MTN vs Airtel: The 2016 Scorecard with Winners and Losers!

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HiPipo Digital Team.

Irrespective of your perceptions, 2016 was a ‘roller coaster’ year.  Both its ups and downs, highs and lows have either been or are being well documented. Away from the election fever during the first quarter of the year, business was not rosy in 2016 with many struggling. Congratulations are in order for all those that did everything possible to ‘soldier’ throughout the year.

The telecommunication industry had a special year in her hands. The ‘young and promising’ telecoms worked hard to eat into the market share of the top two telecoms, plus pushing for absorption of customers of our sleeping giant – Uganda Telecom.

But while this was happening, both Airtel Uganda and MTN Uganda were embroiled in battles for market share, public perception and brand affinity supremacy. To achieve this, both MTN and Airtel rolled out several products and services, ran massive promotions and campaigns, and invested massively in Public Relations and Customer Service.

Airtel Uganda MD and Uganda Cranes Coach Micho (R) kick off the AFCON 2017 Uganda Cranes promotion.
Airtel Uganda MD Anwar Soussa (L) and Uganda Cranes Coach Micho (R) kick off the AFCON 2017 Uganda Cranes promotion.

At HiPipo, we closely and impartially followed all that happened in 2016. Here are the areas in which the telecommunication battles between MTN and Airtel were won and lost. In some cases, there were stalemates for both.

Mobile Financial Services: Both Airtel Uganda and MTN Uganda continued to improve their Airtel Money and MTN Mobile Money platforms respectively.

The MTN Mobile Money Service was slightly more stable throughout 2016 when compared to Airtel Money. MTN Mobile Money had fewer cases of mobile money downtimes and service unavailability in comparison to its archrival Airtel. Not that Airtel Money fared below par; it too did well but in all MTN Mobile Money was more stable, available and effective.

Away from the quality of service for Mobile Financial Service (MFS), the other critical area is MFS innovations. Mobile Money continues to positively impact Financial Inclusion world over.  It is now up to telecoms and banks to come up with MFS services that ensure that financial services are easily and effectively accessed by people, even at the deepest end of the world. Both Airtel and MTN continued to strengthen their MFS interconnections with Banks. While all this took place, there is one thing that happened and changed the MFS landscape. Yes, this one product/service made the difference in 2016.

MTN and CBA Bank launch MoKash- 9th, August, 2016.
MTN and CBA Bank launch MoKash- 9th, August, 2016.

In August, MTN Uganda and Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA) launched a convenient and innovative mobile financial service named MoKash; enabling MTN Mobile Money customers to operate mobile-powered savings accounts, earn reasonable interest on deposits and also access/borrow short term loans through the Mobile Money product portfolio. The product allows MTN Mobile Money subscribers to save between UGX 1 shillings to UGX 1.6 million, earn interests ranging from 2% to 5% on their savings and also get short terms loans of up to UGX. 1 million repayable within a month. By the close of 2016, MoKash had more than 1 million subscribers. Meanwhile, Airtel Uganda’s Savings and Loans product is also in the pipeline.  We wait for the red brigade to unveil it whenever they are ready.

And as the year ended, MTN Uganda launched another massive MFS innovation – Cross border mobile money; enabling MTN Mobile Money customers to send money to Kenya and Rwanda through the code *165*1#.

Final Verdict: In matters Mobile Financial Services, 2016 was an MTN Uganda year. The Yellow brigade took the day.

Data: Mobile Internet is another area were both MTN and Airtel seriously rocked horns in 2016. Uganda’s internet usage continues to grow each year with the latest statistics suggesting over 9 million active internet users in the pearl of Africa. As such, each of MTN and Airtel did several things to wow existing and new mobile internet users. There were several internet bundles rearrangements, slight, somewhat minor price reduction, more internet combo services plus massive Advertising and PR for Data.

