It is commonplace to hear marketers of both major telecommunications service providers in Sierra Leone, Africell and Airtel, claim that they have market dominance. However, the populace has it’s own opinion. Although not a result of a research, it is also commonplace to hear people say that Africell is the network for low income earners while Airtel is the network for middle and high income earners.

If that is really the case, then sense can be made of the whole situation. Both companies are claiming market dominance because both companies are leading in a different way. This is similar to the Apple/Samsung rivalry and others before them.

To draw from the Apple/Samsung scenario, over the years sales figures have shown that Samsung sells more mobile units than Apple. This might be as a result of Samsung’s strategy to capture a wider market with comparatively good but cheaper products. In contrast to Samsung, Apple’s sales figures dwindles but they still make more profit than Samsung and therefore remain powerful. Apples revenue strength comes from the fact that because they have gained brand recognition/brand loyalty and have been perceived to be in the forefront of innovation over the years, they are able to charge more for their products and therefore make more money.

Closer to home, the same can be said for Africell and Airtel in our telecommunications sphere. Africell was able to capture a large chunk of the population with strong marketing power selling their service as first choice for low income earners especially students. Airtel on the other hand during the days of Celtel, Zain and now of course Airtel has been comfortable sitting on the other end because that’s where the cash really is. I know for a fact that most corporations buy Airtel SIM cards for staff and visitors and top those up with lots of credit monthly. That’s a huge source of income by itself. Add to that the numerous Airtel modems used by workers and business people alike and how much data is being consumed. Another stronghold for Airtel is their mobile money transfer service, Airtel Money, which even now looks like a mobile bank.

The Current Climate

In the past couple of years, Airtel has also been able to wrestle a large amount of market share from Africell, even if not permanent, through their mobile internet service. Students who are all slowly becoming geeks now own smartphones and depend on messaging apps like WhatsApp and Viber to communicate.

They often have to decide whether to ditch their Africell SIM cards or just temporarily put it away to get better internet service on their mobile device. It is very difficult now to say that Africell really has more market share.

The New Kid on the Block

There is a new kid on the block, Smart Mobile. This service seems to be copying similar strategies put in place by Africell when they first came to the country. I am a little skeptical about their possibility for success. The main reason for my skepticism is the fact that they have come at a time when the market is very much saturated. Guerrilla marketing warfare used by Africell back then alone can hardly work.

They have to really offer some goodies otherwise they would stay at the foot of the hill for too long and forced to leave. The free call service is good but what are their plans to keep those who have already bought there SIMS from throwing it away after their free call promotion ends. The SIM costs only Le.1,000 and some might find it smarter to just ditch their SIM cards than stay with Smart Mobile if more isn’t offered.

The Old Kid with a New Game Plan

SierraTel isn’t new in the telecommunications industry. In fact they are the oldest. However, they have struggled to switch to mobile services and that hurt them a lot. With an outsourced management, the company seem to be making good strides as they concentrate on internet service.

Their MiFi router is gaining grounds as it is fast and cheap. In fact, that’s what SierraTel is known for: fast and cheap internet. They have what it takes to hurt Airtel in that area. With regards to cellular however, they still search for a means to get over the hurdle of the CDMA technology they opted for. Switching cost is high because moving to SierraTel’s service means you have to buy a new phone alongside their SIM card which is a switch a lot of people aren’t prepared to make just in case they may have to switch back.

Dead or Alive?

You may have noticed I have not mention COMIUM. Well, like most of their loyal customers, I have not given up on them but little can be said about the cellular provider whose only game plan right now is survival. The cash squeezed company has a lot more to deal with than fighting for first place.

If Africell seeks to overthrow Airtel’s reign on the cash, they would need to match or better Airtel’s internet service, add a money transfer system of their own and probably do a little bit more to convince the Airtel loyals that they actually have an option.