Driving the ship into the ICT future

PowerCom is an ICT infrastructure company, which was on the verge of closing down but has gone through various business models from being a mobile operator to ICT infrastructure. Our reporter TIMO SHIHEPO (TS) talked to PowerCom CEO, ALISA AMUPOLO (AA) about the company.   

TS: Thank you for agreeing to talk to us. But before we go into more details, please tell us how have you been managing in steering this big ship called PowerCom? 

AA: No. Thank you for talking to us. We are trying to speak to as many stakeholders as possible because we have been quite invisible for a long time. It’s quite a mammoth task but it’s quite an exciting journey. I am now driving the ship into the future where we look at consolidating all towers infrastructure into our portfolio so that the market can then just have one stop solutions for infrastructure needs. I like to get my hands around business ends and I am very hands on and you can only be successful if you are involved in the business from top to bottom.

TS: Tell us more about PowerCom and what is your main role as the CEO of the company?

AA: In 2007, PowerCom was first incepted in the Namibian market. It was operating under the business object of mobile service provider. It was trading as Cell One, fast forward to 2008/09, a new shareholder entered the market as Orascom and rebranded as Leo. Meanwhile, the company’s name has always been trading as PowerCom except it has been trading under its end products. Then around 2102/13 PowerCom was taken over by Telecom Namibia. Leo then became TN Mobile and was fully integrated into Telecom Namibia’s operations. There was a question of what do we do with this beautiful company? We came up with an idea that we must move from being a mobile service provider to ICT infrastructure and equipment provider. To date since 2013, that has been our key business model. It has been quite a transformation. The company changed hands quite a lot of times but where we are now, we are an ICT infrastructure company. We hold an asset portfolio of 300 towers. We are also managing 29 rooftops. My role as a CEO is to drive and implement the strategy of PowerCom over a five year period. The other is to engage key stakeholders and that includes our land owners where our towers are erected because we need to maintain a holistic and harmonious relationship as without them we don’t have business. Other stakeholders are our clients and mostly importantly, our employees. It’s part of my responsibility to develop and boost a very dynamic work force.

TS: PowerCom has shifted its core business as a mobile operator to ICT and infrastructure provider. Can you tell us what services the company provides and to who?

AA: One of my key 100 days in the office was to really exit the legacy because when you were operating as one thing and now differently there is always going to be an intricate process. Clients and land owners need to move over into new agreements and with employees it becomes a new model for them too. We are still currently transforming ourselves. Some of our strategic intent in the next five years is really to delve into the tower model and currently we are still associated with an operator call model in our day to day dealings. It’s a huge challenge. It does requires cultural change because in Namibia we have never had an ICT infrastructure company before. We are the first and it’s a learning curve. It has never happened here and it’s quite new in southern Africa but we are learning a lot and leaning on global benchmark and alignment.

TS: Before you transformed into an ICT infrastructure, how did the industry survive without an ICT infrastructure company?

AA: Most of the companies deployed their own infrastructure. Telecom Namibia, where we bought most of our towers at a time of transformation, had their own infrastructure. Things were working differently. We are the first and only one in the market whose model is purely dedicated to multiple tenants and in core locations of multiple parties. Hence our infrastructure are being redesigned to accommodate more tenants.

TS: How critical is your services to the Namibian ICT sector and the country in general?

AA: We are really the enabler. We are the backbone of this industry. This industry thrives on infrastructure availability hence with every new entrant in the market that we welcome like the likes of MTN, the first arrival point is PowerCom and here you have beneficence, affordability and you don’t need to deploy new infrastructure, which needs quite a protracted process starting from environmental clearance, which may take you another six months to two years. With us we offer you already available infrastructure.

TS: PowerCom has been granted a network facility service provider licence by the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia. Please take us through, what does this mean?

AA: We are really excited, upbeat and privileged to be granted this licence by CRAN. It was quite an intensive exercise that we had to embark on. What this licence means now is that we are on par with other class licence holders and that comes with the degree of responsibility and quality expectations. Now it’s almost an obligation to have to deliver and on board our clients within 30 days. This makes us competitive. But it also means that we will be contributing to the economy. We now pay a licence fee annually and we also have an amount that we pay to CRAN, monthly. This also means that we got to work in a global standard set up because CRAN is a member of International Telecommunications Union. For our clients it’s a confidence booster simply because now if we are overcharging them or they not happy with our services they can object the tariffs through CRAN.

TS:  Does this mean that you are regulated by CRAN too?

AA: Yes, absolutely we are 100% regulated by CRAN. We welcome this move because when you are regulated you have a better chance to upscale yourself and be on top of your game. We are very excited to be regulated because this will keep us on our toes.

