Information and Communication Technologies are making an impact in Ethiopia as they are worldwide. Call centres are among the new information service providers giving easy access to professional advice in the fields of medicine and law as well as the more traditional telephone directory services. They are even providing intermediary banking services all in collaboration with ethio telecom. FORTUNE STAFF WRITER, HIDAT ARKEBE recently delved into this business space and found out more about the telephone services provided, their benefits and challenges.
Communications technology advancements are trickling down to individuals’ day to day life. In Ethiopia, the idea of help being a call away has been a reality since the advent of hotline services, a direct phone line with many people waiting to answer calls and provide information.
Relatively new in Ethiopia are call centres that bring advantages not only to the public; Ethiopia telecom also sees increased average revenue per subscriber of mobile phone use to access such services. According to the Value Added Service License Directive, such services go beyond the basic telecommunication services provided using mobile phones. Thus, they are value added services.
Since the promulgation of the directive and the first licence issued in June, 2011, close to 200 value added service providers, both in text and voice, have acquired licence while only 52 of those licensed have begun operations. According to ethio telecom’s Corporate Communications Officer, Abdurahim Ahmed, ethio telecom collected 10 million Birr from these services in 2014/15.
Afalagi, a pioneer in this sector, has also been providing value added service, as the first hotline directory. One of the founders, Epherem Tesfaye, who studied Business Information systems in England, said that he came up with the business idea based on problems he faced.
“It was the serious problem to find addresses and directions then, which cost me much time and money, and at times to no avail,” he recalled.
His company now provides various types of information, including addresses of various commercial organisations, service providers, non-governmental and governmental entities and movie programmes, for example.
One of the Afalagi’s customers, Nardos Sahlemariam, said she makes calls to get the directory’s services whenever she needs a phone number. “The first time I called Afalagi was when my house was about to be on fire, and they told me to calm down before they gave me the fire brigade’s number. Since then I have been calling them whenever I need a number,” she said.
She said she finds the service so convenient, and therefore calls often for only two Birr per minute.
“I like the fact that they address me by name,” she added.
Once a customer calls and registers in the database, subsequent services are given on a personal basis, identifying the customer by name.
Co-founder, Mikiyas Meles, told Fortune that the demand and business were growing in every aspect.
“When we started, we used to get 10 calls per day on average and as time went by, we have reached a point where we get 10,000 calls per-day.”
The company, established with capital of 500,000 Br, started with just one secretary as its first employee to assist with data collection and carry out other activities related to the establishment of the company, says Epherem. Now the company has 51 employees, including 35 operators.
Another well-received similar service is “hello-hello”, owned by Belcash Technology & Solutions Plc, a Holland based company. Even though the company was established in 2000 in Holland, it did not launch its service there. The founder of Belcash Plc in Ethiopia, Vinc Montage Diop and the other co-founders, Abraham Gulilat, Alioune Diop, Marco Adzes and Doude Wijih Becking chose Ethiopia as their first toehold, and set up a fully-fledged company in Ethiopia in 2012, investing 1.3 million dollars.
The co-founder and head of operations of Belcash, Abraham Gulilat, said, “At first, when we tried to get the licence, there was a challenge because it was a new idea, and there was no regulation governing telemed technologies. Eventually, the regulations came out after two years, in 2013.”
Belcash Technology & Solutions Plc provides a conglomerate of services to the Ethiopian market under the Hello brand, using a collaborative model of partnership, through which they collect 25pc of the fee the customers pay. Belcash is currently giving five services, namely: Hello Doctor, Hello Tebeka (lawyer), Hello Gebeya (market), Hello Sera (job) and the one that it just started, Hello Cash.
The company establishes partnership with businesses that are already licensed to give different services, and provides them with technology, branding, facilities, operational support and mobile platforms. The five Hello companies provide services in English, Amharic, Oromiffa, Tigrigna and Somali languages.
Yohans Wodaje (MD), general manager of Hello Doctor, said he was inspired to do something different in Ethiopia that has to do with technology. He first started a website in Amharic that gave medical advice.
