Marcopolis presents the Ghana Report focused on investments, doing business, economy and other topics featuring interviews with key executives and government officials. The sectors under review are agriculture, banking, energy, industry, telecom, IT, real estate and more.
Interview with Roland Agambire, Chairman of AGAMS Holdings & Group Chairman of Rlg Communications Group
Please can you give us your evaluation of the IT industry especially in light of the current economic situation in Ghana? What are the current trends?
On the whole, what has happened is that ICT has actually in its own spectrum moved much faster especially with the inception of social media. Many people didn’t have time for smartphones and other applications that our people are now using today which have become very common and synonymous with a lot of the Ghanaian people today. When you look back two or three years ago, we used to produce a lot of feature phones as the penetration level was less than 1 to 5% within the Ghana setting of those using a smartphone. As we speak today, I think looking at the number of young people who are surfacing on the net; there are a lot of people using WhatsApp, Facebook and all those kinds of things. There is high demand on our side. We produce less feature phones today as compared to smartphones. I probably may not be able to give you specific figures but I know it has increased by probably over 100% on where it was, so from 5% there should be about 20-25% of the population today now using smartphones. This is because of the influence of applications; people are even really into buying goods and services online today. Before it was not something that people were used to because you cannot use a feature phone to buy goods and services, it has to be a smartphone. This again shows you the rate at which ICT is influencing our system.
Companies have adopted the use of ICT to reduce costs in doing business because it is easier to send an email and it is easier to send a text message than it is to make many telephone calls. It is even forcing the telecoms sector to reduce their tariffs and make it more affordable for people. Also now you can send documents through other social media platforms and reach a lot of people. As people like to talk in groups, companies are going to have a chatroom for workers through the use of social media. These are again going to reduce costs and they bring a lot of people onto one platform which increases the sale of smartphones.
For me, in the ICT sector, it is a good time for Africa. This has been what I predicted years back; that Africa is a new driver of ICT because looking at a 1 billion plus population, if all of these people are hooked up to the internet today, if all of these people are on a smartphone device today, there is a lot you can do. It is not just about selling the device but it is about the tool that the device becomes. Mobile money has increased in ascendency because of sim platforms and because people are now comfortable that if they transfer money from one platform to another they are likely to get it and there won’t be any interruptions. Because of the technology advancements, people are used to gadgets now, they are no longer afraid of them as they used to be because they have associated themselves with the product.
Our mantra is based on the story of the lion and a gazelle, we never sleep; we keep on running. In Africa there is a lot to do. When we wake up in the morning we are running because we have a dream.
So our forecasts have been driven by the increase of smartphones, smart devices and even with computers, people no longer want computers without touchscreens. People are looking at things that have touchscreens, things that are more fashionable and up to date and are on the various flexible platforms. Looking at the general trend I can tell you that there could not be a much better time than now to be in the ICT industry. There is huge competition, but that is what brings out the best in all of us. Everybody wants to have a piece of the market. Yes, the trend is moving, people are taking mobile phones as a trend, it is no longer a luxury product, and it has become part and parcel of people’s normal life. People are not even worried about replacing their phone again because they now can afford to buy one, use it and change it. They see it as a lifestyle and they understand that technology is changing every day. They are willing and ready to purchase a new device once you come out with the latest technology. It is not like before where people used to have a feeling of if their phone gets spoilt, they have to go to the device maker and then get a replacement... They are willing to get a replacement for a while, perhaps maximum 6 months, but they want to change into a new trend.
Thus the ICT market is expanding and it is becoming the best of business today. Like I said, it has been my belief and I trust that when Africa takes off with the internet world it will become a different place because this is where the volumes of devices will move and this is where the volume of people will be concentrated because this is going to be the new thing that we are already adapting to. It is also going to help with the speed of business, it will ease a lot of things in the business world for example the speed at which you make decisions because you can get information easily and everything that you have to do in the business environment will be made easier. It will allow businesses to reduce costs and make more profit. So far I think the ICT world is one of the growing sectors that you can find today in Africa.
To sum up, in which segment do you see the best investment opportunities? What segments are you looking at?
