Interview with two researchers at Orange's Marketing and Technologies Innovation Division: Servane Crave, research engineer in prospective and usages in MEA, and Bruno Conquet, manager of enterprise and public digital services research projects in MEA (Middle East Africa).
In some African countries, 99% of all businesses are very small. They are difficult to address, not least because they often have no premises! Yet they already have adopted the cellphone to support their activities and recent trials confirm that they are receptive to value-added digital services that can grow their business.
What in particular do very small businesses in MEA expect from digital?
S.C. Like their western counterparts, Pro users in the MEA region want to boost their operational efficiency and sales performance and enhance their customer experience . Yet their business context is very particular. VSBs are often informal and have several activities. They heavily depend on the smartphone, whose use is exploding, to run their B2B and B2B2C businesses. Using prepaid SIM cards, they zap from one operator to another to get the best rates or coverage. They use WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram to get their products online. Telcos face a serious risk of de-intermediation in these hypercompetitive markets occupied by a multitude of OTT providers. So the challenge is to attract VSB subscribers, and then build loyalty, by proposing paid bundles with connectivity and services to digitize their processes (catalogues, orders, payments) and drive their business. One good example is the Orange Money m-payment system already appreciated by 20 million people. It has proved to have structuring impact in MEA where there are frequent shortages of available cash (partly due to cash transport security issues) and relatively few people have bank accounts.
Which high value-added digital services have you recently tested?
B.C. In Ivory Coast we have trialed the "Place" prototype, which is an intra-enterprise collaborative services platform developed by Orange Labs. For multi-site SMEs, "Place" offers high quality audio and videoconference, internal messaging, and file and screen sharing by exploiting the very simple WebRTC technology, backed by a 4G network. We see "Place" as an excellent value proposition since it enables good quality collaborative interactions thanks to 4G which is bringing excellent broadband connectivity to more and more people.
"My business with Orange" is another prototype developed by Orange Labs and tested in MEA. What does it do?
S.C. This service is a radically innovative inter-enterprise mobile services platform whose prime target is wholesale and retail traders. Its application ecosystem resembles those of social networks in that it includes a website, voice and video calls and mobile payment. It allows, for example, a retailer/follower to monitor an online store, to be notified when new products arrive, to place products in a caddy, to negotiate prices via chat, audio or video, and finally to place an order and pay, and all this in real time. This systems ensures a unified user experience ─ via a smartphone.
Have these trials provided insight into market and usage evolutions in MEA?
B.C. We have seen real appetency among SMEs for video, and this is culturally more marked than in Europe. A business manager can see a real benefit in being able to use video to communicate more effectively, verbally and non-verbally, with remote employees, checking that everything is going well and getting detailed information about any problems. Mobile access to these digital solutions is a must-have for the Pro segment and the quality of this access is determinant in their customer experience.
Cellcos can leverage the robustness of their 4G network and their intimate understanding of the aspirations of small, low-income entrepreneurs to drive the uptake of value-added professional digital services.