Zambia: Interview with Samson Longwe

Samson Longwe

Managing Director (Realtime Zambia)

Samson Longwe

You are aware that the US economy and the European economies are currently facing some challenges and everyone seems to be thinking that Africa is the next big thing. I would like to know your point of view on this, and how do you see Zambia within this context?


Africa is at a unique stage primarily because for a long time Africa has been considered a green-field market. This is because most of its exports comprise primary products. With the depression of Western economies, Africa is also being seen as the next market. We have also seen the emergence of countries in the East such as Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa. These have considered Africa as a good trade partner, because their products can hardly get into the western market, so Africa inherently becomes a favourable market for them.


What about Zambia?


Zambia, as being part of Africa is obviously expected to benefit from international trade, as you may be aware Zambia is the second largest exporter of copper in Africa. Apart from that, we also export a number of non-traditional products. We have been fortunate because we have had good leadership as a country and we have consistently posted very remarkable growth in GDP, averaging about 6 % per annum. The peaceful environment is also another added advantage for the country, so Zambia therefore becomes an attractive destination for investment, on account of its peace, stable economy, and manpower resource.


When it comes to the ICT’s sector, I would like you to give us an overview. What are the strengths & the challenges of the sector?


The ICT sector is responsible for creating efficiencies. There has been an increase in the demand for ICT services. Business and individuals have come to realize the importance of ICT products and services. We continue to see an increase in demand in Zambia and the government continues to encourage the use of e-platforms.


According to statistics published in this country, ICT penetration and Internet services still remain as low as roughly about 10% mainly owing to high cost of access. However, we have seen the cost of access progressively coming down as investments increase in the sector. Therefore, there is huge potential for growth.


Real Time has been on the market for the past 14 years. Please give us some history about the company and give us the details of your operations and services?


Real Time was initially established in Zambia in 2001 as a small family business and was initially set up as an ICT equipment reseller and network installer. Prior to that, the company had been trading in Zimbabwe. However, over time as customers began to request for more services, Realtime saw an opportunity to begin providing connectivity solutions. Consequently, the company also saw the need to form strategic alliances. The idea of the joint venture was muted to attract additional equity so that the company could expand further. So in 2009, Copperbelt Energy Corporation (CEC) and Real Time formed  a joint venture


How did it come about, how did it happen?


In 2006, CEC, which was the first in this country to install an operational optic fibre network decided to commercialise its optic fibre assets. Being a power company, it decided to appoint a preferred last mile service provider to deliver connectivity between CEC’s network and the customers that wished to connect to the optic fibre network.  At the time, Real Time was also in a position of rolling out its network, and therefore, its objectives were in tandem with CEC’s, so that is how the relationship began. Subsequently, a joint venture between the two was formed in 2009 whereby CEC bought 50% of Real Time.


We saw an opportunity on the market to focus on the needs of institutional customers because that was the market that was looking for reliable connectivity. So we set out to become a company that was providing service predominantly to institutional customers.


What is the connection with your sister company? What is the structural relationship?


CEC liquid is a wholesaler while Real Time is a retailer. The way the licensing works worldwide in the ICT sector is that when you are wholesaler, you are expected to be selling your products and services to similar companies (wholesalers) or to operators who are providing service in the retail market. As we speak, there are intentions to consolidate the telecom subsidiaries of CEC, and arrangements are already underway for CEC Liquid Telecom to buy out Real Time. Therefore, Real Time will become a subsidiary and consequently the retail arm of CEC Liquid Telecom. However, CEC Liquid Telecom will deal with Realtime at arms-length as it also has to deal with other operators in the sector.


So where does Real Time position itself in this market? What is your target?


The vision of Real Time has been to be the leading ICT service provider. We remain focused in the pursuit of this vision. We believe in providing quality service and to corporates or institutional customers, and have therefore become a leading provider in this market segment. Currently, we provide service to about 45% of Zambia’s institutions.


Our vision is to continue being the leading service provider in the sector. The target will be of course to achieve as much market share as possible, but considering the liberalised nature of modern economies I suppose we would be comfortable to assume dorminant market share. We believe this will be possible particularly as we also enter the mass market using fibre to the premises technology. This should revolutionalise internet provision in the country and consequently generate demand for our services. We acknowledge though that we operate in a very competitive business environment with about 22 registered Internet service providers in this country.


What about the company’s financial figures? How many employees do you have?


We currently employ 53 staff, but as a result of the new product that we are rolling out, this month alone we have recruited another ten (10) staff. So, right now we should be sitting at over 60 employees. From the appetite in the market, we can tell that we should easily reach about 80 staff by the end of the year.


What is the annual growth rate for this year compared to last year’s?


As a result of the change in our technology from reliance on VSATs and wireless technologies to predominantly fibre, we did experience a huge step up growth  in income between the years 2009 and 2011. We had the biggest leaps in 2009, 2010 and 2011. After that we have seen the growth sort of stabilise to levels of about 15 to 18 % per annum. When you consider the period from 2009 to date, we grew to about 500% in turnover.


How did you achieve that, especially with a new product?


The growth is obviously huge and we achieved this through different ways. First, it was of course the capital injection. We had new capital coming into the business in 2009 and we were able to effectively utilise it and roll out a new product that was non-existent on the market. Therefore, we had the comparative advantage of deploying a new technology of fibre on the market. In short, the changes have happened in this company as a result of.


  1.  The shift in technology leading to quality service provisioning
  2. Change  in leadership and development of strong management systems
  3. Adoption of a customer centric service culture.


It seems like Real Time is very good at anticipating trends and customer needs, what about your annual turnover?


Well, we are still very small but considering the size of our economy, we are quite significant. Last year we posted about US$7 million in turnover. This year we have budgeted to realise US$9 million, so that is the size of the business. It is small but growing, and we believe we will continue growing.


You said that you capture about 45% of the market share, so what is your position at the moment? Are you the number one on the market?


As mentioned earlier, we can reiterate that we are the leading service provider in the market segment of institutional customers. Our market share continues to increase on account of continuous improvement in our quality of service. Secondly, as we adopt a suitable technology for entry into the SME and residential markets we envisage to gain more market share in other markets, where hitherto we have been weaker.


Real time started growing when you came into place, what is the main skill that you have been using to manage your people in order to get the best out of them?


I suppose leadership is the key for sustained success of any undertaking. At Realtime our main thrust has been to prioritise quality service provision to our valued customers, providing solutions that meet our customers’ unique requirements and also ensuring that we resource the best staff for our service delivery.