Elephant in the room: Why VODAFONE Ghana is a shadow of its true self – Part II

Elephant In The Room
Elephant In The Room

This is the second and final part of my piece about why Vodafone Ghana has been a shadow of its true self for many years. Part 1 touched on what I believe is Vodafone’s elitist posturing plus how they played down on 4G and boasted about owning the mobile money blueprint, but failed to back that claim with the needed investment and practical steps to deliver value for customers and shareholders. 

This is without prejudice to several other factors that might have militated against Vodafone Ghana, including the group HR strategy for Ghana, regulatory environment, partnership with government and simply tough competition.

SMP Push

Speaking of tough competition, it is not a secret that among the telcos, Vodafone was the lead advocate for naming MTN a significant market power (SMP), which is a regulatory intervention to prevent player(s) with a certain level of market share from abusing their market advantage. From the time of Kyle Whitehill, through Yolanda Cuba to Patricia Obo-Nai, all Vodafone CEOs and even other top officials have been open and candid about the need for the regulator to intervene in the market structure and ensure some balance that give the other players some respite.

It would appear Vodafone is obsessed with the idea that its growth depends on MTN fall. So, they are either watching to see where MTN fails for them to cash in, or lobbying the regulator to curtail MTN’s growth so they could also breathe. And that feature is consistent with Vodafone, no matter who constitute the leadership at any point in time. For instance, currently, they are so obsessed with getting MTN to do national roaming, but they forget that when Vodafone customers roam on MTN and get charged higher fees (mostly likely), they might eventually port their Vodafone numbers to MTN and rather stay on MTN and pay less instead of staying on Vodafone and paying more when they roam on MTN in particular communities. This is simple, but Vodafone don’t seem to realize it.

Government Partnership

And speaking of partnership with government, I have been wondering what real value government has brought to Vodafone Ghana as the 30% minority shareholder. I remember Kyle Whitehill once stated openly that government’s shares in the company brings no value to the table because they don’t contribute 30% of investments and expenditures, but look forward to 30% of profits. Indeed one industry person recently asked why government, for instance, insisted on Vodafone paying for 4G license and paying other licensing fees if government is supposed to be contributing 30% of CAPEX and OPEX. Why couldn’t government have given the license to Vodafone as it a contribution to CAPEX? That is something for the for government to think about if it still wants to hold shares in any telco.

Group HR strategy for Ghana

Upon publishing the first part of this article, a former consultant of Vodafone Ghana called me and explained to me how a Vodafone Group HR strategy for Ghana was expected to deliver a certain value, but when the group realized that value was not coming, they changed the strategy and that even made things worse. According to the consultant, the Group adopted a strategy where Ghanaians and Africans living in the UK and elsewhere, were given very juicy remuneration packages to move to Ghana and work for Vodafone. That was why, upon the entrance of Vodafone into Ghana, a lot of the staff were Ghanaians with British accent (no pawn intended).

But the problem with that was, not all of them necessarily had the experience and requisite skills for the roles assigned them. I personally know a lady with a science background who worked as a communications manager at Vodafone Ghana at the time. Again, quite a number of them did not also have the cultural depth for a space like Ghana, but the Group preferred them to hiring locals for the job. However, at some point, the Group gave up on the strategy and started poaching locals into top roles. I can give you a long list of locals who joined Vodafone Ghana at the time. But that also failed to deliver because the harm had already been done.

Paying the piper, calling the tune  

This next issue is something I have spoken and written about in the past, but it is relevant for this piece because it speaks to Vodafone’s penchant for creating impressions which may not necessarily have relevance in reality. And their conduct, on that occasion was particularly unethical as well, to say the least.

There are claims you can’t just make for mere advertising purposes. You need to provide evidence. And when you have the evidence, you need to respect the people to whom you make the claim enough to show them that evidence in its authentic form, so they can also make informed and independent judgments. Particularly, for a company whose brand tagline, at the time, was  “POWER TO YOU”, they needed to walk the talk and showed commitment to empowering their stakeholders to play their role in the relationship.

Some years back, Vodafone Ghana invited a few senior industry journalists to a private dinner, where they did a presentation of what was supposed to be the report of a quality of service study the Vodafone Group commissioned in Ghana within a certain specific period. Per the results, Vodafone Ghana was the best in all four key performance indicators used in the study. Vodafone Ghana then decided to run a marketing/advertising/branding/PR campaign on the back of that report, but they needed senior journalists like us, who had built credibility over the years, to own the PR campaign.

A number ethical issues came up at that event.

  1. First alarm bell was that the study was commissioned and paid for by Vodafone Group, the mother of Vodafone Ghana. Everyone knows that “paying the piper and calling the tune” is unethical. No matter how independent you claim the research was, once you paid for it and want to use it for a marketing campaign, there will be ethical issues. Indeed, all corporate entities pay for research but for their own consumption and strategy. But if you want to make an open claim about your superiority based on a research, you need to be sure it is independent and be seen to be independent.
  2. Secondly, Vodafone made the presentation to us in the most disrespectful and unethical manner I have ever seen from a corporate organization in my over two decades of practice. They showed us some bar charts on a screen. One of the bars (the tallest one) was coloured red and labelled “VODAFONE”. But the rest of the bars where all plain and were labelled OPERATOR 1, OPERATOR 2, OPERATOR 3 and so on. The simple question was, who is OPERATOR 1, OPERATOR 2 and so on? There were and are no telcos in Ghana with those brand names. There were MTN (yellow), Tigo (blue), Airtel (red), Glo (greed) and Expresso (chocolate and purple).

