the gross adds. Thus, by the time someone buys a sim card, he really needs it.
But before, he improves on the gross adds, Mr. Somakhar has to first halt the fast falling subscriber numbers. To use medical term, he has to fight ensure that the patient [Airtel Uganda] is out of Intensive Care, ensures that she stabilizes before he embarks on any other task. It is that tough.

amidst all this, is the looming UCC sim card registration of 31st August 2017. Airtel is expected to loss more subscribers when UCC finally switches off unregistered and unverified sim cards. Analyst say, the company may regain only 30% of those switched off. We have reasons discussed the reasons in our other past articles.
It is this fear that forced Airtel group to recall Somakhar, a much more devil whose regime almost saw Airtel overtake market leaders MTN Uganda. However, Airtel Uganda seat seems to be hotter than he left it. We take a closer look.
A demotivated team
Sources at Airtel say when Mr. Somakhar left Airtel three years ago, he left behind a highly motivated and empowered workforce. He had identified, poached talented and experienced staff from struggling UTL and other teleco’s.

unfortunately, sources say, his successors did not provide a ‘conducive environment’ which saw many of the staff he recruited leaving shortly after his exit. They have since turned the guns against their former employer- Airtel Uganda. Taken together, Somakhar has to build a new team or can he afford to recall the staff back home? a tough one. Else he can work with what is available and fine tune it as he looks around for the best. Does he have time to do this? otherwise Airtel group team is waiting for him with their axe.
New rules of the game
When Mr. Somakhar left three years ago, the Ugandan telecom market was more ‘free’. Fast forward, the rules of the game have changed- NIRA, UCC and Police is strict on acquisitions. Sim cards can only be sold in authorised places. He may need to seek special permission to vend sim cards which could apply to all players.

Economy in shambles?
When Mr. Somakhar left three years ago, the Ugandan economy was better. today the purchasing power has declined sharply. It is now about survival. a Ugandan who used to spend say Ugx. 100,000 monthly on Airtime, has since reduced to say Ugx. 50,000. Whatever, Mr. Somakhar plans to do, he has to consider this as well.
Airtel Money
Despite bringing a sizeable revenue into the company confers, Airtel Uganda seem to have ignored the product. Airtel Money nolonger have a structure. last year, Airtel Money department was dissolved/ closed. The staff were either absorbed in other departments or sacked.
Otherwise, since Somakhar left, his successors did not appreciate Airtel Money. for example Airtel Uganda outgoing MD Mr. Answar, had never interfaced with Mobile Money anywhere, so is the Chief Commercial officer.

Taken together, Airtel Uganda senior management did not appreciate the value of mobile money despite the fact that it had reached US $ 150,000 a day. This is the department that was dissolved or ignored.
The new MD has a task before him to rebuild a new mobile money department. besides bringing in a huge chunk of revenue, mobile money is a retention tool for any telecom. if Somakhar does not do something urgently, mobile money maybe become an orphan before it declines and falls.

More changes at Airtel expected
In an attempt to turn around Airtel Uganda, Mr. Somakhar will have to identity, recruit [ sack] and set up a winning team. The new MD is expected to fire the current Airtel CFO, Marketing director and perhaps the sales and marketing director. besides MD, the three positions are responsible to growth or collapse of telecom company. Now that they have failed to do their work, they will be lucky to keep their jobs till December 2017.

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READ: Why Airtel Uganda MD, Anwar Soussa was sacked after one year in office

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