Christel Heydemann, the CEO of the French group Orange, visited the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire, its first African market, accompanied by her African staff consisting of Alioune Ndiaye and Jérôme Hénique, the president and managing director of the Middle East and Africa (MOA) from 19 to 21 September. Her visit was punctuated by meetings with the authorities, including Prime Minister Patrick Achi, Amadou Coulibaly, the minister of communication and the digital economy, local employees and an inspection of the group’s infrastructure in the country.
In Abidjan, Heydemann, who officially came for the opening of Orange’s second 5G experimentation laboratory in Africa (5G Lab) after Senegal, reaffirmed her strong ambitions for the continent. In particular through the newly inaugurated space, which will house a pilot project aimed at “corporate and business” customers, before a general launch of this new technology within three years.
A staggered 5G roll-out
Despite the fact that Côte d’Ivoire remains the telecoms operator’s largest African market, making some €968m in revenue in 2021 (ahead of Egypt with €960m), it will not be the first country to benefit from the service. As a matter of fact, as Hénique explained, Orange plans to launch 5G in Botswana in 2023-2024 even though the country did not make the top 9 in Africa in terms of revenue in 2021. The group hopes to extend 5G to 16 of its 18 subsidiaries by 2025.
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“We will launch it in Botswana first because we have obtained the frequencies. We are working with the Ivorian authorities to obtain them,” Heydemann told us. She added that the group has started working on 5G in view of the African Cup of Nations football tournament (CAN) that Côte d’Ivoire will host in early 2024.
Another obstacle to faster deployment of the technology is the fact that Orange has noted that, in some countries where it is present, usage was not up to scratch. Orange is therefore working to popularise it in Côte d’Ivoire. The experimental laboratory in Abidjan is being used to familiarise customers with the use of certain applications, the cloud and so on.
Tensions in the mobile money market
Orange’s CEO also discussed the mobile money sector – a sector that has been severely disrupted in recent months by Wave’s arrival – during her visit. For the moment, Côte d’Ivoire is the only country that has a mobile banking activity that has passed the 1 million active customer mark, with a potential of 3.5 million from mobile money. However, the switch of customers from mobile money to mobile banking is not systematic and automatic.
It depends on the customers and their willingness – or not – to join the banking segment. Orange Bank Africa plans to launch by 2025 in three West African countries: Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali, and hopes to reach 10 million customers. However, the mobile money segment, which has been growing exponentially, has been facing strong competition in recent months from Wave, which has bucked all market trends. By lowering its tariffs on withdrawals and deposits, this competitor has plunged Orange into great difficulties, as it has been compensated by the development of fixed internet and mobile communications.
“We respect our competitors. Our goal is to provide better services to our customers and to continue to innovate. We will beat our competitors with the quality of our services and our innovations,” said Heydemann, who is planning to continue investing in the Middle East and Africa region. In 2021, Orange invested €1.2bn and intends to invest a similar amount this year. For the time being, Heydemann, who took up her post in April, has not yet revealed her ambitions and plans, nor has she indicated any change in the group’s overall strategy on the continent.
In recent years, Africa has become one of the telecoms giant’s strong growth poles – in contrast to other parts of the world where stagnation has been observed. In less than 10 years, Orange’s growth on the continent has increased from 8% to 15%. Despite the sluggish economy, Orange MOA has reported a significant increase in results for the first half of 2022 (+8.7%).