From ambitious start-up to the leading mobile provider in Liberia, the journey to success of Lonestar Cell MTN

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are key in the development of all economies. Liberia however has demonstrated the ICT sector has been as equally important to its recovery.

Lonestar Cell MTN has been at the forefront of technological advancement in Liberia. They were the first company to introduce mobile money management services via mobile phone and they were instrumental in securing access to the fiber optic cable revolutionizing internet usage in Africa.

In an insightful interview with Marlene Smith, Manager of the Lonestar Cell MTN, Foundation BiD Network looks at what has been achieved with the sector and the upcoming challenges in the West African country.

Lonestar Cell MTN rose from an ambitious start-up to the leading mobile provider in Liberia, tell us about this great journey, how did you find the resources to grow?

Lonestar Cell MTN grew through dedicated effort, hard work and strategic use of resources. To state that resources were limited is to state the obvious; to speak of multiple constraints and challenges is to bemoan the given. In those early days, financial, material and human resources were at a premium; every asset had to be maximized.

So for example, a technical manager responsible for site roll-out, might also fill dual or even multiple roles, across business areas or functions. I remember speaking to one of the first employees early in my own tenure; and he told me about receiving a quick implementation mandate from his boss, who had received the same from his boss. As he told the story I thought, “Wow, the big boss passed it to my boss, who passed it to me, and now I need to pass it to…myself, because there’s no one else to pass it on to!”

Consumer education also played a major role – letting the public know Lonestar Cell MTN was here, the services offered, etc. Directing resources strategically – to building infrastructure and marketing products and services – was critical to growth.

In 2006, Lonestar Cell merged with the South African telecoms giant MTN – how did you secure this merger?

MTN was making major strides in emerging markets across Africa and the Middle East, and had an established reputation and brand. Lonestar Cell had achieved the same in Liberia over the course of its five years. So as both entities thought about entrenching these gains, growing and impacting the industry and the countries in which they operated, the possibility of coming together emerged.

Lonestar needed resources to grow and MTN needed a platform for regional expansion; that being said, it took ongoing conversations to secure the merger; conversations for example, on creating a balance between attending to our national context – socioeconomic and cultural variables, aspirations etc. – and becoming a thriving part of a multinational network.

Was this collaboration necessary to establish your position as the number one mobile provider in Liberia?

I think it played a significant role in solidifying the company’s number one position, allowing for the kinds of knowledge and resource share that other Liberian operators simply do not have access to. The collaboration enabled operations of scale and provided access to best practices, as well as lessons learned. Conversations with counterparts across the MTN Group of 22 operations can go a long way in helping to introduce not just new but appropriate and relevant solutions for the Liberian market.

The collaboration with MTN also created opportunities for staff, a key part of the company’s success, to develop and enhance professional skills, in traditional ways such as overseas training and travel, and newer approaches such as e-learning and development platforms.

How do the services provided by Lonestar Cell MTN offer a boom to SMEs in Liberia?

Lonestar offered a means of communication when the need to be in touch with loved ones in and outside of the country was critical.

During this turbulent and insecure period both lives and livelihoods were lost; infrastructure was destroyed and entire areas depopulated; trade was sluggish on the one hand and aggressively rampant on the other, with prices for common goods and services sky high. Post-conflict, the effects of these conditions, if not the conditions themselves, remain, leading to many kinds of vulnerability.

In the context of business development, small and medium sized enterprises are particularly vulnerable. For SMEs, the inputs needed for growth far outweigh the resources available for growth; so having access to a range of services at various price points makes a difference to their bottom line. Value added service bundles — data, voice and text solutions at affordable costs – can provide business solutions on a smaller but still impactful scale. And because SMEs often straddle the line between informal and formal economic structures, to attend to their needs is to really facilitate broad spectrum economic growth.

There are parts of the country, over 25 rural areas for example, where Lonestar Cell MTN is the only service provider. Ensuring the availability of our services (everything from network coverage to bandwidth to retail locations to targeted promotions, and more) across the country, means that SMEs can be supported in areas where opportunities are greatest, and in ways that reduce the high combined costs of market and geographic penetration.

Lonestar Cell introduced money management services via mobile phone to Liberia, what was the decision behind this? How should these services impact entrepreneurship?

The introduction of mobile financial services was a combination of good business and good corporate social responsibility.

