Wednesday, September 23, 2020

BTC Mobile going through painful birth pangs

Even before it goes on air there are signs that BTC Mobile, a subsidiary of the government-owned Botswana Telecommunications Corporation, will be a source of much headache for the Board of Directors.

Earmarked to go on air in six weeks time, inside information points that there are a few boardroom scores still to be settled before the much anticipated launch.

Indications are that there will be more tears shed before BTC mobile goes on air.

The Sunday Standard has turned up information of a fierce tussle between the board and executive management over how to fashion the new animal.

Backed by the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology, the board, led by Len Makwinja, wants BTC Mobile to be a totally autonomous entity, wholly detached from the main BTC parent company and reporting to a separate and independent Board.

The executive management, led by Vincent V.T Seretse, wants BTC mobile to operate under direct orbit of the parent company, taking instructions from Megaleng Headquarters from whence Seretse and his executive team operate.
The whole squeal promises to be a cat fight.
Seretse is a strong willed executive, with a forceful personality.

He likes getting things done his way and nurses wounds long after the dispute has been amicably settled.
Those close to him say he has a thick and well cultivated network of connections that sprawls both the business and political fronts.
His rigid management style inspires raw awe among his subordinates.

Confident to a point of arrogance, Seretse never shies away from a fight.
He never thinks twice when it comes to expressing his mind.
He fights his corner until he is convinced all avenues are closed out for him.

Many industry watchers still recall how, against everyone’s expectations, he once publicly took head-on Moses Lekaukau (another strong willed and moody executive), when the then BTA Chief announced his plans to collapse the BTC monopoly.

At BTA, Chief Lekaukau was literally worshipped as to be feared by the telecommunications industry, a sector he had single handedly revolutionized after he formed BTA and turned it into the envy of the world.

Seretse did not dance to the popular grail.
The tiff between Lekaukau and Seretse became a war of wills.

Seretse only relented after Minister of Communications, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, under strict instructions from cabinet, intervened and released a tacitly drafted press release outlining how government had set deadlines on the full liberalisation of the telecommunications industry. The press release was a stretch of instructions to be followed by everyone with any relationship to government owned enterprises. They had to be obeyed and, more importantly, supported.

Seretse is also remembered for how, against government policy, he steadfastly stood firm to state his position that BTC was not ready for privatization.

He only carved in after Minister Venson-Moitoi intervened by way of chiding and goading him to play ball or risk being swept off the reigns of BTC.
But insiders say this time around he could have gone too far by picking up a fight with the wrong people.
Other than the fast talking Makwinja, a former Deputy Managing Director of Debswana, the BTC Board has in it a few names that have crossed paths with Seretse at various points in their lives. Clearly, some of them still have one or two outstanding gripes to settle with Seretse.

The cast of players include Shirley Segokgo, who left Botswana Housing Corporation under a cloud when Seretse was Chief Executive at that parastatal.
There is also Mabua Mabua, sitting in for the Ministry, a respected telecommunications engineer who found himself jobless after Seretse arrived at BTC in an exercise that industry insiders interpreted as a determined purge of old figures by the incoming Seretse regime.

Mabua’s unceremonious departure from BTC, a corporation where he had literally staked his entire career, shocked many colleagues.
There is a lot at stake in the coming up of BTC Mobile.
BTC Mobile is poised to reassert the BTC’s long lost glory.

For many years, BTC financial performance has at best been lukewarm, unable to match the fierce competition from Mascom and Orange Botswana that offered trendier cellular services. The mobile wing is expected to restore both financial power and prestige to the government-owned BTC.

BTC had long wanted a stake in the country’s lucrative mobile phone industry with no success. But last year Botswana Telecommunication Authority came to BTC’s rescue by extending service neutral licenses to all the three companies, thanks to government’s executive orders to liberalise the telecommunications industry.

If recent trends are anything to go by, BTC Mobile will in a short time establish itself as the Group’s cash cow thereby easily eclipsing the bigger parent in both clout, prestige and, possibly, power and influence.

As a subsidiary of BTC, the new mobile company will enjoy a well established and extensive national grid that spans the entire corner of the country. This is likely to endear it to more customers than already existing networks who, to a large extent, also rely on BTC for their outreach.

Under the new regime, each of the three phone companies is free to provide both cellular and fixed line operations.
While BTC has been quick to move in the direction of setting up its mobile wing, there seems to be no urgency on the part of both Mascom and Orange Botswana to introduce their fixed line operations.
With their extensive network that straddles the entire country, BTC is by far a dominant presence on fixed line operation.

This week the BTC Board Chair was at pains to downplay the storm brewing in his boardroom over how to position BTC Mobile.

“We are busy working on the structure of the new company. There are not really any differences,” said Makwinja.
He said he subscribes to the notion that BTC Mobile be fully independent from the parent company, with its own board that is also independent from any strings from the main board.

“I think we could have one or two people from the main board sitting on that of the mobile phone company. But by and large the new company will be independent,” said the Chairman.
“I insist that we should not burden the new company with heavy structures,” said Makwinja.

He also said he has engaged a consultant to advise him on the new company’s structure.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper

The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.