Mauritius is currently going through a phase of transformation from a middle income to high income country. How do you think this moment has to be managed in order to keep growing?
SL: Mauritius is currently going through a phase of transformation from a middle income to high income country, in order to keep growing we must have the ambition to be the best in all sectors; whether it is the tourism sector, the services, the financial…we need to be the best in class, and we can do it. We have the advantage of being small, we have the resources; an educated work force, government has put the road map for years under development, we focus on giving free education to all, so if we have an educated workforce we should aim at being the best in all sector. We have to be ambitious. Another factor that contributes is that we are well connected to the rest of the world. We are an island but we are not isolated. Thanks to the investment in telecommunications we are an active player of the global village.
With such a dynamic and globalized environment it is essential to have an information and communication sector that is competitive and innovative, otherwise the country gets disconnected from the world. How has been the evolution of the sector in Mauritius for the last years?
SL: The economic sectors in the country have developed successfully; however, they couldn’t do it without the proper telecommunication infrastructure and good communications systems, and in Mauritius we keep up with the latest trends and innovations. Any product or service you have in developed countries in the ICT sector, we have it in Mauritius.
All the latest devices we have them here and our subscribers can easily have access to them. Sophistication but also low cost, for people who can’t afford them, which is a strategy according to the government’s plan, and also our company’s, to democratize access to internet.
When we look at Mauritius as an island we find that in the past we had come difficulties to stay connected to the rest of the world; we used the satellite, and whenever a cyclone impacted the island, the antenna would go down and we would be cut off.
Mauritius Telecom, have invested in submarine fiber cable connectivity since 1999 and it became operational in 2002 the connectivity through the safe cable system SFE (south Africa for east cable system) to connect us from South Africa to Penang, in Malaysia. In the west coast of South Africa there’s another cable system to connect us to Portugal and then from Penang to the other parts of the world.
In 2002 nobody could foresee the dependence of the internet on the modern world. Yet in 1999 Mauritius Telecom decided to invest its own money, 24billion USD in that project to get Mauritius connected. We are a small part of the consortium but we took the risk and decided to be connected on the information supply at that time. That was a wise decision and has paid off with a result we can see at present. The development of the ICT sector is evident, and the growth we have in the industry out of it as well.
We have invested on a second cable system, the lower Indian Ocean island network (LION). The LION Project which allowed us to connect Mauritius to Reunion Island and Madagascar. We also invested in the EASSy project, which is a cable that connects Sudan to South Africa. Then in the second project, LION 2, to Madagascar with the easy cable from Madagascar to Mombasa, which is a hub, so now we have a second route and all these actions give us security, resilience, and bring comfort to our clients and investors. Our overall investments in undersea cable connectivity will reach 120 million USD in 2015.
Mauritius Telecom has definitely been an active player being the main operator in providing fixed line, mobile and Internet services. We operate in a highly competitive environment but our strategy of continuous investment over the years has proved fruitful and successful for the company and its individual and business customers. Everyone can say we are worldwide connected thanks to our efforts. And thanks to the submarine optic fiber cable, no cyclone can cut us off.
We give people this assurance by having a system in which if there is a cut on the west side we can take the route of the east route, and if there’s a cut here we can go on the west side. There’s resilience to ensure continuity of business so everyone can work safely.
For business services most of the corporations, government and big businesses are connected with optic fiber. That’s also our strategy and now we have started a new program called FTTH (fiber to the home), to provide homes with fiber connectivity. In big cities, people live in apartments, tall buildings and crowded spaces and this permits an easier and less expensive connection system. in this island people live in separate individual places, with pools and gardens, which is more costly, still we have started this project and we hope at the end of 2016 will be connecting 50% homes in Mauritius with optical fiber.
In 2006 there was one computer at home and one TV, now there are several devices in the house so we need more connectivity and our job is to provide that service and they don’t want to pay more, so there’s a problem of weather you get the subscribers the right offer. Mauritius Telecom has always been adapting to the change and demand and we have always been the preferred supplier.
Mauritius Telecom has been the primary provider of voice, mobile, Internet and data communication services in Mauritius. As a pioneer in this sector, what were the main challenges the company had to face?
SL: Thanks to its good management, never have needed to look for money for its investments, it could invest from its own funds; we have our own reserves, and as the development goes on we have been able to invest in innovative products and services without recurring to external debt so that has been a force in our company.
We are a company that foresees the future and fortunately for us, we have made the right choices so far. We made the right investment at the right time and that has helped us in providing the right services at the right moment to our subscribers, to companies and to investors from abroad. If you ask people about our services you will see they are satisfied clients.
Also we have a partner, Orange, and with them they proposed us the new innovations so we also compare notes with other operator belonging to the group and we see what is the current trend and share services.
The population of Mauritius is around 1.3 million and the number of individual subscriptions is over 1.2 million. With an almost over saturated market, what are your strategies to reach more clients, domestic and international?
SL: We already have 1.3 million subscribers, counting Sim cards and operators. In a country with 1.3 million populations, it is about the way people use it; people can use more than 1 Sim, because they have several devices. There are other markets coming in the security field, we have what we call machine to machine to subscribe to a security service, cause they contact you via mobile and this explains the growth of the market and then we also have visitors from abroad, tourist who buy a Sim card and after using it they throw it away.
What we are noticing is that people started using phones to call, then to text, but today they use it for the internet, it has become a smartphone and its usage is propagating. We find solutions for people to get on board, we have introduced low cost smart phones recently, and people like it and they are hopping in, using mobile internet and consuming data. So we see the trend is that people will be using more data and consuming it.
