Kenya’s New Mobile Networks:The case for MVNOs

The buzz over the past few weeks in the telco sector has been the news that we will now have three new networks operating in the mobile scene offering voice, data and Value Added Services riding on existing infrastructure.

Competition is always welcome in any industry and cant wait to sample their services. It is interesting that two of the 3 new entrants have a financial background showing that the M-Pesa hype has hit home with players salivating after it. One is Equity Bank Group through a proxy, Finserve Africa Ltd. The other license holder is Mobile Pay Ltd who operate Tangaza Pesa, a money transfer service. Mode comes in third dealing in Value added services for the mobile sector.

All of these networks apparently will run on Airtel Kenya’s unused capacity which makes me wonder exactly how much of their spectrum sits idly while people complain of congestion on Safaricom. Orange have been whining that CCK denied them the license to offer the MVNOs its spectrum. Quite frankly I would have refused too seeing as they seem hell bent on sitting on resources.

James Mwangi, Chief Executive Officer and Mana...
James Mwangi, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director, Equity Bank, Kenya, panelist, “Igniting Innovation in Financial Access: Public & Private Approaches for Greater Access by 2020” (Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection)

From a financial and business viewpoint, this is a sweet deal for Airtel. Have your expensive spectrum utilized, get some money in the bank. For the likes of Finserve Africa, Mode and Mobile Pay things couldn’t look rosier. They are having entry to an already ripe market (some would argue already plateauing) for peanuts as compared to the likes of Safaricom and the fights, struggles that Yu had to go through to start operating.

Setting up Base stations, cabling, software, human resources, license fees and all sorts of other costs leaves mobile operations to the big boys with deep pockets. The new entrants will have to spend especially in marketing but no worries about hardware land issues and spectrum drama. One institution to watch is Finserve Africa simply because it has access to deep pockets with a grudge. A short walk down memory lane will have us see that the much hyped M-Shwari used to be called M-Kesho when the account used to sit with Equity Bank. I know not why they fell out but the resultant loss of footing in the mobile money landscape is something Equity will definitely want to resolve asap.

And now for some free advice from me to Equity Bank. This is a game of attrition. A case of replacing the incumbent. In this regard you want to do precisely the opposite of what they are doing. When it comes to the primary interface with the customer, the phone is king. This is where you want your SIM card to be an option. Do not sell or promote single SIM devices at any cost. Exclusively flog dual SIM or triple SIM devices if and when the show up. The idea is to find space next to Safaricom in users lives. Do not seek to replace because you will fail miserably like Orange, Airtel and Yu. Once you sit next to Safaricom, Make everything cheaper and extremely tightly integrated with Equity bank accounts. All Equity customers are likely to get a SIM card just to see what this new fangled thing is from their favourite bank.

Now to slowly convert followers, offer everything cheaper than Safaricom. Whether its Data, SMS, Money Transfer etc. Then be more flexible than Safaricom in terms of modifying the product to fit your customers. Also being a bank, finally sort out this international payments thing with the CBK to make Paypal and related transactions seamless. Be the defacto payment method for online commerce tied to the mobile phone and you will have all the techies singing your name.

Attack Safaricom on fronts tat they would rather not fight in like opening the mobile money API to the internet for e-commerce.

This remains to be an eventful year and I cant wait to find a way to jump into it.



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Airtel Kenya

I don’t understand some companies.

I imagine that the primary motivation for a commercial company is profit. For a mass market company that profit lies with the consumers. Keeping our consumers happy is thus a reasonable way of getting more money = happy shareholders. Keeping them infuriated is not a good plan.

Back when they were still Celtel or Zain, I got myself a postpaid line since I ad an online gig that needed near constant internet. Back then accessing net was either at a cyber(expensive and movement restricting) or getting a mobile connection(still expensive and slow but doable)

I used to pay what I pay now for my Zuku connection so I expected proper services. It was fine technically for the most part considering the times and the options available.  At some point they decided to ‘revamp’ the postpaid offering. The resulting interaction led to my breaking of he contract.

The deal we had was this. I pay 4,000/- a month and get unlimited internet and 1000/- for voice /SMS usage. Pretty ok and I had no desire to leave this arrangement. The new plan was more or less the same but voice was cheaper so of course I signed on. Once the new postpaid plan was launched they decided that I no longer needed unlimited internet and started billing per MB. All without as much as sending an SMS or email about it. Come the end of the month I am presented with a bill for 45,000/- bob. The ensuing correspondence between us was basically threats about me signing a contract and needing to pay and nonsense about my phone being off when they tried to reach me.

 I just threw away the line and let them keep the deposit.

