Cultivating connections and enhancing underprivileged lives

Cultivating connections and enhancing underprivileged lives

At Vodafone Fiji, Vikash Prasad dedicates himself to the pursuit of technological advancement to provide digital equality and equity to those most in need

With its many islands hemmed by crystalline waters that wash onto white sand and green-carpeted mountains, Fiji is a vista of immense natural beauty. 

The archipelago, made up of over 300 islands and 500 islets, was formed as a result of volcanic activity over 150 million years ago. The two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu – which contain almost 90% of Fiji’s total population between them – are the beating heart of the economy, with tourism accompanying minerals, sugar cane and fishing as one of its largest drivers, aiding Fiji in being one of the most developed economies in the Pacific.

Despite this, though, the reality of daily life on Fiji’s islands belies the image most of us possess; it is a developing nation, after all – one that’s still battling with the brutal blows inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism and the economy. Pockets of rural Fijian communities still function day-to-day with just 2G or, if they’re lucky, 3G connectivity, lacking the infrastructure needed to enhance this further for the time being.

But this is where Vodafone Fiji steps in. The company, which is “the main telecommunications player in Fiji” (with 85% market share), is committed to “enriching people’s lives” and overcoming the obstacles currently plaguing the archipelago.   

“When it comes to connectivity, we no longer treat it as a want, but as a basic need for customers now,” establishes Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Vikash Prasad, “especially in a developing country like Fiji, where there's lots of people who still live in these rural or maritime areas.”

Becoming the largest telco network in Fiji

Parent company Vodafone is itself a global telecommunications company that dips its toes successfully in a wide array of industry sub-sectors, though it does so with a customer-centric ethos that builds “strong customer affiliation and brand loyalty”. It is this approach to which Prasad attributes Vodafone Fiji’s success.

“Vodafone Fiji is a dynamic and fast-paced business, operating in an essential industry,” Prasad states, highlighting the differentiating factors of the company. “Our vision is to be the most admired company in Fiji, and our mission is to enrich people’s lives.”  

Prasad also credits the telco’s “exceptional frontline, customer care teams and business account managers” with helping it to stay on top of the competition and reach 95% of the Fijian population. “Apart from the traditional voice, data and SMS offerings, we offer the best ICT solutions in the region, such as Cloud, SDWAN, and many other innovative solutions that are tailor-made for many of our ICT customers.”

In addition to customer-centricity being a defining element of Vodafone Fiji’s success, its recent foray into the FinTech world is opening up new doors. 

“We are also an emerging FinTech company, providing digital services in terms of financial and e-business at a national level,” says Prasad. “Being an incumbent, we have to be agile in all our operations, so it's all about creating value in our products and services.”

This approach has enabled steady year-on-year growth for Vodafone Fiji, which the company hopes will continue as it sets out on its 5G journey, becomes more established in FinTech and finds innovative ways to ensure its customers receive the connectivity needed to boost its tourism-heavy economy. 

Moulding attitudes for the future of telco innovation 

Innovation is essential to the longevity of a business – as Prasad well knows. In the post-COVID age of rapid digital transformation and detailed data analysis, impacted by geopolitical and climate-related events, this is particularly true. But having a skilled team that thinks out of the box requires a change in management and strategy, which is often the product of company-wide cultural overhauls.

So, Vodafone Fiji has invested in its staff – via training, enabling work-from-home capabilities and providing leadership coaching – and employees have, in turn, ‘invested’ in the business, allowing innovation to flourish. “Our staff believe in our vision,” he says.

“One of the things we are also doing as part of our transformation revolves around our workforce – we’re focusing on increasing the capabilities of our people and investing in our talent pool. That means putting our staff through specialised training, and providing for and equipping them so that they strive for greatness in the new digital world,” Prasad states, going on to explain how his personal ethos is woven throughout this process to promote excellence.

“A life lesson that I live by is that we have to do things right the first time, and that what is right to do is not always easy. We need to put in the hard yards now so that we can reap the benefits of it in the future.” 

Now, this doesn’t mean that Prasad’s team has no room to make mistakes; it means that, by investing time in the planning, research, design or training aspects of a task or process, the final result itself will be right the first time. And this thread continues throughout everything Prasad oversees, particularly Vodafone Fiji’s digital transformation. “It's always vital to have a good plan in place. If you have a good plan in place, you have the first part done.”

A popular theme to many a business discussion over the last two years has been the unexpected boost that COVID-19 gave to digital transformation. In some cases, the pandemic merely spurred on a pre-existing idea or sped up the pace; in others, it created an urgent business need in order to survive.

“During COVID, there was a surge in demand for data, and this would've been the same story for a lot of telcos around the world. That put a lot of stress on the network, and during that time, the boundaries of our mobile network services were being tested.” Not only were Vodafone Fiji’s networks being tested in the short-term, but there were also long-term economic effects that created a need for digitisation. “For Fiji, tourism has always been one of the biggest economic drivers. So, when the borders closed down, the economy suffered.”

This directly impacted the telco’s ability to put the necessary infrastructure in place to support citizens and tourists alike in the immediate wake of the pandemic. “But everything is changing now,” Prasad smiles. “Our customers want connectivity everywhere, so businesses are shifting priorities. One of the buzzwords right now is the cloud and having cloud platforms or migrating to cloud platforms, but with that comes a lot of risks, as well. Cyber threats are one of the biggest challenges that we face right now.”

