There was no contact between Zacc and the organisation. In a formal way or whatever we have not received any word from Zacc. But I must say that if they want to come it’s their mandate, it’s not for us to say don’t come.
STATE-OWNED telecoms firm TelOne is currently transforming from a fixed network operator to a broadband company. Zimbabwe Independent projects editor Bernard Mpofu speaks to managing director Chipo Mtasa (CM, pictured) on the company’s new business model, challenges and several allegations that have been levelled against her management team since her appointment nearly four years ago. Below are excerpts of the interview:
BM: How has been your term since your appointment in 2013?
CM: My term has been an exciting one. While it had challenges it also had a lot of progress in some of the areas we set out to do. Right from the start with the board it was identified that we needed to address the issues of TelOne culture, the issue of bringing a new TelOne into the market in terms of business model and also the issue of transforming TelOne technology from a fixed landline to a broadband-based technology. We have made progress but along the way, obviously, you find that you also face challenges.
BM: What are some of these challenges?
CM: Chief among our challenges is the funding issue of the organisation. It was not easy to raise funding but we want to thank the government of Zimbabwe for the support they have given us so that we could get the US$98 million loan from China Eximbank. Other than the funding we still had the culture and skills issue where we needed to remodel the organisational culture and also the skills base of the organisation into the new mandate of TelOne.
Again, competition has been intense; this broadband business that we are now into is very competitive.
BM: You spoke about the skills base that needs to be improved. Would you want to elaborate more on that?
CM: We are working with a group of almost 600 of our employees who need to upgrade their basic O-level qualification. I must say that they have been responsive and a large number of them have actually started taking up study so that they may have the basic qualifications.
It is very important because for us to be very competitive, one has to have some basic qualifications, some basic level of understanding that will allow them to understand the business model better. We are doing something and we are continuously engaging the staff so that we all upgrade our skills.
BM: As a state-owned entity, one of the criticisms made against government has been bloated wage bills in organisations such as yours. Do you have any immediate plans to retrench?
CM: We do not have any immediate plans to retrench, but the plan that we have is that we think that we can reduce our numbers by natural attrition and probably pursuing voluntary early retirement where our employees will not be worse off because they have gone out of employment. Quite a number of employees have taken it up and over the past year-and-a-half, we have had over 150 of our employees taking it up. So if we can have another number like that then you will see that we can actually reduce our numbers progressively as we go. But we don’t think that wholesome retrenchments will be the way to go for TelOne at the moment.
BM: Before deciding to change your business model to become a broadband-focussed company, how much were voice calls contributing vis-à-vis total income?
CM: Before we took that decision, I think when we started the voice revenue was contributing 78% of the total revenue for TelOne. This to us was a worrisome thing. Voice, even up to now, still remains dominant but, however, voice is dying very fast because firstly there is fixed mobile convergence, fixed to mobile migration where most of the people do not want to use the fixed line anymore. They now prefer the mobile as they go. And that is a worldwide global phenomenon. The other issue that has affected us on the voice business is that everyone is now having access to their own gateways, so to speak, so TelOne used to be the monopoly but it’s no longer the monopoly and that has been a downward progression over the years.
BM: Where do voice contributions stand now?
CM: It has moved to the extent to which we want it but it’s now around 70% but we think that it should go to as low 60%. This is a major mission that we have.
BM: How far have you gone with your broadband project?
CM: We have just done what we call the first phase of the project. We are meeting as a team in the next couple of days to assess our project but by the time we left in December, we had our core network in terms of the data centre — it has really come up and also what has come up is the billing centre that we are now starting to implement. We are very excited because the project will introduce a pre-paid billing platform for us.
We are particularly excited about the prepaid billing system because it’s something that has affected us for years.
We had a big debtors’ book of over US$200 million which we have been failing to collect, so now if we then go into a pre-paid billing system, at least we will be collecting cash.
BM: Over the past year, we have stumbled upon reports of employees reporting the company to the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) over a number of processes such as tender procedures, among others. How transparent is your tender system?
CM: Firstly, I just want to say when we employ 2 000 employees, you cannot please them all. There will always be a certain level of disgruntlement in a very small section. I would like to believe that the people who have complained are the smaller section compared to the people who are reasonably okay and who now see the TelOne vision and know the TelOne business plan. In terms of reporting to Zacc, it is not the only agency that employees have reported to.
They have also reported to the Auditor-General and they have also reported to the media.
We say that as TelOne, we are very transparent with systems. Our tenders — we comply strictly to the state procurement regulations and to the Procurement Act. We are very detailed as to how we procure every item and documents are available for scrutiny. We are open to any organisations, including Zacc that wants to have a look at them. We don’t believe that there are any tenders that have gone that were not above board.
BM: Another issue that was raised to Zacc is on allegations of sexual abuse within the organisation. How seriously do you take these allegations?
CM: We take those seriously. I have seen a letter by the employees. We have given our audit team the mandate to investigate independently. Other than that, we have also addressed all female employees under the auspices of our sexual harassment policy. We actually have a clearly defined sexual harassment policy.
As a female leader in this company this is one of the things that I take personally very seriously. We have actually persuaded all employees that if ever there is such a case they are free to report not just to my office, but they should be free to report independently to the law enforcement agencies and other that there are free to report anywhere else where they think they can get help because we will never condone that.
Unfortunately, some of the allegations that we see there don’t seem to have any foundation, they seem to be done out of pure malice.
BM: Do you subscribe to the Tip-offs Anonymous initiative?
CM: Yes, we do and we actually advertise that very much. We are very active and we actually managed to uncover a lot of issues to deal with over the years.
BM: Workers who approached Zacc also alleged that management victimised them following these reports. What is your comment on this?
CM: We don’t victimise people here and I have gone out of my way to talk to employees throughout the organisation. I have travelled right across the country to tell them personally as MD. Tip-offs Anonymous is one which will protect any employee from any form of victimisation, so when they allege that they have been victimised, that is not correct and that is quite mischievous on their part.
BM: After letters were written to Zacc, was there any communication or investigation thereafter?
CM: No. There was no contact between Zacc and the organisation. In a formal way or whatever we have not received any word from Zacc. But I must say that if they want to come it’s their mandate, it’s not for us to say don’t come.
As a state institution, we are very much conscious that we owe it to Zimbabwe that we are transparent in dealings and that we do things right. The fact that Zacc can come and see us doesn’t necessarily make us wrong, but it will just simply check that are we going by a culture of transparency.