Monrovia – The saying that time passes in the twinkle of an eye holds true for the engagement of Orange in Liberia. It was a year ago in May 2017, that Liberia’s GSM company Cellcom was acquired and rebranded as Orange Liberia. Orange promised transformation at a level and pace that would be unprecedented in Liberia. This five-part series looks at the first year journey of Orange in Liberia and explores the impact that the company has made since its arrival a year ago.
In part one, we explore the improvements that Orange has made in terms of connecting people through massive network investments. In part two, we will look at how the lives of Liberians have been directly transformed thanks to Orange. In part three, we will focus on the role Orange has played in fostering fun and innovation. In part four, we will delve into the company’s efforts at financial inclusion and digitization. Finally, in part five, we will look at the impact of Orange on businesses and will sum up the overall journey that Orange has taken so far.
There is probably no better way to start this article with the words of the Orange Middle East and Africa CEO Mr. Bruno Mettling who spoke passionately at the rebranding program on MAY 18th, 2018. Mr. Mettling opened his remarks by stating: “with this rebranding, Liberia is now a key part in reinforcing the strong presence Orange has in Africa. It may interest our audience that one out of ten Africans is an Orange customer. Now, Liberia’s customers have joined our total customer base of 120 million customers in 19 countries and we are particularly proud of being not only in Liberia, but also in all the countries of the Mano River Union.” He went on to declare: “…we will deploy all of the expertise, ambition, and the digital transformation vision of Orange Group to Liberia. Through today’s launch of Orange brand, be assured of our desire to meet the needs and expectations of Liberia and to support your efforts to boost social and economic development. My commitment before you is to have 4G LTE in ten cities by the first year of Orange presence.”
But how has this translated to real tangible benefits for Liberia after one year? We put this question to the Chief Digital and Integration Officer at Orange Mr. Kolo Kone who responded that the strides that Orange had made to develop its network was “unprecedented.” Mr. Kone explained that Orange had already deployed 100 new sites in some of the most hardest parts to reach of Liberia. What’s more significant is not only the expansion of the network by building new sites, but specifically the fact that Orange is investing more resources in expanding its 4G LTE network outside of Monrovia. This development of 4G LTE has already impacted more than ten major locations as promised by Mr. Bruno Mettling: Buchanan, Cuttington University, Foya, Ganta, Gbarnga, Harper, Kakata, Monrovia, Voinjama, Yekepa town now benefit from the fastest Internet network in Liberia. Orange is now officially the only telelecommunications company with high speed 4G LTE capability in seven counties out of Montserrado.
The number of new sites built so far marks an incredible 43% increase in total overall network sites since Orange acquired Cellcom. Mr. Kone noted “our predecessors had already made significant efforts to open sites in hard to reach areas like Konobo, Grand Gedeh so imagine the impact of a 43% increase,” he said. The Konobo site was built in an area which was so remote, that residents said they sometimes felt like they were in a different country. With the construction of the first telecommunications site in that area, residents fondly named it “the tower of justice” observing that they finally felt connected to the rest of Liberia. While an international health organization called Last Mile Health said that the site has helped it save the lives of many individuals who otherwise would not have been able to reach a health care worker.
While Mr. Kone and his team are proud of the impact of the expansion, they quickly share stories of how daunting a task several of the sites were to complete. Mr. Kone explained that certain rural locations were very challenging to work in. Many areas lacked road infrastructure and in these areas where roads or bridged were impassable and vehicles could not get through, equipment weighting thousands of pounds had to be carried by hand. Mr. Kone reflected: “we could have simply made the decision not to invest in these hard to reach areas, but we had already set a goal that we would build networks even in places where there were no roads to ensure that every Liberian has access to our powerful network.”
In addition to the deployment of 4G LTE sites outside of Monrovia, the company has also gone a step further by introducing FastConnect Internet services to both Monrovia as well as Buchanan. FastConnect is a 4G-TDD solution which provides a dedicated high speed Internet network for businesses which need very large volumes of data to operate. In order to deploy its FastConnect service, Orange had to invest in and built a completely different platform from 4G LTE thereby giving customers using that service a superior experience.
It is expected that both 4G LTE and FastConnect will shortly be further boosted by the company’s planned rollout of its fiber optics network in a matter of weeks. Orange has already laid the first meters of its fiber and is expected to rapidly connect most of Monrovia. The arrival of fiber is expected to ensure a massive technological leap not only for Orange customers in Monrovia, but even in the rural.
It is important to note that the efforts of Orange is not simply around expanding its network, but also providing the tools people need to tap into it. At an event earlier in the year, the Chief Executive Officer of Orange Liberia Mr. Mamadou Coulibaly announced a robust plan to “put a smartphone in the hand of every Liberian.” The company followed up immediately with two major device fairs and a slew of rural device fairs where customers can find a wide of smartphones starting $25, up to the famous iPhones, which Orange is the sole authorized GSM dealer in the country. “What good is it to have a great network that not everybody can afford to connect to?” asked CEO Coulibaly.
The fact that Orange continues to expand its network and is keen on deeper mobile penetration for the rural speaks volumes for the company’s commitment to Liberia. This commitment extends even beyond the provision of mobile telecommunications services and takes a leap into areas that would be considered traditionally not a part of the telecommunications sphere.
For example, over the last year, Orange has significantly supported more than 30 rural radio stations in 13 counties by providing them access to free electricity 24 hours a day. For many Liberians in the rural, local community-based station is their only access to information because most of the Monrovia based radio stations have limited reach and coverage. Mr. Katu Diapee Sao, Station Manager for Atlantic Radio in Kakata, Margibi County is one of the stations benefiting from the electricity provided by Orange Liberia. Mr. Sao recalled that before Orange provided electricity to his station, it was only operational for two to three hours a day. “The challenges rural radio stations face are immense and if we were to purchase gasoline to run the station we would either only operate for a couple of hours or be forced to shut down completely,” Mr. Sao confided and continued “thanks to the aid rendered by Orange, we are able to broadcast almost 24 hours a day and provide our people the community focused programs that they need.”
Nonetheless, even with 60 million US Dollars invested in the network and the biggest telecommunications expansion Liberia has experienced in recent times, are there any benefits beyond the ability to make calls and browse on a high speed network? Join us next week for part two of this series when we explore the role Orange has played in transforming the lives of many Liberians.