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Wim Vanhelleputte bows out after 6-year stint at MTN Uganda

Telecom giant, MTN Uganda, has let go of its long serving Chief Executive Officer, Wim Vanhelleputte, setting the pace for the first top leadership transition since the telecom was listed on the Uganda Securities Exchange.

Kampala, Uganda | ISAAC KHISA | Vanhelleputte, who has overseen the growth of the telecom company both in terms of subscriber numbers and revenue, will now head the West and Central African markets of Liberia, Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, and Congo-Brazzaville within the MTN Group.

Sylvia Mulinge, who has been Safaricom’s Chief Consumer Business Officer having  occupied various senior roles over the years in the Kenya’s telecom company, including head of retail, head of sales, and director of consumer business, will become the next chief executive  officer.

Vanhelleputte was happy to spend many years as the head of MTN Uganda.

“The average duration for CEO at MTN Uganda has been three years. I have had an honor to have six years,” he told journalists in an exit interview on July 27.

“I have a personal connection with Uganda and so working in my home country for all this time, I really thank the Board of Directors for having given me that opportunity.”

Vanhelleputte, who is married to Ugandan, had been in the country for a couple of years prior to assuming the chief executive officer role in 2016.

But it is during his tenure that MTN Uganda recorded tremendous growth, with the subscriber numbers surging from merely 8.5million to 16million. It also doubled the network towers to 3000 sites countrywide to boost service delivery to the customers. Similarly, revenue grew by 75% during the same period under review.

“I know that customers sometimes don’t feel that but it shows how more we are using the services because most of these extra towers were actually built in town,” he said.

“So, we already had a signal but because of the doubled number of people using that same tower, we had to intensify our network. A lot of those sites or towers actually go to the location where we already have. We’re therefore limited with the number of people we can serve with one tower.”

He said each tower has a limited number of customers it can accommodate and thus any increase in their numbers at any particular location has always forced the telecom company to set up new towers within a range of 300 minutes within the same locality.

However, he said the company needs at add at least 400-500 towers to ensure that the network is accessible across Uganda and fulfil the new licensing framework.

Currently, the company is investing more than US$300million to not only meet the conditions including achieving a 90% geographical coverage within five years as per the operating license but also grow the business.

“We intend to cover the entire Uganda in the next two-three years. It is an obligation but also a business opportunity,” he said.

Vanhelleputte said the company has become more efficient, signaling more returns to the investors and re-investment.

He said the telecom sector is about making profits so that it can be re-invested in building more network lest the company stops growing.

MTN Uganda started operations in 1998, with MTN Group and businessman Charles Mbire as a shareholder. And it is Vanhelleputte who steered MTN Uganda through its initial public offering last year.

“The listing of MTN Uganda was my biggest moment because the whole process of renewing license started in March 2018 and the listing was like we have concluded that process,” he said.

Worst moment

However, not all has been plum at the helm.  Vanhelleputte, then-General Manager for sales and Distribution, Annie Tabura, and Chief Marketing Officer, Olivier Prentout, were in February 2019 deported with the Uganda government accusing the trio of claims of alleged gross crime including threatening national security.

But with the exception of Tabura and Prenteout, Vanhelleputte, was allowed back into the country and continue as chief executive a few months later.

Vanhelleputte said, MTN Uganda still has many challenges. “We will need to cover the entire country where there is no network and that requires investment.  We need to invest in fibre and 5G,” he said.

He added: “There are still a lot of investment that we need to satisfy customer demands in terms of data and also meet the obligations of the regulators. A company that is not profitable is a company that cannot invest… So, we make health profits but most of the profits go back to invest and customers will complain about quality”

He further said: “We have seen many companies coming and going in the market. They come, launch, sell below cost, make losses, close shop and ran away. What have they added in terms of industry development? For us, it is sustainability and sustainable growth will drive further investment.”

Market analysis

Whereas the east African nation has two big players – MTN and Airtel –  and another government owned firm, Uganda telecom, Vanhelleputte said there’s always space and it is always prudent to have a third player. He said a market with only two players is very unhealthy.

“We need at least a third operator to keep the other two operators honest with each other and the market,” he said. “There has to be a healthy level of competition and you get that when you are at least three operators. Now when you go to four, five, six, then, you can question whether that is viable.”

Vanhelleputte said, the cost of internet is still expensive as the low usage occasioned with the low penetration internet-supported devices.

“The biggest hurdle of further driving down the costs of data on your phone is that there are still not enough data users. I have put five optic cables in the ground, and I am using five per cent of the capacity of the cable yet the cost of running that service is the same.  So, the only way to get the cost of data down is to get more data usage and users,” he said.

“Besides data users, the other challenge is the cost of smart phones. There are countries that have taken bold steps of removing all taxes on smartphones to drive uptake and drive the cost of internet downwards.  Currently, only 35% of customers here are using smartphones. If we could get 70% of our customers using smartphones, we could exponentially grow data usage and the data costs will drastically fall.

Vanhelleputte said, while voice is recording a decline in revenue worldwide, the next growth opportunity is data and mobile money.

He said MTN Uganda is currently over performing in mobile money but under performing in data.

He, however, said the future of mobile money is in the mobile payments.
“Digitalising payment will unlock the potential of mobile money,” he said, adding that the incoming chief executive will need to focus on deepening digital payments, increasing spectrum and data usage.

Missing Uganda

Vanhelleputte, meanwhile, said he will miss having fruits as his favourite food and touching base with his friends and customers but he is glad that he will always fly back to Uganda as home to check on his family.

“My home was Uganda before I Joined MTN and it will remain. So, I don’t have to shed tears of leaving because I am not leaving the country. I am simply changing jobs…I will always be in and out of this country on a regular basis,” he said.

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