Elliot Ziwira Senior Writer
The recent decision by Information Communication Technology and Courier Services Minister Kazembe Kazembe to dissolve the NetOne board, ahead of Government’s decision to dispose of the State-owned enterprise among others earmarked, either through private placement, which would place it in private hands, or initial public offering, could not have come at a better moment.
The dissolution was, indeed, long overdue, for the board, chaired by veteran sports admiistrator Peter Chingoka appeared to have become complacent, which normally comes after long stays.
Citizens have been clamouring that Government should play an active role in reining in parastatal boards that have presided over the rot in institutions like NetOne, Zinara, Zimra and NSSA. These institutions have become cash cows for corrupt individuals at the expense of service delivery, much to the chagrin of stakeholders – citizens of Zimbabwe.
State-owned enterprises have been run like circuses for a long time now, and one wonders when the tents will be rolled up. It is the nature of circuses that only the setting changes, but the characters, no matter in which costumes they appear, remain the same.
It is commendable that some ministers have heeded the call to flex their muscles so as to bring back sanity to parastatals. Minister Kazembe’s dissolution of the NetOne board comes after Finance and Economic Development Minister Professor Mthuli Ncube, Transport and Infrastructural Development Minister Joel Biggie Matiza, Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Dr Sekai Nzenza and Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation Minister Kirsty Coventry have dissolved the Zimra, Zinara, NSSA and Sport and Recreation Commission (SRC) boards, respectively.
The story of NetOne, which is the subject of this instalment, makes sad reading in an era that is Internet driven; where information is power and those that control information dissemination are lords, nay kings. In the Information Revolution the means of production is the Internet. It is the soul, just like land was to the Agricultural Revolution and factories were to the Industrial Revolution.
Access to information is what triggers innovation, which has led to the birth of companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Google among others. However, in Zimbabwe access to information through the Internet is bottlenecked through exorbitant pricing and monopolistic tendencies. As such poor Zimbabweans’ dreams keep on receding to the horizon. Thus, our own version of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs remain stifled and gagged.
In an era where information- driven innovation is trending the world over, with Apple and Amazon breaching the trillion dollar mark, and at home Econet Wireless Zimbabwe doing exceptionally well; enjoying a monopoly that has placed it at the helm of the local bourse, the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange (ZSE), there is no excuse for the circus at NetOne.
Figures do not lie, and information, in this era of the Internet cannot be swept under the carpet. It is not fiction that NetOne got a head start in 1996, ahead of other players because it enjoyed Government support.
We can go to town about other parastatals that performed badly; probably they are wont to, with 38 of them reportedly making combined losses of $270 million in 2016, yet NetOne alone made a loss of $57 million in 2017. NetOne is a mobile communications company and business in that sector is brisk, therefore, the citizenry camera zeros in on it.
There is need for competition in the sector, for citizens to enjoy customer-driven initiatives that will ultimately translate into industrial growth through innovation. And for that to happen NetOne needs to be capacitated, not only financially, but human resources wise. There is need for a complete overhaul of mindsets.
It is not really an issue of funding, neither is it lack of support from Government, for the mobile operator enjoys that and more. In all earnest, it appears to be a matter of incompetence, mismanagement and avarice on the part of individuals tasked to turn around the firm, which has been in a merry-go-round since its inception.
The Firstel Cellular debacle notwithstanding, the scandalous figures that hit headlines since 2012 make sad reading. Between 2012 and 2016, NetOne reportedly got Government-approved loans of $44 million and $218 million from China. Despite this capital injection and a grace period in licence fee obligations, the firm has perennially made losses between 2013 and the first quarter of 2018; hitting a high of $57 million in 2017.
In spite of turnaround efforts through successive executive appointments and investments in infrastructure, NetOne, the once network in vogue, remains a minor player in the communications sector in Zimbabwe. Taken, the mobile operator, under Reward Kangai and Brian Mutandiro grew its base stations from 401 in 2013 to 906 in 2018 (125,9 percent), but this did not translate to performance, as figures kept heading south.
As has been highlighted earlier on, changing costumes of characters or setting of a circus outfit, does not halt the train of skits. Whatever success stories that may have been momentarily recorded fade into oblivion as long as NetOne remains a baby in swaddling clothes, always crying out for grub in a big boys club dominated by players that joined the league much later with no walls to lean on.
In the new dispensation led by President Mnangagwa, there is need to have a shared vision, and in such a vision non-performers should be given the boot. It is against this background that the decision by Minister Kazembe to dissolve the NetOne board becomes not only apt, but laudable.
It boggles the mind how a mobile communications firm with so many executives and managers loses vision in a market that is glaringly visible. Visionless executives and their boards groping around for invisible doors out of the quagmire that consumes us all, should be shown the exit.
There is need for accountability, responsibility and seriousness for citizens to benefit from their investments. A stronger, visible and viable NetOne is all that citizens call for to enjoy the benefits of the Information Revolution, and not witch-hunting and perennial boardroom squabbles that smack of rot.
With the new CEO, Lazarus Muchenje, whose arrival at the company in April appeared to be the Holy Grail required for change of fortunes for subscribers and citizens at large, on suspension without full pay and benefits, the circus trail continues, and hope for resuscitation keeps receding further west.
With the dissolution of the board it should not be business as usual at NetOne, and Minister Kazembe should, for the common good, continue flexing his muscles and stop the milking of the ailing community cow by selfish and avaricious individuals. The board that is yet to be appointed should have its work cut out, because mediocre performers must earn their keep.
The pending issue of the suspended CEO should be resolved to pave way for the resuscitation of the State-owned enterprise, which resuscitation he has started, and whose fruits became richly noticeable in the four months he was at the helm, for figures cannot be muted. Muchenje has reportedly brought NetOne to profitability, yet he was suspended, and remains suspended. Could there be something in the crevices that the parrot is missing here?
With the right human capital, a shift in mindset and political will, NetOne has the potential to claim a larger chunk from the lion’s share, and satiate Internet-hungry citizens in this Information Revolution where communicative knowledge is power.