Vodacom Lesotho (VCL) is celebrating 20 years of operating in the Kingdom and the telecommunications giant has embarked on a number of initiatives to mark this milestone. Sunday Express (SE) reporter Rethabile Pitso caught up with Vodacom Foundation and Communications Manager, Mpho Brown, to discuss this achievement as well as the company’s future plans.
SE: How has Vodacom transformed since it started operating in Lesotho 20 years ago?
Brown: Vodacom was introduced to this country in 1996 and that is when we set up our first base station. It was a very small operation aimed at providing mobile communication services to Basotho. Today, as it was back then, our aim is to connect people. However, we have taken this further through other products we have developed since then.
It has been an exciting journey of technological innovations. Back then, we only provided ‘voice’ services and over time, we introduced other products including the SMS (Short Message Service) and internet.
We moved from very basic voice communication to 2G which is a slower form of internet. We followed up on this by introducing broadband which offers a much faster 3G internet connection. We have since moved from 3G to 4G LTE. Other parts of the world are already thinking in terms of 5G so obviously that is the conversation for us as well going into the future. In a nutshell, we have been doing a lot and we knew from the very beginning that technology can change people’s lives for the better. If you can communicate with people, then you can offer services that can impact their lives in a positive way. So that has been our mission from the beginning.
SE: Apart from offering telecommunication services, Vodacom continues to implement numerous initiatives to give back to society. How has that worked for the company through the years?
Brown: In the past, the company gave back through donations and sponsorships that were done through our commercial department. We had an initiative to support the health sector through a M1million donation in 2008 to build a children’s ward at ‘Mamohau RCC Hospital in Thaba-Tseka. We supported PSI (Population Services International) programmes and Kick4Life when it was introduced to Lesotho. This was all before we formalised our Corporate Social Responsibility initiative in 2009 under the Vodacom Foundation.
The mission of the Vodacom Foundation is simple- we find meaningful ways to plough back into the community some of the profits we make from customers. And so with the Vodacom Foundation, we came up with a structure to coordinate our social responsibility initiatives. This came out of the realisation that our past activities and those of other companies simply amounted to the ‘blank-cheque’ form of charity where givers would just write a cheque for a certain amount of money and walk away. But with the Foundation, we shifted our focus to identifying the most critical sectors for development and investing in those through partnerships.
We therefore chose Education, Health, Gender Equality and Economic Empowerment and these have since become the core areas for the Foundation. Every now and then, we would tweak and focus on one more than the others but these remain the guiding pillars. From 2009, the Foundation has strategically invested in these sectors.
We have done a lot to support education. We donated computers to schools with the aim of spearheading computer-literacy. Over time, we began to appreciate the need to introduce unprivileged Basotho children to the internet in order to develop the use of technology from an early age.
In line with this, we introduced the ischool Lesotho programme, beginning with donations of tablets to a small number of primary schools. This year, the plan is to expand the project to benefit more schools, as well as addressing the challenges encountered during the initial phase. We are also moving into the elearning space where students will be able to access educational content on a certain portal on their phones or computers.
Regarding health, people know that we launched the Moyo initiative on 6 and 9 April. We have committed M8 million over three years to combat HIV/AIDS, making this our biggest social investment to date. We staged a music concert in Thaba-Bosiu on 9 April to introduce the project to Basotho and raise awareness for the campaign. We launched the Moyo initiative in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, USAID and other funding partners. The aim of the initiative is to enable as many Basotho children who are HIV positive to receive treatment as well as to comprehensively address issues related to maternal health.
On the Economic front, we focus more on entrepreneurship. You cannot develop a country if you do not empower private business. Therefore our aim is to empower Basotho businesses so that they can grow and create employment for other Basotho. We have the Vodacom Innovation Park where the focus is on offering entrepreneurs a chance and giving them all the resources they need to succeed.