As such, Vodafone Fiji is investing not just in its team, but in expanding technological infrastructure across the whole of Fiji to develop the cloud, 5G connectivity and its FinTech arm.

The road to 5G is paved with good intentions 

Being a developing country situated on an archipelago means progress can be slow. Across Fiji, which is predominantly made up of rural or coastal locations, developing connectivity to wireless mobile networks is difficult – and that’s without considering regulatory requirements, different frequency spectrums, and affordability for all customers, which is why Prasad refers to 5G in that respect as “a double-edged sword”.

Prasad hopes that, by delivering connectivity to the entirety of Fiji, he can uplift the digitally ‘poor’ – those with basic or limited connectivity, hindering personal progress – ensuring digital equality and, most importantly, equity. “A lot of focus for us is also about covering these areas, making use of the existing assets that we have, and trying to sweat them as much as possible so that we deliver the connectivity that people are after.” 

Vodafone Fiji may be an estimated two years away from full 5G connectivity, but with Prasad at the helm developing and solidifying plans, as well as encouraging his team to think differently, the rollout is likely to be free of any kinks or issues.

Ultimately, the company’s approach is not to rush ahead, but instead to “wait, watch and then act”. This will help the team to build an “understanding of the 5G ecosystem and how it will bridge the current digital gaps”, as well as informing them of “any investments needed to fully grasp this”. 

As established, affordability for all customers is key to both Vodafone Fiji and Prasad. You see, 5G infrastructure is all well and good, but the vast majority of the devices designed for such capabilities are high-end and, as such, have high-end prices attached.

“Device strategy will play a key role, with one of the main drivers when it comes to devices being affordability,” Prasad affirms. “Fiji is a developing country, so the average user may not spend up to a thousand dollars to get a 5G phone; a normal, basic phone would meet their requirements. And Fiji is also predominantly a prepaid market

“So having the right device strategy, where we have a pool of low-end 5G devices that are prepaid, will really help.” 

But another obstacle to overcome is the Fijian terrain itself, which prevents the telco from “using the traditional mobile towers or cell towers” across every area.

“We needed to think outside the box. And one of the very cost-effective solutions that we have deployed here is broadband satellite: it’s quick to deploy, easy to install, easy to operate, and can be done within days,” Prasad explains. 

Shifting priorities and expanding verticals 

In the face of globally-shifting priorities, it’s become necessary for businesses to expand their verticals, breaching into multi-cloud terrain as part of their digital transformation. For example, Vodafone Fiji has merged its private cloud with that of Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI), Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services, which, in Prasad’s words, is “bringing the best of private and public clouds together with our expertise so that we offer our customers a unified cloud platform for all their needs”.

Arguably the biggest move for Vodafone Fiji in recent years is the development of its Mobile Money platform, which marks the company’s move into the FinTech space to complement the different industries within the local Fijian market and, therefore, the economy.

“Mobile Money is one of the greatest examples and pride of Vodafone Fiji,” Prasad enthuses. “M-PAiSA is an in-house-developed digital wallet platform that provides a number of basic financial and digital payment services.

“Launched in 2010, M-PAiSA now processes over $200mn in monthly M-PAiSA transactions, making it a significant player in Fiji’s digital and cashless payment space.” 

This bespoke digital wallet platform, M-PAiSA, has established itself as a market leader in the mobile and digital payment space, with “high brand equity” and “trust as a reliable and robust digital payment platform”.

Prasad details the effect this success has had in the years since M-PAiSA’s launch: “One of Fiji’s fastest growing economic drivers is inward International Remittance. Within a space of 12 months, M-PAiSA has gained a 25% market share of all inward remits into Fiji.

“We have taken an advantageous position by being the first to market with our innovative payment services using QR pay. Month-on-month, we see new merchants come onboard with us. Next on the horizon for Vodafone Fiji is to become a scheme payment provider. This is a whole new ball game for Fiji as a nation. 

“All-in-all, Vodafone is not only a CSP but offers services that can be offered by a FinTech organisation.” Exciting, indeed.

Digitalisation, data and virtualisation 

The future outlook for Vodafone Fiji will feature “digitalisation, data and virtualisation” on a large scale, which, of course, includes the continuation of its mobile networks rollouts with focus on 5G & beyond and the development of its FinTech arm. This means “evolving legacy platforms into world class systems that can be supported through cloud” and obtaining “deeper insights through collaboration in terms of analytics and forging partnerships” to allow for “detailed, real-time insights of customers’ pain points”.

At the very core of realising this aim of enabling connectivity in underprivileged rural and coastal regions sits data and analytics – and in the modern world, data is king. 

“When it comes to analytics, it’s a move to fresher, more dynamic ways of understanding our customers using crowd-sourced data,” Prasad explains. “It’s no longer just about using data from your OSS & BSS platforms. Detailed insights from near real-time systems gives another level of clarity on what the pain points are exactly.” This means that, no matter where in Fiji someone resides – whether on the most remote islet or the centre of the capital, Suva – they aren’t held back by being digitally poor.

Providing digital equality and equity to those who are underprivileged is a noble endeavour, particularly when the aim is to do so carefully and steadily to make sure it lasts for the foreseeable future.

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