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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Boosting cross-border market info with ICT


The removal of roaming charges in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) offerings deployed in the West African region by telecom operators is a plus to sharing of information across borders, including Value Added Services (VAS), reports REMMY NWEKE.

Miss Nana Mansa, is a young Ghanaian business woman, who often visits neighbouring West African countries, like Niger and Nigeria for her kind of trade.

Sharing her experience in Lagos recently, Nana excitedly said, she has optimized Zain’s induced one-network in Accra as part of its launching pad of an Advanced Third Generation (3.5G) network, last December.

The debut of Zain Ghana operation with its ‘One Network’ service coverage, she said, has enabled her to truly exercise and enjoy her service provider, at least, to the best of her knowledge without the trouble of changing the Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards, every now and then. Noting that, of course, these attempts are not healthy to the phone set and SIM as well.

Miss Mansa explained that ‘One Network’ is Zain’s borderless mobile service which according to the operator is available to over half a billion people across the Middle East and Africa - an area presumed greater than the United States of America.

She also said that One Network offers her favourable rates, free of roaming surcharges for cross-border communications to name a few. In other words, she can still use her services in Niger or Nigeria without stress and most importantly receive her trading alerts in her home country.

In fact, she said, this development has helped her a great deal and encouraged her to extend her little business idea to Nigeria, by way of engaging a stockbroker in Lagos to buy some stocks for her. As said by her, the Ghana Zain’s One Network option, and she can receive trade alerts both in Ghana and Nigeria without much ado.

Invariably affirming the efficacy of One Network, an industry analyst, Mr. Jide Alao, said that customers on the network now travel freely with their phones through Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Kenya, Nigeria, Niger, Tanzania and Uganda. He noted that there are plans to make the service fully operational in all other Zain countries.

For the subscribers of MTN in Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Benin republic, the operator’s ‘One World’ is a service that allows them to make and receive calls, send and receive Short Messaging Service (SMS) while visiting countries where MTN has operations.

This, Alao noted, is unlike the normal roaming service, but enables subscribers to pay the same rate as the locals of the visited country. Stressing that more interestingly is the fact that subscribers will not be charged for receiving calls and SMS from any destination.

He explained that by simply switching on your phone with MTN’s SIM card, on arrival at the country of destination, there is no longer need to call MTN Nigeria before travelling abroad, moreso to the regions where the service is accessible to activate customer’s line or when you get back to deactivate the service.

Advising that if such user is unable to log onto MTN network, “You will have to manually select network on your phone for example, ‘menu>setting>phone setting>operator selection>manual’ then select your preferred network, MTN. And if you want to call or send SMS to someone back home from the visited country, dial +234 ....” he said.

On recharging at destination other than resident country, Alao further said, that when using the recharge card of the home country, “you will use the usual command *555*12 digit PIN# send/ok and when using the recharge card of the visited country, you will dial *222*PIN # send/ok.”

Pointing out that when this is done using the home network recharge card, the amount that is credited to as airtime account is the equivalent of the recharge card value in the home currency. But if the top-up was done using the recharge card of the country that is being visited, the amount that is credited to as airtime account is the Naira equivalent of the recharge card value.

“For example, if you top-up your MTN Nigeria account with a FCFA500 recharge card, your account will be credited with the Naira equivalent of FCFA500,” he said.

Uniquely, he said, with MTN One World subscribers can receive calls and SMS for free. “All your incoming calls and text messages are free of charge, even calls diverted to your voicemail box.” Maintaining that the service is easy to use and activation is automatic for prepaid customers.

Equally, Glo Mobile on inception commenced free roaming for all prepaid subscribers wherever it has service, although investigations have shown that subscribers on Glo prepaid can currently top-up locally before embarking on the trip or ask a relative to do that on Glo line and share credit, thus auto-charged.

ITRealms O gathered that there is a plan to make this ‘official’ on Glo network since it has extended service to Benin Republic and warming up for Ghana roll-out.

However, discussing the values embedded in ICT tools in encouraging information exchange, especially across borders for small business entrepreneurs like Ms Nana Mansa, an e-business consultant with the International Trade Centre (ITC) Dr. Mira Slavova, while dwelling on “A cross-border initiative to share market information in West Africa,” recently noted that ITC lately has become reputed for working with local partners and market data services to gather and share price information and promote cross-border trade all over West Africa.

Slavova pointed out that instability lately in oil prices has considerably affected food prices and food security among other goods and services in many African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) nations.

ACP is made up of group of about 78 countries with preferential trading relations with the European Union (EU) under the former Lomé Treaty now called the Cotonou Agreement and largely comprised of what experts described as Third World or Least Developed Countries.

According to Slavova, how much the price of oil has influenced the costs of agricultural goods, in particular, of which most of African nations have large concentration of foreign exchange on agric produce is already evident.

Proportionately the distance these products have to travel to reach customers, Slavova cited an instance, saying it is enormous and equally contributes to the durability or otherwise of any given product.

Slavova, however, stressed that based on afore seen challenges, ITC had in 2006 launched a project, tagged ‘Trade at Hand initiative.’ This project is mobile phone-based Value Added Service (VAS) to boost export opportunities and encourage cross-border trade among developing countries.

The e-business expert emphasized that the project consists of three parts, namely, Market Prices and Market Alerts, both of which provide market information; while the third, mCollect, is a market information collection system that affords the pilot project to collect and share out market information much easier and helps to promote agricultural trade throughout West Africa.

For instance, on the Market Prices component, Slavova said, is aimed at helping small and medium-sized export enterprises in developing countries to become more competitive. The system delivers daily information to businesses via mobile phones detailing international market prices, and gives entrepreneurs the chance to respond quickly to changing prices.

ITC, Slavova said, first introduced the service to exporters of fruits and vegetables in Burkina Faso and Mali, but currently, the system delivers daily text messages (SMSs) with the prices of primary export products at the Rungis International Market in France. Anticipating that later this year, 2009, ITC will provide weekly price quotes of products from markets in Germany, Spain, Italy, UK and Belgium.

Locally, the Nigerian Stock Exchange and Central Securities Clearing System joined efforts to create NSE-CSCS Trade Alert, an Investor Protection Scheme, which notifies particular shareholders every time their stocks were traded on the floor of the exchange.

It also allows the shareholder to automatically get an SMS message on his or her Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) phone, or any other mobile platform, notifying such a person of the transaction before it is completed, even when moving across the sub-region, mostly now that major telcom operators in the country are expanding across borders. Thus, offering a window to abort a transaction with a simple call if any suspicion arises.

NSE-CSCS, ITRealms Online gathered give clients unique codes that are made up of numbers and alphabets generated by the CSCS system to distinctively identify a client, even as a Trade Alert number could be issued to a share holder on subscription and sent to them via SMS.

Though Africa seems to have the greatest number of the Least Developed Countries (LDC), West Africa, has its unique challenges, which are now being overcome by the introduction of obvious free roaming service across the ECOWAS borders amidst other Value Added Services (VAS) with the deployment of right ICT tools.

This, no doubt, needed to be encouraged by the government by way of fast-tracking the ECOWAS Monetary Policy and other inter-country hurdles within its domain as well as removing some tax-related issues for telecommunications operators, not minding the trade mark used; one network, one world or free roaming, all boils down to removal of roaming charges and challenges as visible in developing economy like in West Africa of today.

As the President of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, would note telecommunications equals to a very big pipe that could be channeled in various aspect of the economy to better and improve upon whatever level of development to the next level.

And Africa and West Africa precisely needs telecommunications tools and affiliated services, bundled in VAS to move onto the next level, at least, crossing the equation of domain for third world countries.


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