As for Gender Equality, our m-women programme was developed to prioritise the empowerment of women. At the workplace, the programme has a simple mandate to seek equality of men and women. At VCL, we have equal numbers of female and male employees but as we go higher up you begin to realise that as in many other organisations, there are more males in senior leadership. So the aim is to ensure that we empower women within Vodacom to ensure that we strike a balance at senior leadership level as well. At a community level, M-women takes the form of an entrepreneurship initiative and we provided six societies of women with business training and containers to enable them to start their own businesses. This was done in partnership with United Nations Development Programme and going forward, we will fine-tune and expand that programme.
These are some of Vodacom’s achievements, having evolved from the simple traditional charity donations towards more structured partnership programmes. We are no longer just giving out money but also are giving our time and expertise as well as providing our technology to aid those initiatives.
SE: Even with all the programmes you have initiated to respond to the nation’s needs, there are people who still want more from Vodacom. For example some people have suggested that you should offer scholarships or bursaries. How does Vodacom view such demands?
Brown: We have developed programmes that we are confident about. However we also appreciate the need to continually look ahead and take into consideration people’s views regarding what they believe could be most helpful to them. We focused on the Education, Health, Gender Equality and Economic Empowerment sectors but we also appreciate that sectors like agriculture and manufacturing which could spur job creation have not received adequate support. We will therefore be targeting business people in those sectors as part of our empowerment initiative for entrepreneurs.
We strongly believe that technology can make a huge contribution to improving the quality of education. We are also presented with the challenge of how to improve access to education for people who wish to learn but cannot not afford to. In the past we did not provide bursaries because we lacked adequate administrative and human resources that are required to support programmes of that nature. It was an issue of capacity. However, beginning this year, we are launching a scholarship programme to support five Basotho students to study at tertiary institutions every year. Apart from need, the scholarships will be awarded on merit so the students have to work hard.
SE: When the Vodacom mega millions was launched last year, there was a huge response driven by the prizes on offer. This year there’s an even bigger and better competition. What can Basotho expect and what are Vodacom’s targets?
Brown: The competition is yet another big investment and it is another way of giving back. You can tell from our marketing strategy that we are a very vibrant and fun-loving company. We also want our customers to have fun and we love to give them life-changing benefits. Vodacom mega millions has a simple aim- to engage Basotho, get our customers to use our services to enable them to benefit by receiving the biggest rewards they could ever imagine. You can see that vision in our campaigns, more so in this year’s where we’re giving away two houses, 15 cars and many more huge prizes. When somebody wins a house valued at M400 thousand it literally transforms their lives. The same applies to winning a car. For instance, one of our winners from last year sold the car and bought a taxi for commercial use in business and that is sustainable. That person is now running a successful business operation from the car they won in the competition. So the message to our customers is that the company cares and it will continue to give back to them in ways that are meaningful.
SE: What were the challenges you encountered with the competition last year and how have you dealt with them?
Brown: The biggest challenge with such competitions is about educating customers to understand how it works, how to register and the meaning of the points system. I think the biggest challenge we faced last year was lack of information especially as many people believed that by answering many questions they automatically stood a chance to win and failed to understand that there is a ‘points’ system. After that a draw will be conducted. So what we did this year was to get the entire office out onto the street to educate the public about the competition. Perhaps we underestimated the importance of this element in the 2015 competition and this year we’ve corrected that.
In addition, we were pleasantly surprised that more people than we had anticipated signed up for the competition. This resulted in minor network capacity issues being experienced for a short period of time after the launch. So for this year, we made huge improvements and investments to our network, ensuring our preparedness to handle the volume of SMSes that will be going back and forth.
SE: Your parting shot?
Brown: As a company, we strive to be always there for our customers. I encourage all our customers to keep communicating and provide feedback on our initiatives, products and services. When our customers speak, we listen. We encourage customers to take advantage of the fact that we now have stores in all major towns in all districts. So if they need to ask or need other assistance, it just takes a simple walk in to any of these to get quick answers.
I also encourage Basotho to join hands with us in celebrating our 20 years of service to them and 50 years of the country’s independence. A special THANK YOU to everyone that attended the Moyo Lesotho Benefit Concert- it was truly humbling to see that kind of support for a great cause.