First, both Airtel and MTN Uganda, continued to offer fair internet speeds; per our standards but slow for international benchmarking. Secondly, MTN Uganda Data purchasing platform was more stable when compared to Airtel Data purchasing platform. Thirdly, Airtel Data Bundles were perceived to have stayed longer than MTN bundles; That is to say, many customers argued that for example Airtel’s 100mbs lasted longer than MTN’s 100mbs. But again, there are no scientific facts to prove it. Whenever Bundles were depleted faster, the telecoms’ customer support teams advised customers that such occurrences were a result of background APPs, and so many activities eating up the bundles. In all, basing on public Social Media re-actions and interactions with daily internet users, both MTN and Airtel Data services were more or less the same in 2016.

Final Verdict: In matters Data, 2016 was a tie for Airtel and MTN Uganda. Each must work harder in 2017.

Voice: Voice and SMS have been the traditional services offered by telecoms. Even though Voice revenues continue to sink thanks to growing usage of alternative services such as internet supported communications, it remains a core service for telecoms. As such, it remains, popular and extremely relevant.

For 2016, Airtel Uganda and MTN Uganda had a good Voice year for customers. Calls costs were significantly down and there was rapid growth in usage of bundled voice services. Actually, the latter are the new way of doing business with many people preferring voice bundles over the traditional call costs. From observations both online and offline, the voice quality of service from both was largely acceptable. We now wait for Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) to publish the yearly Quality of Service report clearly indicating how each telecom performed.  But as that comes through, it is in order to send a thank you message to Airtel and MTN for the good voice services in 2016.

Final Verdict: For matters Voice, it was a draw for MTN Uganda and Airtel Uganda.

Sponsorships: This is one area that is very critical for both MTN and Airtel Uganda as it strongly shapes public perception and brand affinity.

Throughout 2016, Airtel Uganda did a great job sponsoring and supporting several Sports and Music activities in Uganda. We mean; the well-documented Eddy Kenzo brand ambassadorship, Airtel Rising Stars, Regional Football and taking over of Buganda Masaza Cup on a three years contract.

On the other hand, MTN exhibited a halfhearted approach to its sponsorships. Minus the 2016 MTN Marathon which is actually an MTN property, her other sponsorships were very lacking. MTN Uganda jumped out of the Simba FM Kiggunda Kyo’Mwaka, peripheral involvement in 2016 Masaza Cup and many others. To say the least, MTN Uganda’s sponsorship strategy must be overhauled.

Cranes12

And while this was happening at MTN Uganda, Airtel Uganda was part of a historical achievement. In 2016, the Airtel sponsored Uganda Cranes qualified for Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2017 to be held in Gabon starting January 2015. You can say that Airtel were just lucky or that MTN should have held onto the Uganda Cranes sponsorship a little longer (MTN had sponsored Uganda Cranes until 2014) but one thing is very clear; Uganda Cranes qualified for AFCON 2017 after a 38 years absence, at a time when Airtel were their sponsors and in so doing, Airtel had hatched an Egg laid by MTN! Both timing and good luck were on Airtel’s side and their risk has paid off!

Final Verdict: Talking Sponsorships, 2016 had one clear winner. That winner was Airtel.

Uganda Cranes' Airtel cheerleaders entertain the audience before the Comoros match at Namboole.
Uganda Cranes’ Airtel cheerleaders entertain the audience before the Comoros match at Namboole.

Promotions and Activations; Closely related to Sponsorships, Promotions and Activations give brands legs and ensure that the public is well aware of what is happening with the brand. This is another area were Airtel performed very well when compared to MTN Uganda in 2016. Airtel gaveaway Cars, Land titles, Air Tickets to AFCON, Cash and several other goodies.  On the other hand, MTN also gave away some good stuff including Mobile Money Kiosks plus Mobile Money capital in 2016.

For promotions and activations, the magic is not only in how much you have given out but also in how you have communicated. Airtel seems to have mastered the art of advertising and publicity. They made sure that their promotions and activations in 2016 were aired across media. On the other hand, advertising and awareness for MTN promotions and activations was too low. As such public perception is that Airtel took the day.

Final Verdict: The clear winner was Airtel again.