Ghana is still a growing economy and apart from ICT there are a lot of areas that offer investment opportunities. As a growing economy the opportunities are widespread. Construction is good, because people’s lifestyles are changing and as young people go to school and they get jobs and begin to earn more money, they want decent accommodation and they want to live in different places. That is what makes a good and growing population, a young population who want to develop their lives. This means we will begin to see new things in the real estate world. It also translates into the banking sector because once people are able to spend more, then they are able to go for mortgages and so it opens up the banking sector to be able to give loans that are payable because at the end of the day people are going to earn money and they will be able to pay back their loans. Apart from that, as an economy that is expanding, electricity is one major thing that drives such an economy, so electricity and energy are a key area that need huge investment. Once you build more houses and you have more gadgets and you have more businesses springing up, industries are going to grow, therefore there is a need for an increase in power and energy. It will call for more investment in the energy sector.
Industrialisation is yet to hit Africa. We have not even started industrialising. So the manufacturing of goods and services is yet to take off. We need our own brands and we need our own manufacturing plants that can turn out more goods and services to supply the over 1 billion people that need trust in the quality of goods and services that are produced in Ghana and beyond. Ghana is strategically in the centre of Africa, if you look at where we are located I would say that God has given us a very valuable place, where we can play within the African sub region so that wherever you are going, whether it is Europe, the Middle East, some parts of the US and other parts of Africa, they are just 6 hours maximum to get there. This is a location where when you do manufacturing it is easy for you to transport goods and services within the shortest possible time. Currently I think the expansion in the ports and harbours show the kinds of volumes of businesses that are growing and being anticipated within the country because this is one of the areas that most of the landlocked countries, for example Burkina Faso and all of those areas, use as an entry point.
In terms of services, there are opportunities for investment because all of these things come with services, so when you look at the business environment, there is a lot that you can think about, it is not just ICT that is an investment opportunity because ICT does drive businesses to a certain level, and then services start to pick up and industrialisation takes over. Of course agriculture is major because once the population grows; people will need to eat more. Today you can see that a lot more restaurants are opened in the greater Accra metropolis than before. They are all full because the population is growing in the city, it is enormous, and so there is a need to have all these restaurants. Today we have more malls and they are all full. That tells you that there is a growing trend and desire for good things and young people are looking to better their lives. These are the areas that make an economy because there is going to be movement of goods and services and exchange of money everywhere.
Looking at the country as a whole and the kind of business we are talking about, these are all sectors that play a very pivotal role in terms of investment opportunities when you are looking at where to invest and what to do at this point in time.
Let´s now talk about AGAMS Holdings. One of your key companies, Rlg Communications is the leader in Ghanaian ICT, it is the first indigenous African company to assemble laptops, mobile devices etc. What has changed since our 2013 interview? What have been the major developments?
Today, Rlg Communications is not just a company in assembling, actually we are an OEM. Regionally we have designed and engineered by ourselves our Easy compact, it's one product that we have designed from scratch and is an original Rlg product. That is what we are looking towards; to get to the point where we can design the first ever African computer that is the first ever African computer that has been designed and manufactured with our own software. Of course the OS that runs on it will be Microsoft but the composition of the components will be our original Rlg design and our original moulding.
We started as a repairs company, having trained young people in the mobile phone industry to repair phones and computers. We then went into assembling which was the second phase and now we have got into ODM or OEM which is the original engineering development side of our products. As an OEM, in Nigeria we received our ISO certificate I think in 2013 and in Ghana we received it in 2014. Across the Rlg Group in the UAE, China and Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and a host of other African countries that we are in, we have created the most sophisticated standard business; we want to be seen as not just as an African company. I have said that we are in this global market to compete as an international organisation. We were born in Ghana as a small company but today we have become a pan African company that has a pivot to change the dynamics of the ICT world for Africa.
Our dream is to constantly create quality and ensure that consumers are not getting anything less when it comes to talking about Africa. We want the African dream to be something that is respected, admired, and something that can be taken seriously.
