Maseru-Four years ago, Econet was going through a rough patch that was threatening to upend the business. Cash flows were under immense pressure, the network was not performing well and the prospects of making profits looked dim. The brand had been damaged by incessant bad publicity triggered by complaints from unsatisfied clients.
The task of turning around the company’s fortunes was given to DENNIS PLAATJIES (DP) who was appointed chief executive during those trying times. It was a baptism of fire but he has managed to transform the company. The turnaround strategy he implemented with his team has pulled the company into profit. The balance sheet has firmed and cash flows are stable. His team has built a strong network that is ready to deliver value to shareholders and give an exceptional experience to customers.
This week, Public Eye (PE) spoke to Plaatjies about the past three years, the transformation and the future.
PE: You were the first Mosotho to be appointed chief executive after the merger. How has been the journey so far?
DP: The journey has been challenging but also exciting in that we as Basotho we were allowed to turn around the fortunes of this company.
This was based on a turnaround strategy approved by the board and shareholders. From the onset, we knew it was going to take monumental effort of every member of the team to achieve what was set out in the strategy.
We understood that we had to work extra hard to recover the shareholder value that had been lost over the years. What made the difference is that the team bought into the strategy and the culture required to successfully implement the strategy.
The shareholder, the team, the board and customers have helped the business transform. From 2019/2020 we have seen those efforts beginning to pay dividends. We are glad to see this transformation because this was our last opportunity to turn around the company.
PE: What has been the main driver of this transformation?
DP: The first thing was to build a dedicated and driven team to implement the turnaround strategy but to build such a team we had to first get buy-in from the people. They had to get involved from the onset. The strategy is based on six pillars.
PE: What are those pillars?
DP: In 2018 we saw a gap in the market and decided to leverage on the existing infrastructure that gives us a competitive edge. We invested in data technology, especially fibre.
We started building a strong core network that is fit for purpose and is in line with our strategy to win with data. We built the new network with the help of suppliers who were prepared to walk the journey with us. The next pillar is enhancing our distribution capacity to bring our products and services to the customers.
The third was working on our customer service to improve their experience. We had acquired a reputation as a network that has poor service delivery, dropped calls, congestion and slow reaction to faults.
Fourth, we worked on transforming the team. We knew that the people will be key to driving the turnaround strategy. The training of the team is closely linked to the substantial investment in data analytics so that we understand our customers’ needs and meet their expectations.
But when we say we invested in our people, we don’t mean the employees only. We also mean Basotho in general who have benefited from our Higher Life Foundation.
PE: What are the other pillars?
DP: We have consolidated our position in the mobile finance space. EcoCash, our mobile money platform, is now everywhere. This wide coverage is bringing convenience to our customers and contributing to the government’s financial inclusion policy.
It fits well with our mission to transform lives by providing products that solve problems and bring convenience.
Our enterprise business, which is the sixth pillar, has been providing vital technological services to drive the economy.
We have provided technological services to the governments, banks, and mines. Our customers are assured that we have a wide and secure network that protects their data and their business.
PE: What role has the investment in the data network played in turning around the fortunes?
DP: The strategy to win with data has helped carry us through the pandemic because we had built a resilient network that enabled people to work from home. We knew several years ago that voice, which had been the mainstay of the telecommunications industry, was in decline and we needed to invest in data.
So, data has been the driving force behind the turnaround strategy that is now beginning to pay rewards. The pandemic found us in the middle of reviewing our turnaround strategy.
Even before the pandemic started, we knew that the future of the company and the world will be driven by technology. There are clear signs that we are already living in an era where everything is digitally connected.
Some call it “the internet of things” but we have since embraced it as the new normal to which the company should adopt.
Because we had invested in building a strong and wide network, we could quickly adapt to the challenges caused by the pandemic. This, however, doesn’t mean that we were not affected. We lost customers when businesses closed during the pandemic.
PE: The company has consistently met its Corporate Social Responsibility obligations. How has that been possible given the financial difficulties the company has faced over the past few years?
DP: We have never considered our Corporate Social Responsibility a burden too heavy to carry. It is our obligation to help the communities in which we operate. We know that the government is trying its best but it has limited resources.
We, therefore, have to play our part as a responsible corporate citizen. Over the past 10 years, we have invested more than M100 million in our Higher Life Foundation that has so far put more than 1 300 students through secondary school to first degrees. We have students in local schools, colleges and universities. There are others at regional (ESwatini & Zimbabwe) and international (USA and Canada) universities.
Many have completed their certificates, diplomas and undergraduate degrees. We do this because we know that education is one of the greatest equalisers. It is the best gift we can give to the next generation. As such, we will continue to play our part in contributing towards educating the next generation.
PE: What does the future hold for Econet?
DP: The future looks bright. We are now moving from being a connectivity provider to being a digital services provider. We have the skills and platform to be the business that transforms the economy and lives through technological services. We are ready to play a central role in the era of the internet of things.