At the same time people are becoming smarter and they are looking for Internet hot spots, free services for their devices. Looking at the behavior of the consumer we realize they cannot stay without a device.
At the same time there is also the free calls, you have the Internet but you also need Skype or other apps to make free calls, so you will pay for Internet but not for calls. You pay for Internet but not for texts you are sending, this is why 50% of our revenue is reinvested. We need to be updating constantly. If we want to keep pace with the global trends, we need to invest in new technologies, there is no choice.
One example of this is that first it was 2g, then 3g, so you have to invest in 3g but keep servicing people with 2g. Now there’s the 4g, if you are client or not, we are a touristic destinations so someone will come and need it. We need to satisfy the needs of the costumer, and then it will pay back and we will see the return, is not immediate, and sometimes it might even be a wrong investment, we have been lucky in that matter.
In order to achieve proper development it is important to keep a good relationship between the public and the private sector. Last year the company went under the aegis of the ICT Ministry. How does this change impacts on the company’s operations?
SL: this did not change anything in the company’s operations. We’ve been sharing the same vision and that’s what is important. Private sector and government in most sectors share the same vision, there’s no conflict. Investment from private sector benefits the public one, and the public sector must continue acting as a facilitator to enable business to develop, that’s the key of the success. The policy makers don’t act like obstacles, otherwise there won’t be development and won’t be investment, but if they continue acting as facilitators, sharing the same vision, development will happen.
Besides leading the Mauritian market you also hold operations in Madagascar and participate as a major shareholder in Vanuatu, Which new alliances are you interested in? Where are you currently focusing your efforts on?
SL: If you bring to me a good opportunity I shall be interested and I will convince my board that it is the right place to invest. Unfortunately good opportunities do not appear every day, but we are always looking for opportunities to improve.
In terms of developing the ICT Sector, Mauritius telecom is without doubt a strong partner for the country. However, in terms of social responsibility, how is the company contributing to Mauritius?
SL: We believe in bringing development for all, the rich and the poor. We can say, in Mauritius every home has a telephone, electricity, a TV set, tap water, so we are very proud that we connect most homes in the island. Connecting the homes with the fixed line has been an advantage for us because we have bring the broad band and we see a permanence of those clients since we brought the ADSL with the broad band internet we could deliver to more than 60,000 clients.
To bring communication to people, Internet is very important. Regarding our CSR, for some years we have been contributing to development in other sectors, not only in ICT - for example, connecting schools with broadband Internet. Introduction of tablets at school is also a government project and this month they are going to start distributing tablets to students from 5th and 4th. In some sense this project will be a sort of revolutionary in the island, because the way of learning is changing, the way of access to learning is changing and the Minister of Education is getting prepared, that’s why this decision has been taken. We give the wi-fi so students can take advantages of their resources, but we have to go beyond. It is not just giving access, we also take care of parental control to use it in the right way, so we add this secure platform, which is not censorship, but protection for the children from not wanted material.
Besides that, we have CSR where we help in poverty alleviation by building homes and we subscribe to those projects. One project for environment protection is the collection of used phones and batteries so that instead of being left in nature they are collected and sent for recycling. This recycling initiative also helps to educate people to be environmental conscious.
In terms of health we help kids with autism, there are families who don’t know how to detect it, so we bring specialists from France. We help in the sport field, training of youth for football, table tennis, to play in the Indian Ocean games, etc.
Now Mr. Lallah, talking from a more personal approach we would like to know a little bit more about your professional background and specially, what do you feel most proud of?
SL: I have always been an IT man. I started my career as a computer programmer, and then in the 90s I left my job in a company here, Rogers, to create my own enterprise. I was a consultant in IT and I helped companies in devices and IT strategies, then I started a school to train people to use Internet, office. I am a trainer.
Then one day I went to meet the leader of the party and shared my views on the ICT sector. They called me “computer boy” at that time. I brought some ideas and I am glad to see those ideas have materialized and today the ICT sector has become an economic pillar.
We had an educated work force, who were getting prepared not to go and work in the sugar cane field or in the textile factories. We had to find smarted jobs for them and we needed to adapt exploit IT at the same time. People didn’t know about Internet, so we had to teach them how to use and exploit IT in their jobs, and also maybe create an industry out of it and then sell our services. I put it in the government project, for the manifesto of the present Prime Minister party, and I’m glad to see that what I put there has materialized. 23 years later, we see an ICT industry in Mauritius with more than 18,000 people working in it.
I am glad my ideas were listened to. I’ve contributed and I have always been passionate of telecoms and computers and I was proud when we launched the IPTV in Mauritius, a project many people doubted, a mighty project. And we now have more than 80,000 subscribers, also the ADSL, and the low cost tablets; I told the ministry of finance and the ministry of education. People are watching the development of the ICT sector; I always dreamt for an affordable device to access Internet, technology is the new revolution. We see the trend. Those devices were sold after 5 days.
I feel proud to be one of the actors bringing new and innovative ideas and developing the country. In terms of technologic latest trends, Mauritius is positioned among the developed countries in this sector. I think Mauritius Telecom has been a catalyst of the development of the economy in the country in its different sectors, placing Mauritius at international standards.
To conclude this interview, our readers are more interested on the leaders we interview than on the company or institution itself. In that context, what message would you like to send to our worldwide readers of HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW?
SL: I’d like to say that in the past people saw Mauritius as a miracle, something created out of nothing. We don’t have natural resources, but we have our people. Educating the people has been the basis of the development but now we must aim higher. We must aim at being the best at everything we do. Mauritius must not limit itself, but aim to the highest because we can achieve it.