Government-owned mobile phone operator NetOne has been rocked by many scandals in recent weeks that culminated in chief executive officer Reward Kangai being sent on forced leave.
Our reporter Obey Manayiti (OM) last week spoke to NetOne board chairman Alex Marufu (AM) to get an insight into the state of affairs at the second biggest mobile phone operator in Zimbabwe. Below are excerpts of the interview.
OM: What is your vision for NetOne?
AM: The current NetOne board sees NetOne becoming a leading player in the telecoms industry in Zimbabwe.
We see the business as an employer of choice; offering quality services to the Zimbabwean population, both rural and urban, offering services that will allow them to become more productive in whatever they are doing to improve their lives.
We want the business to be a key cog in the machinery that will make Zimbabwe a productive economy, contributing positively to the fiscus. In order to do this, we must be focused, we must be innovative, we must have a profitable business that attracts capital.
OM: We see there is a spirited clean-up campaign at NetOne. What should the nation expect in the next few months?
AM: It’s all part of what we want to do to get the business to where we want to get it.
We want a team of focused professionals that are as passionate about delivery as the board is.
We want to kill the culture of “untouchable” chefs and have a culture where people are judged by the quality of their ideas…not who they know.
Given the support that we have received so far from the government, expect to see a profitable business.
Expect to walk into welcoming NetOne shops manned by people that are willing to help you…expect world-class services from the network…
OM: Is it true the clean-up is linked to factional fights in Zanu PF and [that] those opposed to your preferred faction are on the firing line?
AM: I am not a politician and unfortunately (or fortunately), I stay very far away from politics.
Our principal as a board is the honourable minister of Information, Communication and Technology and Courier Services (Supa Mandiwanzira) and his in turn is His Excellency the president (Robert Mugabe).
We take direction from the minister and we use every opportunity to employ our technical skills to advise the minister on how we see the business developing so as to help him shape policy.
So we allow the minister to focus on the politics and we focus on the business of running a mobile network operator.
OM: NetOne was the first mobile network to be licensed in the country but it is now lagging behind. What could be the reasons for that?
AM: There have been claims that a lack of investment by government into the network is responsible for the slow growth of the network.
From what I have seen, the convoluted procurement process through the State Procurement Board (I must state though that I see them as a necessary evil required to stop abuse of state resources), has been responsible for the slow growth of the network.
What we need to do is to continue to lobby for changes that will allow high-tech businesses like NetOne and TelOne to move quickly to take advantage of opportunities; we need to couple this with a better understanding of procurement rules so that we do not lose time unnecessarily when we want to embark on projects.
OM: There have been allegations that NetOne is a feeding trough for Zanu PF officials, especially ministers. Recently there were allegations that NetOne was asked to pay $200 000 to sponsor the victory celebrations for Mandiwanzira. What is your comment?
AM: I have no knowledge of any payments made to Zanu PF by NetOne and I certainly have no knowledge of a $200 000 sponsorship for the minister.
We have, however, initiated a forensic audit (which has the full support incidentally of the same minister you mention) so that as a board, we have a full understanding of any failures in our procurement and payment processes, among others.
OM: Some allege that you are fighting for Mandiwanzira, especially following his fallout with a major NetOne contractor and owner of Bopela, Agrippa Masiyakurima, whom you are now pursuing as well.
AM: We have no other objectives than to improve the business of NetOne. We have expressed some discomfort over some transactions that have been conducted with NetOne by a number of players. Bopela is just one of them.
OM: What measures are in place to improve corporate governance at NetOne?
AM: The board sees proper corporate governance as being central to improving performance of the business. So as a board, we are quite hard on ourselves, just as hard as we are on the organisation. We undergo regular training on corporate governance. We rate ourselves as a board.
I, as chairman, am measured by the board based on my performance, so we take nothing for granted. We want to lead by example. We value transparency. We value accountability.
OM: In terms of registration, is it true that NetOne is registered in the name of Kangai and one of his secretaries?
AM: NetOne is a business that is owned 100% by the government of Zimbabwe.
OM: The new board has unearthed financial irregularities at NetOne. Are you in a way blaming management and the previous board for having slept on duty?
AM: Not at all. We have seen a number of areas that we are uncomfortable with and we have requested the Comptroller and Auditor-General to help us look closely at these.
It is quite possible that some of these may actually be explainable, but so far we have not been satisfied with the explanations that we have been given.
We are not apportioning blame to anyone and our interest really is improving the business of NetOne so that we can make it as successful as we would like it to be.
OM: Recent data shows that NetOne is gaining market share. What is your target in the short-to-medium term?
AM: We are going to be the number one mobile network operator in Zimbabwe.
I may not be the one carrying the flag when we cross the finish line…but while I am at the helm, I will lead the charge and I make it clear to the team every time I speak to them that is where we are headed.
We have doubled the number of subscribers since we were appointed as a board…if we double the numbers, again we will be the same size as Econet.
I am not so naive as to think that subscribers are everything…but as Google has shown (even Econet locally), if you have the numbers, you can very easily offer other services that will grow your top line and ultimately your bottomline.
OM: Who is Alex Marufu?
AM: I am a born and bred Zimbabwean, very much a product of the Zimbabwean education system. I have worked for over 27 years in the IT industry for local and international companies and have started and sold no less than three businesses so I am an entrepreneur in my bones.
I am married to Tapiwa who keeps me firmly anchored to the ground and while we have three children of our own, our family is like any other African family…large and extended.
OM: What value are you going to bring to NetOne?
AM: More than anything else, I hope I bring to NetOne a passion to do well, a sense of fairness, and a desire to contribute to something bigger than what we do on a day-to-day basis.