Access to finance is an ongoing challenge for recovering economies and low-income populations within them. So how can you help more people gain easy and affordable access to funds they desperately need, for day-to-day survival, handling commonplace affairs, generating income, etc.?

A large majority of Liberians survive by virtue of remittances, money sent from relatives abroad and financial support from family with means on the ground; add to this the fact that less than 10% of Liberians have bank accounts, while over 40% have mobile phones and bringing finance and mobile technology together made sense.

Through Mobile Money services, people have ready access to funds, in a user-friendly and affordable way. You can be in Monrovia and send your aunt money to go to the clinic in Zwedru; you can start small and build your business using MM to receive payment; and so on.

I have a friend who grows indigenous and other produce on a small portion of his family’s farm; he was only able to secure a minimum acreage until he can prove the venture’s profitability, as compared to rubber for example. So he’s running a pilot, selling at farmers’ markets, to hotels and restaurants, and now testing the viability of monthly deliveries to individual consumers. He has a limited staff, yet he can’t afford to make all these rounds; so he hires two or three taxis, and rather than risk the drivers handling payments, he uses Mobile Money.

Alternatively, an established small business can grow by becoming a MM merchant, a venue where customers receive funds transferred to them; having a diversified revenue stream, entrepreneurs can take more risks with ideas, products or services, knowing that some percentage of revenue is secure.

As MM usage continues to rise, as more merchant training workshops are implemented, entrepreneurs have opportunities to engineer its possibilities and to create all kinds of secondary businesses that benefit from and make use of mobile financial platforms.

How will the application of fiber optic internet – an innovation Lonestar Cell MTN was deeply committed to – benefit the general public and entrepreneurs in Liberia?

The Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) fiber optic cable network will provide Liberians with the kind of internet experience that many around the world take for granted. For many here, this will be the first taste of internet at workable speed, of multiple transactions and interactions, of simultaneous downloads, and so on. It will mean that many things that were barely possible before are now within reach. Imagine a classroom where students can learn at various paces because they can be engaged online; where teachers are assisted with real-time e-learning resources; how would that impact outcomes in our educational system?

For entrepreneurs, the digital divide between “first” and “third” world countries will be less at issue; and that same divide between high and middle and low-income Liberians will be an a challenge and an opportunity. When internet cafes are no longer the primary or sole venue for internet access, because other packages and services are readily available and affordable in your own home and office, what other business ideas or models could be generated?

More than half of Liberians work in the public sector; but getting those jobs is difficult, especially for the multitudes of our youth. If those same young people were engaged in designing their own career paths and job opportunities, it would have a deep and lasting impact. And the internet may very well be one of our best resources for allowing them that chance.

You personally manage the Lonestar Cell MTN Foundation – a key instrument insuring the company is socially responsible and sustainable – how do you do this and why is it important?

At Lonestar Cell MTN, we use the terminology ‘corporate social responsibility and investment’. The inclusion of investment is more than semantics; it really speaks to our rationale of sharing responsibility for social development and social good, for the long term. Investment implies strategic thinking, planned action, stakeholder engagement and sustained results, all of which are principles we apply in the work of the Foundation.

Our focus on impacting Liberia’s future by investing in education and healthcare is realized in collaboration with partners – in the public, private and civil sectors – who share our approach. Liberia is a work in progress; as a corporate citizen invested in its unfolding, we cannot underestimate the importance of the role we can play.

What role has the ICT sector played in Africa’s economic growth? How will we see this happen in Liberia?

Research clearly shows that investment in the ICT sector fuels economic growth; there are studies for example – World Bank, and others – showing correlations between increases in mobile broadband and increases in GDP.

7 of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa, a trend that coincided with major continental gains in ICT development – increases in technical training, investment in ICT infrastructure and growth in ICT services, etc.  In 2002, Kenya’s exports of tech-related services generated $16M; in 2010, one year after the first fiber optic cables were laid, it was $360M.

Liberia’s possibilities for economic growth through ICTs are good; and this is why the Foundation supports initiatives such as the IT Business Competition; integrates ICT components into its project portfolio; and works to supplement technical capabilities in education and healthcare.

This interview is part of the ICT Challenge series on business actors participating actively in the development of the ICT sector in Liberia, Rwanda, Burundi, Kosovo and Palestine. Feel free to share, comment on Twitter & Facebook.