When MTN Eswatini switched on its cellular network and connected Emaswati to a new mode of communication it was a revolution that, in the 20 years since, has irrevocably changed the way we live.
Even though experts had predicted that the business would never succeed, the government had decided that it was necessary as a means of attracting investment and to keep Eswatini at par with world trends at the time. Never was the impact and success of a business project so underestimated as that of Eswatini MTN.
Cellphone communication was a wonderful development and the last major investment to come to our shores. The Kingdom of Eswatini was the last country in the SADC region to switch on to the cellphone network.
In 1998, the Minister responsible, Musa Nkambule then Minister for Tourism, Communication and Environment, as it then was, noted this unfortunate truth with regret and embarrassment and stated that government was doing everything it could to have cellphones ringing before the year was out.
Indeed, the excitement in the run up to the launch of the network was palpable.
However, there was a perception that a cellphone network would not make money for any investor in the country.
In his book, “Inspiration: The Person Journey Of A Prime Minister of Swaziland”, Dr Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini, who had been in office for two years when the network was launched writes: “What was quite extraordinary about the arrival of the cellphone was that a consultant, hired to draw up future user projections, estimated that the maximum number of future users would be 5 000 and that a monopoly was justified
That was in 1998, yet by 2001 alone the number of users had increased to 55 000 and by 2016 was over 500 000. That consultant’s projection might qualify for an entry in the Guinness Book of (World) Records as the most inaccurate statistical projection of all time!”
Credit has to be given to Swazi MTN, on how it approached its market under such dire predictions by experts.
At its launch, Eswatini MTN appointed Noel Meier as its Chief Executive Officer. He hit the ground running, determined to find traction in the market for cellular phones and use the monopoly they had been given to its fullest.
During those early days, CEO Meier said he wanted to paint Eswatini yellow, with MTN’s colours. This bold initiative forced marketing executives in other areas of corporate Eswatini, particularly the banking sector, to go back to the drawing board and re-learn their functions.
t has often been said that when Swaziland Empowerment Limited (SEL) was launched, offering 19% of Eswatini MTN shares to the ordinary Joe Public through the Swaziland Stock Exchange (SSX), there was little public interest in investing there.
There are two reasons that could explain the slow public response, none of which have to do with a lack of interest. The first is that trading in the stock market was an unknown phenomenon to the ordinary citizen. It is still an unknown even today. Second, because the economy of Eswatini is so small, people did not then have the kind of cash at hand to trade in the stock market. Trading in the stock market, while an ideal way of empowering citizens, tends to be elitist because of high share prices.
When the announcement was made in 1997 that an empowerment scheme would take a stake in the network to avail shares to ordinary citizens in the cellular phone provider, some organisations in the country came together to form blocks that would buy those shares.
Even though projections were poor on the success of the business, it was public knowledge then that Eswatini MTN would be capitalized ata mouthwatering sum of E120 million and many individuals and groups wanted a cut of the action.
However, at a critical stakeholder meeting held at the George Hotel in Manzini on July 8 1998, these groups were told that the laws of the country did not allow for block buying and that shares were only available to individual investors.
In his book, the prime minister says the public eventually only took 5% of the shares and a balance of 14% was taken up by the Public Service Pension Fund (PSPF).
But as the PSPF has benefitted enormously from the investment the gains will at least filter down to the pensioners of the public service,” he writes.
One thing was clear though about the SEL shares; they were specifically earmarked for emaSwati and no foreigners would be allowed to buy them.
MTN’s bid to take over the market and turn the country yellow manifested itself long before cellphones started ringing in the country. As early as July 1998, soon after it had won the bid, but before the licence to operate had been issued, the company was already showing a keen interest in pouring money into football.
MTN remains unmatched in its Corporate Social Investment (CSI). Every year from 1 – 21 June MTN driven the 21 Days of Y’ello Care, where it goes around the country using time and money to improve the content of education and the structures where education is offered.
Perhaps most significantly is that in the past 20 years, one of the most unstated achievements of Eswatini MTN is that it has given many emaSwati opportunities at entrepreneurship through outsourcing of its products and services.
Many a good Swazi is now in economically independent than he or she would ever have been had it not come in and painted the country yellow in 1998.
The company has, in every sense, transformed the lives of emaSwati forever.