Hai began as a small ICT business in 2001, and in less than two decades it has developed into a leading telecommunications provider in Zambia. Managing Director Samson Longwe discusses the company’s development, pioneering technology, and working with the government to provide nationwide connectivity to enhance Zambian livelihoods
How has Hai evolved in the ICT landscape?
Hai may appear as if it were a new company in the Zambian ICT space but the company has existed in Zambia since 2001. In 2009 we reached a major milestone when Copperbelt Energy Corporation Plc (CEC) acquired the business. At the time, the company was referred to as Realtime Technology Alliance Africa Ltd, and we changed from a small family ICT business to a company that now has the ambition to pursue connectivity across Zambia using fibre optic technology.
Copperbelt Energy Corporation was the first in the country to install an extensive fibre network. The network was strategically built with excess capacity, which the company intended to commercialise later on. One of their objectives was to be able to provide reliable service to corporate entities across the country, so it became necessary to partner with a company that was also ready to extend their services nationwide. Hence, the joint venture that was formed in 2009. From there, the company became the first to roll out end-to-end fibre connectivity in Zambia.
In 2015, after Realtime managed to connect a number of corporate entities, another opportunity arose. Following the formation of another joint venture in the Group, it was decided that Hai would become a direct subsidiary of CEC Liquid Telecommunications, a 50/50 joint venture of Copperbelt Energy Corporation Plc and Liquid Telecoms. Before this, the company’s forecast in terms of markets was specifically targeted at servicing institutional customers, but the company is now able to service the mass market as well. Throughout this journey we have remained a very ambitious company with the desire to continuously grow as we provide quality and reliable connectivity to our esteemed customers.
The jump between providing your services to corporate companies and institutional clients to the mass market means entering a very different game. How have you adapted, and what have been the main challenges in that adaptation?
In our view, providing service to the corporate entities can be more sophisticated than providing services to the mass market. When you’re providing service to institutional customers, you provide a more customisable service which can be more complex. However, when you are providing service to the retail market, you get into the market with standard offerings so it becomes a little bit easier. However, I think the complexity arises with handling higher volumes. You begin to handle more customers whose reporting lines may not be very structured. One of the first challenges we saw was that immediately our call centre became incapacitated. It was structured for a few institutional customers, meaning we needed to expand our telephone exchange so we could service multiple customers. Secondly, as you get into the mass market, you pick up distribution costs because you have to be publicly accessible. You have to open retail stores and increase marketing. These changes were coupled with an increase in the number of staff we had to hire. We found ourselves in a situation where we needed to make continuous improvements. To use a phrase that we came across recently, “We had to build the plane as we were flying it”. It’s been an interesting journey, but certainly a fulfilling one.
Hai’s advertisements can be seen all around the country. What are you trying to achieve with the brand?
By choosing a name like Hai, we are trying to exemplify to customers that they can connect onto our networks to enhance their lifestyles. Today we can’t imagine what life would be like without ICTs. HAI would like to make sure that customers are able to achieve as much as possible in terms of the various needs that they may have, ranging from banking, e-commerce, tax payment, e-learning, to home entertainment. We are contributing to the enrichment of Zambian people’s lifestyles.
Why did you decide to rebrand as Hai Alive?
The word HAI is a Swahili word that means “I’m alive”. One of our joint venture partners has a pan-African agenda to roll out connectivity across Africa, and it was the intention to use Hai as the retail name for our operations across Africa. Swahili is one of the most common languages in Africa, and we thought using a Swahili word was going to be easily accepted by the African public. It’s just a three-letter word, and it’s refreshing. With the sky blue and magenta, we combined colours that are very simple but very bright. Changing the branding has enhanced our visibility. You can’t miss the Hai colours; they just stand out.
Could you describe the services that you offer to both institutional and home customers?
The services that we offer range from connectivity to the provision of value-added services. In terms of the connectivity that we offer to institutional customers, we are providing dedicated leased lines that enable branch networks across the country. Customers can connect seamlessly between branches and head offices, and vice versa. Our links provide customers the ability to lease their own private lines on a reliable and secure network. In addition, we provide our customers with internet connectivity. We pride ourselves on the fact that institutional customers are provided with end-to-end fibre connectivity. A number of our competitors are also appreciating this innovation and connecting their customers with fibre, but our unique advantage is that we have much more experience. For example, if we have outages on our network, we are confident that we’ll be able to restore service as quickly as possible. Furthermore, Hai also has the highest speeds in the country and provides managed services to its customers. We provide our customers with service level agreements and are able to manage their connectivity, even beyond the customer demarcation. We provide 24/7 support services, and if the issue leads to the customer’s internal network, we are able to handle that upon customer request. We are also able to provide network security and bandwidth management. In short, we endeavor to be a complete solutions provider.
For the home customer, in conjunction with our principals, CEC Liquid, we pioneered the offer of fibre to the home in Lusaka. In addition, recently, we were able to offer 4G LTE services across the country. The speeds that we have been able to offer have been phenomenal. Our customers are now able to access more services using these links. Among other things, they are able to use our links for IP TV access and internal security surveillance. They can also do research online and have the opportunity to enhance their education through online programs since affordable connectivity is now at their fingertips.
How has the Zambian government influenced the industry?
The Zambian government has been very supportive in the growth of ICTs. First of all, ICTs are a catalyst to the development of the economy. We have seen a transformation of the regulatory framework aimed at ensuring that service providers have a higher capacity. We’ve also seen the government deliberately get involved in the building of raw infrastructure that supports the sector. As service providers, through the association that we belong to, the initiative to establish and upgrade the country’s internet exchange has received tremendous support from the sector regulator, ZICTA. This internet exchange was recently up-scaled with the support of the sector regulators, who were able to sponsor acquisition and installation of modern equipment. In addition, the government recently established state-of-the-art data centres for the purposes of disaster recovery and co-location of operators and some customers. Furthermore, there has been an ongoing initiative by the government to construct communication towers, which I think are going to significantly improve connectivity to the underserved areas of the country. As operators, we are pleased with such decisions because they will make it easier for us to roll out services in rural areas, where the cost of access can be very expensive. Zambia is a very large country and accessing remote areas has always been a challenge. Now, with the support of the government, it will be easier for us to provide services countrywide.
How would you define this interesting time in Zambia’s ICT sector and what is the future going to look like for Hai?
Our vision is to enable connectivity for everyone in Zambia. The government’s drive is helping us realise this vision. As the government develops its infrastructure across the country, it gives us a platform to roll out our services nationwide. For a long time the quality of connectivity in the country was poor, and with our innovative drive, we can provide our customers better services at affordable prices. We are contributing to the government’s objective of increasing connectivity in the country and are happy to partner ourselves with the government’s long-term agenda to develop smart cities.
Do you think British audiences can get involved with ICTs?
Interestingly, one of our joint venture partners, Liquid Telecom, has its headquarters in the UK. I must mention that they have been instrumental in providing digital services in Africa. The Liquid Telecoms network’s reach in Africa spans over 10 countries. After the networks are built, you need to provide more services. We believe that through ICTs, we are going to bridge the gap between the developed and developing world. We are in an interesting era, and our group will help Africa grow and perhaps catch up with the Western world. We’re helping globalisation become a reality.
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