But Vodafone chose to insult the intelligence of senior journalists like us, by practically asking us to go do stories and write that Vodafone is the best in four key performance indicators and Operators 1, 2, 3 and 4 did poorly, without telling us who those operators were and even how they did. In fact, Vodafone sought to trick us into doing either of two things:

  1. Pretend that if we wrote OPERATOR 1, OPERATOR 2, OPERATOR 3, OPERATOR 4, without saying their names, the public would be able to figure out which telcos we were referring to – and if NCA comes challenging us and saying there are no mobile networks operators (MNOs) in Ghana called OPERATOR 1, 2, 3, 4; then we will be found wanting.
  2. Risk assigning actual telco names to the labels then when those operators question us, Vodafone will comfortably say they never gave us any names.

I asked Vodafone for the original copy of the report so we can do our own INDEPENDENT analysis and stories, like our profession requires, but they refused to give us copies. So, my thing is, if Vodafone was so confident in that report, why could they not boldly give us copies – and why would they not issue a press release and boldly refer to the other telcos as OPERATOR 1, 2, 3, 4, so that it will stand in their name, instead of asking us to go write that in our own words?

Because they failed to give us copies of the report, I told them my only option would be to state their claim and call their customer live on air to comment. But they were quick to rebut my suggestion saying that it would not be fair to them because the study was done within a particular period, which is past. So, my other option was to check their claims against the National Communication Authority (NCA) quality of service reports for the same period the Vodafone study was carried out and the latter fell flat on its face. They were not happy with my independently written and well-balanced article that exposed their weak claim and unethical conduct, so they made all kinds of paranoid claims against me. I was encouraged to file a formal report to NCA against Vodafone, but I just decided to let it slide.

Clearly, that was vintage Vodafone, majoring in creating impressions rather than delivering value based on its own brand promise. They had a tagline that said “POWER TO YOU”, but they were not interested in empowering the media with authentic information to do our independent work. They wanted us to be an extension of Vodafone’s PR outfit. That was very consistent with Vodafone claiming Ghana is not ready for 4G but they jumped ahead of 4G to claim IoT and also later claimed 4.5G even when they had less than half the spectrum of the market leader. It is also similar to claiming ownership of mobile money blueprint, and yet no investing to rollout that blueprint.

Music and Sports

Today Vodafone is big on music in Ghana, having been the headline sponsor of Ghana Music Award since the days of Uche Ofodile as Chief Marketing Officer. Vodafone has its own brand of a music reality show called Stars of the Future, which produced stars like Efya, Irene Logan and others. But prior to that I did an exclusive interview with Uche and asked her why Vodafone was not big on music and sports in Ghana and her answer was that Vodafone likes exclusivity so it was not interested in going into a space that has a lot of competition.

Ordinarily, that response sounded right, but strategically, it was a wrong posturing, particularly in a country like Ghana where sports and music is our pulse. At the time, MTN was big on music and sports as headline sponsor of Ghana Music Awards, owners of Hitmaker music reality show, and sponsor of Ghana’s Premier League. Vodafone got the plot wrong in that response, and they knew it because when I did the story and Uche realised she goofed, she hurriedly asked their head of communications, Carmen Bruce-Annan to call me and ask that we changed the angle of the story and focused on something else. Meanwhile, during the interview, Carmen sat there and actually supported Uche’s “exclusivity” positioning. Again, a clear sign of creating impressions that have no relevance for the market. At least they have learnt their lesson and jumped deep into music. Maybe the buyer of Vodafone’s majority shares in Ghana Telecom will pay some attention to sports.

Low Blow

I did make the point earlier that Vodafone seem to obsessed with the idea of MTN failing so they can capitalize on it. About a year ago, when MTN suffered a major outage in Ghana due to two fibre cuts at sea, Vodafone quickly launched a campaign with a message to create the impression that their network will not leave customers stranded due to outages. I found that to be a very low blow because network outage can happen to anyone, so for one network to seek to make branding capital of another’s predicament in that manner was a bit off track for me, particularly for a network that is investing far less than the competitor who had suffered the outage. Vodafone has had outages before in the past – no other telcos make branding capital of it. But, as you know by now, Vodafone is all about the branding, even if they have to be unethical.

As stated in the first part of this article, this writeup could have also been headlined “Lessons for whoever buys Vodafone Ghana”. Telecel is currently the only entity in the run for the deal but Ghana government is not confident in Telecel’s technical and financial ability to deliver. But whoever the eventual buyer is, please do yourself a favour – read my opinion piece and avoid this pompous and mirage-like posturing that does not deliver value to anyone – customers, shareholders/investors and government.

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