Within Rlg Group, our technology is rapidly changing and our devices have also changed, we have cleared some brands under the device stream today. We have the Easy, the Viva and the Uhuru. The Uhuru is our high end product, the Viva is the medium end product and the Easy is a feature phone which is a low end product. If you look at the Uhuru brand, it uses NFC which is sophisticated software available today that is used to recognise certain things on your passport, visa etc. and you can use it for payments and so on. So our technology in terms of our development space has changed since 2013 when we were picking most of our things from the shelf, but today we have developed things from scratch and as an original engineering company making our own products. We prioritise quality and we make sure that whatever we are producing and placing onto the market is part of the change towards the African dream.
We want to dictate the product space because that is what will let our consumers take us seriously. We still haven’t forgotten about our youth empowerment program. Today in Nigeria we are doing that on a very large scale. From 2013 to today, one of our largest assembling plants is in Nigeria, in Osun state. We have partnered with most of the telecoms; Airtel is one of them and Glo, in the production of mobile devices to fill in the Nigerian market. Our dream is to not only carry voice but we believe there must be something that goes with the voice and that is the device. So today our strategy looks at how we can fill the space of voice with an Rlg product. It has to be done in partnership with the telecoms. They can concentrate on the voice and we give them the device. They also need this partnership because this is the only future that can dominate the market. This is the kind of partnership that we can understand ourselves. We all want to create jobs for the people not only using the platform but those using the device. That is why we have the slogan “Proudly Yours”, which means it belongs to you for ever. We want the African people to be proud of themselves and of using the product.
So from 2013 up to now, a lot of things have arisen. We have developed the quality of our products and even our strategy for 2015 onwards is totally different. We want to be a customer centred company because we have passed the stage of just assembling phones; we are now a manufacturing company. The question now is how can we take care of the volume of phones that are given out and how do we control the quality and how can we give the best service to our customers? Our focus today is changing the face of the Rlg brand by giving it the best quality customer service centre orientation so that people can come in our service centres and feel what is going on, they can just feel the product. We want to saturate the market with our products and reach more consumers. Currently that is what we are working on for the future because people are going to get used to smartphones. People are going to get used to different technologies but people also want to get used to and belong to a brand that they feel part of. The only way that the African people will believe in that is when they can come to you and sit down with the device, play with it, feel comfortable with it and make their decision. We have developed ourselves in different stages. We have been patient, we have not been in a rush to sell or to make money, and we have a systematic plan to grow the brand and one which will seed it to the people so that they will begin to choose it. We don’t want to force them to choose it just because they are African and it is an African product. We want to be competitive and that is what we are doing today.
You touched upon your presence in Nigeria, where you have the factory; do you have factories in all of the countries that you cover? What is your presence in those markets?
The markets where we have an assembling plant depend on the kind of partnerships we have set up with various institutions or government bodies. In Nigeria we started a training program with Osun state and we began by training ten thousand young people there. After that there was a need to have an assembling plant to employ those young people. We are linking our product to job creation. An assembly plant was one way to create jobs for the people who were trained in the assembly process, for them to be given an opportunity to assemble their own phones for the Nigerian market. The second wing of it was to create selling points. Rlg is today developing an app that will allow anybody using an Rlg phone to pay from their Rlg phone. We call it the Rlg pay phone. Those minding the kiosks if you go to a branch today, once they have worked in Nigeria they can work anywhere. Those kiosks are solar panelled. We are customer service orientated; people can come in and get the right personal service. We are also creating a customer service call line that will offer 24 hour services for minor issues, that is in the UAE. So now in the UAE our high end products are sold on e-commerce. We segmented the market based on the space of development that is there. We are doing a similar thing in Nigeria also. We are not leaving any space out. We don’t have factories everywhere; we have one in Nigeria, Gambia and Ghana. Currently in Kenya and the other countries we don’t have factories yet. Before we set up a factory we must have a partnership for training young people. If we don’t have a partnership with an organisation or with the government at some level we cannot immediately set up a factory. Currently in Ethiopia we are working on setting up a factory because there is a condition whereby in order to sell in the Ethiopian market you must have a factory, it is a prerequisite. Apart from that, where it is not part of government policy we want to have a partnership to train young people before beginning the factory process.
Let’s talk about Hope City. It is still not launched yet. Could you give us a brief on the developments in this sphere?