Recently I came upon Airtel airtime vouchers that was unused for a past project. The vouchers had since expired and thus unusable.

I have had similar predicaments with both Orange and Safaricom and the matter was dealt with swiftly usually by extending the expiry of the cards and rendering them active again. As explained by @tommakau here it is not a prudent policy for telcos to extend the lifespan of  their consumable products but simply refusing to enable consumers to use legitimately purchased resources is just ridiculous.

Calls to the customer care were unfruitful, Twitter responses were the standard ‘ give us your no. and we get back to you’ (They haven’t.), visits to the Customer centers result in a blank look and my cards being slid across the table back to me. Basically the message is ‘ You shouldn’t have let them expire in the first place.’ For the most part they have no idea what to do with them. Replacing or sorting you out is seemingly not amongst their options.

I now have 3,000/- bob worth of Airtel airtime and the best I can do with it is use them as table wedges or kindling for fire.




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Orange Kenya: Most Infuriating Sleeping Giant

So today I woke up to this from the folks over a @orange_kenya

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Which is a follow up to a full page ad from yesterday where they prove to be the cheaper option for making calls either way you slice it.

Have been an Orange customer since they started operations and I am particularly a sucker for their brand and marketing. Whoever manages this is pretty good at their job. The marketing is however miles away from the actual service that you recieve. I have for instance been complaining about the notification of the end of an unlimited internet subscription cycle. Currently at the end of the month data just starts using your airtime. An SMS a day before this happens would enable me to promptly subscribe again for the next month. But now I am left with no Airtime, no data and feeling annoyed.

Either way Orange are a giant that has been sitting in its own pee for a long time and at least I think they are now starting to think of taking on the new giant whom they allowed to grow up.

I have always advocated for the underdogs to accept their place and work with it instead of calling themselves leading anything. Safaricom is the mother and father of the telco industry as it stands. Market dual SIM phones like your life depends on it, because it does. Orange should infact be only selling Dual SIM versions of all the popular hardware. And sell them at cost. Then market your network as cheap for calls and data. Dont ask anyone to dump Safaricom because they wont. My Safaricom line has never left my side and remains my main line. I however make most of my calls and data and text from my Orange line for purely economic reasons.

Invite users to try out your ecosystem without destabilizing their routine. Cannibalize Safaricom’s market slowly and eventually profits will come.

The way out is not in price wars as Airtel has realized. Be the side chick and even though you may never manage to replace the wife, you will get most of the money. Which is the whole point anyway. Dont seek to replace Safaricoms SIM, fight for space next to it. There is a reason Safaricom never sells any Twin SIM handset. Its a mortal threat and they know it.

I thought Yu were going to go this route but they just joined the Line and are now angling for an exit.

Orang has another Troika in its arsenal but is content with leaving it as a dumb data pipe. The CDMA network that the predecessor Telkom Kenya worked so hard to build is basically now Modemland. Launch a slew of Smartphones that run on CDMA and sell them for cheap. Make data on this network cheaper than on GSM because I believe technically this is the case. Now you know that anyone who buys this handset is not going anywhere and the tech assures this.

Why they are not negotiating with AT&T for their old iphone 4 s that run on CDMA to resell locally for super cheap is puzzling. Here they have a network hat is  mostly idle that assures lock in and revenue and they do nothing to monetize it.

Meanwhile lets see how much money Safaricom makes this quarter.


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Safaricom 3G underperforming

I intend to keep my interactions with Safaricom to a minimum because contrary to their impressive PR machine they are not affordable at all. I kinda like keeping money in my wallet where possible and Safaricom tends not to like that. Not that I have a problem with their profits or anything. I think anyone who is smart enough should make as much money from the market as is sensible. They also have the best Customer Service this side of the continent. That helps.

I am usually on orange for data and voice and mostly on Safaricom for MPesa.

Early last week, I got sent to Kwale by the office and knowing that the only hope of getting broadband here is through Safaricom, I promptly bought 1GB of data and prepared to instagram the sh** out of some palm trees. The experience I go was far from broadband and could only be described as EDGE on Heroin. I could barely do anything despite the network icon indicating I was on HSDPA+.

Side Bar::

When looking for todays weather forecast, came across this:

Can’t make this stuff up.

End of Side Bar::

Now for Safaricom to have such issues makes a mockery of the premiums they charge.

Thinking this was an extension of the Pwani-sio-Kenya vibe i tried it out when I went upcountry to Nyeri. The performance was better but more sluggish than expected. I discovered this morning that my case was not isolated and as of yet no word from the affable CEO to anyone from the rank and file. This may not register on the QoS dashboard of the line managers but I think a sizable no. of subscribers is affected.