TS: Your team has been making countrywide visits, with the recent tour to northern Namibia to engage stakeholders. Who are these stakeholders and why are they important to PowerCom?

AA: We did visit our stakeholders, primarily land owners. Without these land owners we have no business. They are the key fundamentals of our ecosystem. Our 10 year agreement with land owners since 2007 will come to an end. So it is time to renew. We have four types of land owners. We have communal, farmers, commercial framers and settlements/town councils, and regional councils. These are the key stakeholders that we went to visit. We wanted to appraise them on PowerCom’s new business model, who we are now, ever since 2007 when we traded with them when we were still a mobile operator and many of them prior to these visits were still referring to us as Cell One or Leo and didn’t know where to find us. So that was an opportunity to appraise them. We met with traditional authorities, which give consent for environmental aspects. We had very good engagements and it was a learning process for us as well.

TS:  Take us through how PowerCom goes about acquiring land to put up infrastructure, and what challenges does the company faces in this regard and how it manages to traverse those challenges?

AA: Many of the land owners are actually unified. Town councils are a different model. They negotiate on a case to case basis. Ohangwena and Keetmanshoop town councils will not be the same. But mostly, all public entities are having the same sort of understanding. Commercial tends to be aggressive and very challenging and they expect quite a lot. But the value that we always say is when you are closer to the tower you get to enjoy better services. Most of the owners still expect quite a significant amount of money, which sometimes is not sustainable but what we are doing now going forward is that we are aligning the Communal Land Reform Act where areas under traditional authorities go through communal land. Those are the parties that we pay annually and we just compensate the owners of the land, once off.

TST: How does PowerCom contribute to job creation in the country and does the company make use of SMEs, for instance in erecting towers?

AA: We are very transparent when it comes to procurement. After all we are a public entity although we are not directly a State Owned Enterprise even though Telecom Namibia is our shareholder. Of late, if you may have noticed, our towers are those that were already consolidated. We have only capitalised four towers that was before my time and very often we go on tender process. The designing of the aspect is made from within the company and the construction of the towers, that happens with outsourced partners.

TS: What general challenges does the company encounter in its quest to achieve its goal?

AA: Every business has its challenges. I would be lying if I said everything is moving smoothly. The challenge for us is legacy. Land owners were entered into agreement when the company was still a mobile operator. The cultural change to educate the market that we are no longer a mobile operator has been challenging.  It takes time for people to understand what PowerCom is trying to do. We are the one powering the industry, without the infrastructure, you don’t have the network on your mobile network. The skills have also been a challenge because it has never existed in the market. Everyone in the company was either at a mobile company, there isn’t anyone who really worked for a tower company before. We have to upscale our internal capacity. Likely we have retained our employees over the last years and we are very grateful for that. The other challenge was that because we were once a mobile operator competitor, some companies didn’t want to do business with us. But we have managed to change that and one way was to make our board independent. Major clients now have confidence in us. Telecom is our largest client followed by MTC who are on our 118 sites, and then there is Paratus and many more, almost everyone whether, in broadcasting, mobile operators, even non-mainstream industries who are not in ICT such as rail and aviation.  We are managing about 540.

TS: Namibian economy has not been performing at the expected levels recently, has that in anyway affected your operations?

AA: To be honest it has not been easy for public entities. Yes we were owed a lot but suddenly when there was an injection in the economy I think after the African Development Bank loan, we saw a huge settlement of amounts. Clients settled their accruals to us with significant amounts. Yes, there are those that we have been chasing but the economy is on path to recovery and there has been quite an improvement.

TS: Before we conclude the interview – you are a proof that women can also excel in the male-dominated ICT world. What word of advice can you give to young Namibian women that want to venture into this sector?

AA: I have never looked at myself and say I am the woman and they are the boys. I saw myself as an equal player on the table with unique dimension, skills sets that are not limited to gender. As women I believe that we should always seek to transcend barriers especially cultural barriers that are inherent in our environment.

I never allow even giving a chance to gender to be a barrier. Yes, to be honest people made fun when we started. In this company in the executive positions we had more women than men and we were a laughing stock. Some people were saying where have you seen an infrastructure company being led by women? We were the laughing stock of town until the balance sheet and bottom line came. It was no longer a laughing matter because the performance led to our results quadrupling. It’s because we never saw ourselves as women, only as employees who had a task and a vision to deliver an objective. Women are equal players, they can add value, and they are just as talented as their male counterparts and even when it comes to pay, women deserve equal pay as                                                               men.

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