Supporting of Local Innovations: This is an area that suffered a huge blow in 2016 as it never got the deserved attention and support. The future of telecoms is in innovations. As such, all telecoms must deliberately support local innovations. When will Uganda ever have her Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page if the telecommunication companies are not involved? Minus, the enabling services offered, telecoms and other tech companies but for this article MTN and Airtel must purposefully push our innovators.

Here is the reason/s for our livid feeling.

In 2015, MTN Uganda launched what was named the Innovation Lab. The MTN Innovation Lab included several projects such as MTN Juniors Robotics Camp, MTN Apps Challenge and MTN Innovation Awards among others. MTN Junior Robotics Camp was for guiding kids’ as they kick started their innovation journey. MTN APPs Challenge was for mentoring and supporting Youths that are developing APPs with potential of changing the World. The MTN Innovation Awards were held to reward the best Innovators in Uganda. All these were hosted in 2015 and received massive applause from within and outside MTN Uganda. The public expected that 2016 was to be an even bigger year for Ugandan innovations as MTN had promised to go bigger on such projects. But guess what; none of these happened in 2016.  Whatever happened to these well thought and impactful projects stayed a mystery!

Minus partnering with a few projects here and there, little was heard of from Airtel for matters Local Innovation support.

Final Verdict: Both Airtel and MTN Uganda lost. Hope they can change this in 2017.

Website and Social Media: We are in the new digital World. The website is the first point of reference for credible and updated information. In this case, both Airtel and MTN have websites. Airtel Uganda’s website is an extension of the Airtel group website while MTN Uganda in 2015 launched a new SharePoint website linked to its group website.  Airtel Uganda website is rich in visuals while MTN Uganda website is easy to navigate.

Both MTN Uganda and Airtel continued to use Social Media in 2016 for mainly Customer Service, Official Communications and Marketing.  Each tried to adopt the latest social media innovations including Facebook live videos, twibbons for Facebook and Twitter, Instagram for Events, Whatsapp customer service and live streaming among others. Importantly social media excitement goodies from both Telecos reduced to the displeasure of their diehard online followers!

At the end, MTN Uganda maintained her fan base lead.

Final Verdict: Holistically, both did well. To those that love numbers, MTN retained leadership and took the day.

CEO/Managing Directors: The CEO/Managing Director of every company is an important factor for its success or failure. The chief executive officer is at the center of all that the company does; he/she takes the major decisions, offers leadership and guidance plus planning for the future of the whole company. In 2016, both Airtel Uganda and MTN Uganda changed their managing directors.

New Airtel Uganda MD Anwar Soussa (L) shakes hands with the former Airtel Uganda MD Tom Gutjahr (R) in 2016.
New Airtel Uganda MD Anwar Soussa (L) shakes hands with the former Airtel Uganda MD Tom Gutjahr (R) in 2016.

At the start of May, Bharti Airtel announced the appointment of Anwar Soussa as the Airtel Uganda Managing Director, replacing Tom Gutjahr – who had been the Airtel Uganda boss since August 2014. Anwar Soussa started working on June 1st 2016.

New MTN Uganda CEO Wim Vanhelleputte.
New MTN Uganda CEO Wim Vanhelleputte.

One month later, MTN Uganda also had a new CEO. At the start of July, Wim Vanhelleputte officially started his job as the new chief executive officer for MTN Uganda, replacing Brian Gouldie who had been at the helm of Uganda’s biggest telecom for two years, since July 1st 2014.

Anwar Soussa has now been Airtel Uganda managing director for six months while Wim Vanhelleputte has completed five months as MTN Uganda CEO. They both need time to implement their leadership and management strategies.

Final Verdict: Any conclusion will be premature. Let us give them time.

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And yes, that is how 2016 unfolded for both MTN Uganda and Airtel Uganda. The scorecard is objectively clear as based on Social Media data, information off MTN and Airtel website, Media reports and interactions with customers.

Again, from the HiPipo Digital Team; Happy New Year!

Content Director: Nicholas Kalungi

CEO: Innocent Kawooya.