Not a problem anymore for me though when in the city  since I am on Orange on the go and Wifi at work and home.




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iPhone 4 locked to Three UK

If there was ever a pain in the rear quarters it would involve a slab of fancy glass, aluminium, plastic encasing even fancier electronics in the name of an Apple product that so happened to be sold by a certain telephone company trading as Three in the UK.

For those not in the know(And I hope that is very few) once you buy  an iphone who’s origin is “overseas” you better hope it is unlocked. This is to mean it is not locked to a particular network which would mean you are shit outta luck if you put your battered Safaricom or Celtel Sim card in it. It will look back at you like you cant afford it.

I happened to be given the seemingly simple task of unlocking an iPhone 4 for a pal. This ought to be more routine than a walk down the street or buying a smokie from one of those roadside guys but just like Murphy discovered, what can go wrong definitely does.

Of all the networks the damn thing could be locked to, it happened to be locked to Three. Unlocking it using the IMEI ( The only permanent and easiest method) happens to cost 5 times what unlocking from other networks costs. I actually googled it and there are zero alternatives. If the Phone happened to be from O2 or Verizon then I would have gotten away with a 3,000/- unlock but Three demands a 14,000/- payment. Damn you Cupertino.

I have no idea why there is such a discrepancy between providers from the same country but I have to assume it is because some manager somewhere is being anal. All I know is this is aking my life unreasonably expensive. It even stops being economically feasible.

A second hand unlocked iphone 4 on OLX costs 25,000/-. Little incentive to spend 15,000/- on an unlock on a used phone when you can get better quality and less battered hardware for 10,000/- extra.

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How to bungle an election

Well this has gone to shit fast.

The Coat of arms of Kenya
The Coat of arms of Kenya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here we were with an expensive electronic system that was supposed to guard against rigging, gerrymandering and all sorts of irregularities that are the staple of Kenyan elections. All that is until the whole damn thing collapsed with so many issues that it was fully abandoned and now we are back to the 19th century with manual counting. Atleast we have calculators. That should help.

Some say, the issue was the server running out of harddisk space, others that Safaricom collapsed under the traffic (which was pitifully little, only hashed text was being sent from the Returning officers.) Others speculate that the server (vulnerable like anything else connected to the internet) was hacked to bits and a permanent 400,000 lead in favour of Uhuru Kenyatta was coded in.

The conspiracy theory in me tells me this is more a human problem than a technical one. Someone/some people are trying to rig themselves in and the ripple effects of these actions are the visible events at Bomas of Kenya. I say this at the risk of being branded a warmonger or unpatriotic kenyan ad nauseam but I stand by it. There is nothing normal about the Chairman of the IEBC insisting on the fact that the law gives him a week to announce the presidential results. That signals a big problem that has required a recount or in depth audit of the results filed by the Returning officers. The slow rate at which the results are bing announced is also disheartening. & constituencies since morning. What possible issue could justify such a rate?

A useful site has been put up by Eric Hersman  to investigate the internals of the system and the flow of the electoral information from the polling centers to the National     Tallying center. Here is the site ( This should be the start of the investigation into how a Ksh. 10 Billion plus election that has spent extremely heavily on tech has proceeded to dump the tech.

As is the Kenyan style, the biggest problem that the public has is with the PR department of the IEBC. Everything was fine 5 hrs after tallying began until the incrments slowed down to a painful trickle. All through the communication style of the commission was unsatisfactory with all manner of quotations of the law with less and less of what the public actually wanted. Actual results!

Speculation without evidence is generally shunned in my circles so I avoid it. But with scanty information coming from the authorities, throwing stones in the dark tends to get a response.

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Best Kenyan Ads of all time

Advertising has got to be the best story giving medium there is what with the constrained time that they are allocated and the commercial motives behind their production.

A good advertisement does wonders for a product and leaves such a lasting impression whos value far surpasses the initial investment that went into making it.

If you manage to cram a story, humor and a message into an ad without making it look rushed then you have your lasting impression right there.

Here is a collection of Kenyan focused ads that did it for me in terms of creativity,  originality, humor and product placement.

Trust condoms have always been marketed by the most creative ads in the kenyan space as far as I can tell. The ads below are many years old but their creativity and originality have not been surpassed to date.

