Group Executive Vice President & Chief Technology Officer of Netcom Africa, Yen Choi, speaks of the evolution of Nigerian IT space this past 15 years, the impact Netcom Africa has made in the IT ecosystem and the regulatory challenges in the country. In his office, Yen shares with Anthony Nwosu how IT firms can be profitable in an ever changing and competitive market.
NETCOM Africa has been doing business in Nigeria this past 15 years, what has changed in NETCOM?
Well! A lot has changed from how we started in Nigeria’s information technology (IT) space. It was 2004 that Netcom Africa was established and we started with VSAT services, ours was one of the most innovative then, we came to the market with a different mind-set. We came with 1.2 meter antenna whereas others have antennas that are as large as 2.4 meters. When we came to the market with the 1.2 meter antenna which was smaller and also revolutionary in the Nigerian IT market, it was also cheaper and more efficient than what was available then in the market. We grew in this space rapidly and our subscriber base increased.One of our ways of working was innovating. We constantly tried to innovate and that is what IT firms must understand: innovation is the key in this industry. We were one of the first companies to connect to the SAT 3 cable system; an undersea cable that connects Europe to Nigeria. The benefit was that the capacity was large. This reduced the cost of internet and also latency.We were the first to offer SAT 3 services outside of Nigeria Telecommunications (NITEL) of then which was a national carrier. We tried to pre-empt the fact that the country wouldn’t only be dependent on satellite services. Very shortly, we launched one of the first mobile broadband platforms, it was a device that is the size of an average mobile phone – a PCMCIA card that can be inserted into the laptop. This device made customers to have access to SAT 3 bandwidth anywhere in Lagos. We called it “MyNetcom.” At that time, the competition was the fixed wireless and our solution was faster than the competitors who were offering to subscribers then about 100 kilobits per second.When we came into the market, we changed the conversation and we started offering services over 10,000 kilobits kB per second as of then.
“I think that there should be one stop agencies for telecom companies to go to not having to contend with a whole lot of agencies.The Nigeria Communication Commission is our regulator and one of the most progressive in the world. I know that they can intervene here.”
What certification and recognition have you had in all these years?
We began to roll out fiber across the city. We focused exclusively on business customers, and we started connecting them to the internet using fiber and microwave. These are high speed connections. Upon enjoying extremely reliable and high speed connections, these customers not only wanted the internet connection but they also wanted us to manage their IT operations. We achieved ISO 9000 standardization among others. These are demonstration of our quality of service. We are the first and probably the only telecommunication company in Africa that has TL 9000 certification. This is a big milestone for us. We are regularly awarded industry recognition awards in our field, we have all our clients and partners to thank for this.
How can you describe NETCOM Africa?
We are a technology-transformational company. We use technology to help businesses to be more productive, more profitable and more efficient. We don’t see ourselves as selling only a product or services, but we see ourselves as critical business-delivering solutions: Solutions that would aid companies to solve important business problems and help businesses take better decisions. For example, we help companies implement ERP software, and business process solutions. We plan, implement, operate the systems for our customers.We also provide the networks, systems, hardware and training around these solutions to glue them together in an efficient way. We try to make companies have efficient workplaces using systems such as time attendance system where business owners can monitor the staff any place in the world.We also make running businesses easier through our deployment of Netcom Virtual PBX, a system where you can pick up your office extension anywhere in the world. Also, companies now understand the importance of business continuity and disaster recovery, for this we provide online continuous cloud real time backup. This gives them business continuity; with this, the company doesn’t need to worry about their data being hacked,thus giving them business continuity.
Nigerian IT market is very competitive. What are the things that have made your firm successful these past 15 years?
It is simple: it is our commitment to quality service and honesty. These are deliberate processes we put in place; we have a well defined structures and procedures.This is a policy in Netcom Africa. We ensure that what we deliver is the same thing every time. In addition, we are continually improving our systems and processes to be more efficient. We are very open, we try to communicate and inform our customers in a very honest way. We don’t give customers false expectations, we try to be honest to our customers. We have retained clients for over 15 years and hope to for many more years.Our clients see us as a one stop shop and their trusted advisors. This has been proven because we are included in key strategic decision making for our clients.
