African operators have been urged to get to know their customers in rural areas better in order to work out how to best offer and extract value, driving penetration of internet and mobile services while proving beneficial for the providers.

This is according to Francois Laureys, country programme manager in West Africa at ICT for development non-profit IICD and Supratim Bilwas, senior vice president of business development at mobile marketing firm TIMWE, who were speaking on a panel at the VAS Africa summit in Johannesburg this week.

They said operators needed to learn more about their customers in order to know what value added services (VAS) they could provide that could make signing up such subscribers profitable to them.

“Operators have this opportunity to build value on top of connectivity,” said Bilwas. “If the services are good people are going to pay for it. Enterprises are going to pay for it. That’s how we expand the industry, that’s how we become relevant to a bigger market of consumers that don’t currently use VAS.”

Laureys used the example of the eight million farmers in Mali, who each earn less than US$1 per day, and said operators had to find a way of making these people relevant to them beyond the point of merely adding subscriber numbers if connectivity was to be provided in a mutually beneficial manner.

“You may have a short-term gain in the users, but in the long-term you need to come up with other business models. Once you know the farmers, you can learn what they want and add value,” he said. “If you stay on a short-term track then you will not gain much from those users.”

Aside from benefiting from providing VAS to subscribers currently deemed unprofitable, the pair said there was also additional benefits in providing the collected data to other entities, most importantly data-starved African governments.

“In most African countries the data collection starts from the bottom and takes months. There is a huge need there and the mobile industry can help governments and solve that problem,” Laureys said.

“Many people don’t know where to go to get information, so that is a big need. This data collection is a huge field that can be enhanced.”

They acknowledged, however, that in order to tap into this market operators would need to make sizeable investments in the necessary infrastructure and personnel, but argued it would prove profitable in the end.

“From the operator’s perspective it is about building the infrastructure that will make them a service provider. It is an opportunity for operators to be really relevant,” said Bilwas.

“Getting to know your clients means you will need to develop departments that are geared towards that. To get to know a farmer you need to go into the field,” Laureys said.

Laureys said operators could make such a policy profitable as long as they made it scalable.

“This kind of monitoring service is really coming up. The main thing is to come up with services that are scalable and can be rolled out on a large scale, and the investment can be secured by maintaining that scale,” he said.

“In Mali, there is still no registration of SIM cards. The policy of the operators has been to get as many subscribers as possible. I think the operators need to know their clients and build data based on that. You get to profile your clients and work out what their exact needs are and build services for them.”

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