Jamii telekom (A local telecoms company) have been pushing their FTTH product pretty hard over the last couple of months promising glorious speeds to their users. These ads that have been running on mainstream TV have really helped the brand along and Faiba is now slang for awesome (atleast around my circles)

This is the Iconic ad by Safaricom that sought to rally the patriotism of kenyans and associate it with their brand. Worked perfectly. There are some awesome shots of rarely before seen sceney that puts the boring campaigns by Magical Kenya to shame

This is a series of ads by Kencell the predecessor of Celtel,Zain and now Airtel. This was at the height of their media battles with Safaricom when they were the only two mobile phone companies in the country.

This is part of a media campaign of the Duracoat house paint brand hyping their product. Pretty funny and communicated well.

Yu Kenya taga mayai

Yu Kenya call rate guy

Fresh Freddy was a media campaign by Close- Up to sell toothpaste. It was funny and very entertaining.

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Orange + iPad

I gotta tell you folks I am pretty convinced that Orange Kenya are the kings and queens of unfinished business.

I first observed this prior to the launch of the iPhone 3G. Here was a multinational with a kick ass brand launching the most superior handset on the planet backed by a company that is literally loved by its fan boys and they didn’t even have a 3G network or even a promise that this was forthcoming. This was moronic in my view but in retrospect it may have been a good move.

As Seth Godin keeps saying, Ship! move whatever crap you have in your warehouse however horrible it is. Criticism and ridicule can only improve you.

Skip to 2011 and a fella called Mwangi needs a microsim to slip into an iPad and rock on the impressive 3G network that is pimped by Orange. Just to make things clear, i have options. Airtel and the Safaricom both have decent 3G offerings so this choice has nothing to do with technology. Just loyalty and after all they do stock iPhones so handling an iPads needs should be painless no?


Its like a psychedelic induced mole believing your behind is its rightful home. The seemingly clueless customer care do not help one bit. Here is a rudimentary checklist.

  1. Do they stock Microsims? = yes
  2. Is the no. on the microsim easily visible? = No
  3. Is it visible at all? = no
  4. Does calling customer care help? = no
  5. can you top up? = yes
  6. is there a confirmation? = no
  7. can you buy a bundle ?= no
  8. Does customer care help? = no
  9. Do you feel like slapping someone ? = YES

With Safaricom on the other hand we have this wonderful site that lets you buy bundles direct from the browser. Doesnt matter your device all you need is airtime on it.

Money and customer loyalty is not rocket science. How do Orange imagine iPad users on their network will top up, buy bundles and happily browse?



I have just received a call from orange and they are trying to sort me out. They also say they are in the final stages of creating a web portal to carry out such activities on non USSD compatible gadgets. Thumbs up!

Update 2

They have since launched a web portal through which you can manage any no. that you own or use. Now buying bundles and loading airtime is a breeze. Kudos !! You can find it here

Android and Safaricom Goldmine



Ever since mid 2010, Safaricom has been selling a plethora of android based handsets most of them unlocked and at subsidized rates. The latest handset to be pimped to the populace is the Huawei ideos retailing at 8499/- bundled with 1000/- airtime and 600MB of data. A good deal anyway you splice it. This has put the android platform in the hands of many who can be easily convinced that android is a European vegetable. Android1


The android sdk, scratch that the ENTIRE OS is free, opensource and is now running hundreds of thousands of Kenyan phones already and many more are in the waiting line. Despite all these inherent advantages to the ecosystem and am yet to see a locally made app that solves an inherently Kenyan problem. A local news app, traffic jam app, overlapped app, NSE live data feed app, foursquare style app for showing which club is happening, beer prices mapped app, an app that shows the rates of any business/provider from zuku to kplc to Nairobi hospital, e.t.c the list is endless an I don’t think its that hard to code (not a coder and hate debugging).


This is why I believe all this rhetoric about Safaricom being an evil company is misplaced and misdirected. They are here to make money and helping a random developer make money is not in their manifesto. They have created the ecosystem, a user base and a 3g network to boot. Where are the apps? What more do local developers need?




Safaricom unlimited Wimax

Safaricom it turns out won’t call the governments bluff and have launched a service offering where residential consumers get unlimited wimax coverage for 6,000/- bob a month.

I am not sure what speeds are guaranteed or whether there are any setup fees. . . .

this will at least see them dump some of that excess bandwidth they have been holding in the undersea fibre optic cables(seacom and TEAMS). . . .

this is good news by any measure and is most welcome though its sad the government had to growl for them to act. . . Safaricom seem to have an issue with bowing to public pressure and lowering prices . . may come back to bite them in the ar**. . . .

September ’10 Update: Safaricom have broadened their offering and are now offering unlimited Broadband @ 3,999 bob for a 512 kbs connection. No installation costs or equipment fees. Am not too sure but I suppose they will want to tie you to a nice contract to make sure you pay up each month.

Safaricoms latest Wimax Offer