Hope City is a novelty for me and for Africa. It is a long term dream. Like I said industrialisation has not even started, nor has ICT development really because what we are doing is using other peoples’ products to drive the market. Where is our original product? We need a research and development platform. What gave us the vision for Hope City was the fact that today, Ghana has discovered oil, and the by-products of this petrochemical industry are not utilised. Hope City would give an answer to that. It is a long term dream. We had to move from where the original site was to a new site, and this called for different engineering thinking so it has taken us some time, almost 3 or 4 years to finish all the work plan. You don’t want to put up a city like that and begin to have problems. You aren’t just bringing people there; you need to think about what will bring them together. You want to be in a city with lifestyle, in a city where there are no problems with the water or electricity, you want public mobility, you want to be in a city and feel that it is something different, that you could be anywhere in the world. This is the kind of thinking we have been doing with the engineers and architects. For investors it is not a problem. We are working on getting it right and making it go right so that everybody who works in Hope City feels that this is the place to be and that they always want to be there so that we can attract the right calibre of manpower to run the city and the right calibre of professionals to make the city work. It is not a city for me; it is a city for the African continent because this is what will change the face of Africa. This is what will bring the value that we need to most of our things that are being sold in a raw state today to the whole world.
In Hope City you can do anything. It is a technological city that can change the face of things. It is not just about having Hope City because we have to produce computers or mobile phones or laptops; it is a research and development place that can create a lot of applications because a lot of young people in Africa are smart but are yet to believe in applications because they are not exposed to the environment where applications are working. This will compel a lot of young people to live there because it will be their dream. This will begin to create economic growth and it will be one of the things that would create the inflow of foreign direct investment because they will have the tools and things that every company across the world wants and based on that they will be willing to spend on it and come to Africa. It is a long term dream and it will be a long walk, it is still fresh and we are still finishing up. In the new site we have more land and more space for the engineers to do a lot of mixed development to make it a vibrant city.
When do you envision the launch?
We already launched the concept a few years back but now it is about the development. We are giving ourselves the next three years to be able to start something on the ground. It takes a long while because of planning, engineering etc. You don’t want to rush anything. We are patient.
You also have The Rlg Foundation, which is involved in CSR and social community development. Can you tell us a bit about the key initiatives you are running?
The Rlg Foundation is our corporate social responsibility arm for the Rlg Group. One of our focuses is on people’s safety and potable water. We have done a lot of campaigns on road safety. We give hands-free devices to people and earphones for people to use when driving. We did a lot of visitations to less privileged communities to give the people there some clothes and things like that.
Our focus today has been on potable water. I have made a pledge to provide 200 potable water bore holes. Currently we have done some, but we are not finished, we are continuing that project. We want to be able to provide at least 200 potable water bore holes for Ghanaians mostly in the remote communities. I was born in a village and I know what it is like to have difficulty getting potable water. In my community you had to walk a long distance to get to the riverside where people defecate and drink from the same place. You pick up all kinds of diseases and though I survived it, it doesn’t mean everybody else did. The best thing to do today is to fight against poverty and give those communities decent potable water. The Rlg Foundation is a heartfelt project that I am personally passionate about. Water is key to most communities.
We have adopted one or two orphanages that we now take care of and I see these people as the future of Hope City. Some of them will go to school and university and will become engineers and so they will come out of these tough times and realise that life was worth living. I like to think about the legacy that you can leave in the minds of people. A foundation should leave a legacy, it should leave remarkable thinking and offer the idea of whatever god gives to you, you should give back to society. That has been my pledge. I have given The Foundation my all because I am passionate about it and I want part of Rlg’s profit to be used to make more bore holes for communities all across Ghana.
To conclude, where would you like to see the Group in two years’ time when we meet again?
For AGAMS Holdings, we have currently put down a road map that we are working on and like I said already, most of the things we are doing is in order to create a legacy, so we are not just trying to create products because we want to sell in the market; anything we do in the Holdings is to leave an impression in the minds of our consumers because we are here to take up the opportunities of what the market brings but not to just take the opportunities and give people a raw deal, rather to make it worthwhile so that society will believe in us. Our mantra is based on the story of the lion and a gazelle, we never sleep; we keep on running. Whether you are a lion or the gazelle, and there is always something to do. In Africa there is a lot to do. When we wake up in the morning we are running because we have a dream.
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