Flying Nigeria’s Telecom Flag– Mike Awoyinfa Column

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Winston Churchill once said: “Some see private enterprise as the predatory target to be shot, others as a cow to be milked, but few are those who see it as a sturdy horse pulling the wagon.”
Dr. Mike Adenuga (GCON) belongs to those few. On this occasion of Nigeria’s 62nd independence anniversary, may I celebrate my friend, my biographee, this captain proudly flying Nigeria’s telecoms flag, a powerful business leader in the commanding heights of the Nigerian economy?
If you are looking for the secrets of resilience in business, the man to ask is Mike Adenuga, the man who single-handedly built a Nigerian telecoms brand from point zero, even though he had no previous experience in that highly technical and capital-intensive field.
In 2001, Adenuga’s bid to own a GSM licence hit the rocks when the NCC revoked the licence of his company, CIL, over controversy about the timing of the payment of his licence fee of $285 million. Adenuga had placed a caveat on the payment of the licence fee to NCC account when he discovered that the frequency allocated to his company was under litigation. However, while MTN and Econet Wireless Company, all foreign-owned companies from South Africa, went home with their licences, CIL’s licence got bogged down in controversy. In the end, he not only lost the licence, he also forfeited the whopping $20 million bid deposit.
It was a huge blow that would have knocked many faint-hearted tycoons out of the telecoms market forever, but not Adenuga. All through the licence crisis, Adenuga never for once displayed the hint of a man giving up hope. His faith in getting back his licence remained as high as Mount Kilimanjaro and this at times left people around him wondering what fueled his optimism. He soon bounced back with a new company, Globacom, that miraculously won a basket of licences for a lesser amount—$200 million. But the snag was that at the time Adenuga finally got his licence to enter the GSM market, MTN and ECONET had already dominated the market. While MTN already had over a million subscribers and controlled 60 percent of the market, ECONET had close to a million subscribers representing over 35 percent of the market share with the government-owned NITEL bringing up the rear.
The challenges that faced Adenuga were more than daunting. First, was obviously mobilizing the hundreds of millions of dollars required to take off. Next, was meeting up the technological requirements, especially for a wholly indigenous company. But even more daunting was the market challenge: how to enter the Globacom brand into a market already dominated by two highly marketing-driven multinationals that were determined to frustrate any newcomer into the market.
Many skeptics didn’t give Globacom much of a chance, especially with the poor showing of the government-owned M-Tel, which promised so much and delivered so little. Adenuga’s challenge was to identify a void in the existing market sphere and exploit it to the fullest. He knew that Nigerians like to talk but not at the exorbitant rate the existing companies were charging through their per-minute, rather than per-second, billing. Adenuga’s market entry strategy was not only to offer his airtime at a cheaper rate than the existing companies but also to offer the per-second billing, which the existing companies had claimed, was impracticable because of the great technological requirements. Taking on a market leader in a price war has always been considered a grave gamble in marketing that is more often than not fraught with great danger for the underdog. But Adenuga had strong muscles and was ready for war at whatever price. As events turned out, the market rewarded his bravery with passion and a sense of relief.
It was not only that Globacom achieved market penetration through the per-second billing offering, it also forced a strategic revolution in the telecoms market when the huge swing of consumers’ patronage forced the market leaders to follow suit with the per-second billing, thereby exploding the myth that per-second billing required extraordinary technology. Nigerians instantly hailed the per-second billing system and Globacom brand became an instant hero, shaking the market and causing disruptions and confusion in the camps of the competition. With the force of an invading army, Globacom took the nation by storm, rolling on across the nation, backed by a blitz of powerful advertising and low-pricing strategy. Overnight, buildings were taken over and painted in the corporate colours of lemon green, which isn’t too far from the national green colour.
Next, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s and Africa’s first Nobel laureate in literature was seen on television ads evangelizing the gospel according to Globacom. That in itself was big news! Soyinka, a Nigerian and a global literary icon doing a commercial for Globacom which was aired several times on CNN. A Nigerian brand arriving on the global stage. It was a marketing coup. And the man behind the coup was Globacom’s chairman, Dr. Mike Adenuga, a man with an indefatigable passion for business and branding. “The Globacom proposition is founded more on passion than economic returns,” he says. The story of Adenuga is the story of the fall and rise of a man who refuses to give up until he attains the goals he has set for himself. Nineteen years ago, in my time as the pioneer MD/Editor-in-chief, The SUN newspaper chose Mike Adenuga as the first ever SUN Man of The Year for creating Glo, a proudly Nigerian telecoms brand with the spirit and colour of Nigeria; a fighter and advocate for the cause of Nigerian masses through the famous per-second billing which is a demonstration of transparency and integrity, that you don’t need to cheat Nigerians in order to make profit. For all he has done in brand building and entrepreneurship, Mike Adenuga deserves to be written about and studied in higher institutions of learning by scholars using him as a veritable case study for their PhD thesis. Long before we heard Kizz Daniel’s massive hit song ‘Buga,’ catching fire globally, Glo had asked Nigerians to ‘Glo with Pride.’

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