The smart building is becoming popular with tenants demanding more; tell us about your smart building?
We call it e-Space. In today’s world, buildings are going smart and tenants are becoming more sophisticated by demanding that buildings are connected with fiber optic cables, biometrics, VPN, access controls and security cameras, this is why we came up with the e-space. We call ourselves the preferred service provider; we give tenants the flexibility to choose. We have a lot of partnerships globally for different solutions. We position ourselves to our clients as the trusted adviser. We work with a host of solutions providers and integrate it to suit the need of our clients. We try as much as possible to understand our clients and offer the best solutions. Netcom’s Smart Building Solutions connect manage, and automate your building IT infrastructure. Downtime from IT infrastructure can lead to a huge loss in productivity and in turn affect the revenues. Global companies can lose precious time and money due to inefficient management of the IT infrastructure.
The Nigerian IT industry has evolved, how can you gauge the Nigerian IT industry?
The IT industry in Nigeria has greatly developed. Previously, IT firms were doing “Box Shipping”, back then companies were selling software to clients and then “off they go”. The issue of support was on the downside as of then; but as of today, that has improved. The Nigerian market has evolved and companies today are demanding high quality after support.Today, we have IT outsourcing services where businesses outsource their IT needs to competent service provider. That is how matured the IT market is. In NETCOM, we have excellent support and we don’t believe in selling only products, we ensure that it is coupled with robust support.
“Look at the average driver in Lagos today, he has a lot to contend with, such as the FRSC, LATSMA, VIO and the Police. Why would a driver of a car be queried by many agencies for the same document.This is exactly what we get in the telecoms industry.”
As a stakeholder in the industry, do you think that the IT regulation is in line with the global best practices?
Earlier today, I was at the Nigerian Internet Governance Forum, I was speaking on the panel and it made me think about the regulatory processes and how cumbersome it can be. Take a look at the average driver in Lagos today, he has a lot to contend with, such as the FRSC, LATSMA, VIO and the Police. Why would a driver of a car be queried by many agencies for the same document. This is exactly what we get in the telecoms industry. Imagine if you want to lay fiber in a place like Lagos, you have a lot of agencies to contend with; such as ministries of environment, local government, state government, get clearance from FAAN, etc. If we have a one stop shop, it would be nice. I think that there should be one stop agencies for telecom companies to go to not having to contend with a whole lot of agencies.The Nigeria Communication Commission is our regulator and one of the most progressive in the world. I know that they can intervene here. They should consolidate information on regulations from multiple regulators and let us know how to go about this because for many telecom firms, especially those that are into infrastructure, this would help ease of doing business, reduce confusion and multiple taxation.
In Nigeria today, the word “outsourcing” is becoming common with a lot of companies looking at this. As an IT outsourcing firm, do you think that it is the best?
Outsourcing has been practiced for a long time for most companies, but the onset of the Internet has allowed it to bloom and become bigger as the years go by. If you want to have the advantage when it comes to your business, we recommend finding the right outsourcing company who can provide you with extra help tailored for you. When you work with an independent outsourcing firm that understands your business, you do not need to hire an individual expert as your staff, instead, you can outsource those functions and business objectives and have access to a larger team with much more experience than a single person. Our clients are from many different non-IT industries and have realized that they want to leave the IT management to a competent firm such as Netcom and focus on their core competencies.
Sourcing competent skill-sets and staff has always been the challenge of most organizations. For this past 15 years, how have you been able to bridge this gap in your organization?
We strongly believe in capacity building. The reason why NETCOM Africa works is because of our staff. We have been in operation for over 15 years, but we have over 20% of our staff retained for more than 10 years. We understand the importance of capacity and our staff is the key. We do not take training lightly, we train and retrain our staff. We try as much as possible to carry our staff along and we try to provide a fantastic work-environment and a lot of learning. We place the highest priority on staff because they are the ambassadors of NETCOM Africa. This has made our staff to give us their best in terms of service and loyalty. Our team includes IT professionals from all areas of expertise. We have a dedicated and passionate team that does a fantastic job. Our work culture and environment is one of the best that are available, and we see this often with staff that have left us to join other organizations and within a year they return back to Netcom.