“At the beginning, setting up the technology seemed unattainable, yet my exposure in the medical field had shown me the plight of patients who could not see a doctor whenever they needed. Even when they did, there was an overload on the doctors, so they could not tell the patients everything about the nature of their illnesses and what to do about it. Patients may forget to ask specific questions when they see doctors, and that is where we come in,” said Yohans.
Hello Doctor allows people to use their phones to access various services such as medical consultations, ambulance dispatching and home care bookings. According to a survey they conducted an eight months’ performance of the service, 64pc of their customers are from Addis Abeba, and the rest are from outside Addis Abeba.
“When we first started, we only had 10 calls per day; now we get around 150 calls per day, with an average of two or three minutes spent on the phone for every call. We recommend five minutes of consultation though,” Yohans said.
Hello Doctor has three nurses and four health officers working full time, while it also has 15 medical doctors for further consultations.
The business has not been very profitable so far he says. The company has recently reduced the fee it charges from eight Birr a minute to six Birr. They look forward to boosting their business with support letters obtained from the Ministry of Health and the Food, Medicine & Health Care Administration & Control Authority of Ethiopia (FMHCACA), he added.
Such services, however, do not fall under the FMHACA’s jurisdiction, which therefore cannot control their work for quality assurance, said Abebaw Ayalew, public relations officer at the Authority.
A young user who called Hello Doctor remembers disappointment with her first call. She learned of the service from a leaflet distributed on the street and remembered to call when she had toothache and a bleeding gum.
“I was a bit taken aback by the conversation with the doctor; he simply referred me to a well- known dental clinic and refrained from recommending any quick pain reliever or way of stopping the bleeding,” she said.
Medical service in the country is regulated and specific standards of service are in place. But there seems to be a gap in quality and ethical assurance of this specific service delivered over the phone.
President of the Ethiopian Medical Association, Gemichis Mamo (MD), said the association has not ever discussed the issue of mobile medical services provided in the country, further adding that he shares the concerns raised regarding quality assurance and legal issues that might arise from such services.
“Close look and standardisation mechanisms have to be put in place by concerned bodies,” he emphasised.
Another kind of telephone service is that provided by Debebe Hailegebriel’s Law Office in partnership with Ethio telecom. The office has 52 practitioners who can be consulted by customers all over Ethiopia. Two of their lawyers have been giving service under the Hello Tebeka brand since April 14, 2015.
“Eleven languages are used for the Hello Tebeka service, and 80pc of its customers are from Oromia Region,” Addis Wolde one of the lawyers said.
Hello Tebeka provides comprehensive telephone consultations including advice pertaining to various legal issues, for both the public and private sectors. The 50 lawyers do not get paid for the services, they give these pro bono. Two lawyers are stationed in the office full time, but there are 50 lawyers all over the country to whom calls can be transferred. Debebe, too, complains of too little profit, with 40pc of revenue going to ethio telecom and 25pc to Belcash. They receive the remaining 35pc.
“We informed the Ministry of Justice that we have started giving services and every one of our lawyers has a licence. We are open for complaints from our customers even though we have not received any yet. We have been making sure that no one gives advice out of his or her area of expertise,” Debebe said.
He added that the office gathers feedback by calling back some of their customers and asking them if the advice was helpful.
The Ministry of Justice does not give any kind of licence for lawyers either to have a firm or to give the kind of service provided by Hello Tebeka, says Fekadu Demissie, licensing director at the Ministry. He added that lawyers might have the licence to give legal advice.
“I am not even aware of the existence of such a service,” he said.
The discipline committee of Ministry of Justice will only allow an individual lawyer, not a firm or a group, to advertise a business stating a name, address, and education level.
The Hello Tebeka operation under the Debebe Hailegebriel’s Law Office, which works with individual licensed lawyers, much the same way as a law firm, although Addis says this is not supported by Ethiopian law.
Addis Wolde, a licensed lawyer representing Hello Tebeka, visited Fortune to discuss their business. He did not show any support letter from the Ministry, but said that the company is trying to discuss with the MoJ, how to conduct the Hello Tebeka business. Meanwhile, he said, the business is conducted on the individual responsibility of the lawyers involved.
Asked to comment on the issue by telephone interview with Fortune, Manyawekal Mekonnen, a lawyer and director of the Ethiopian Lawyers’ Association, said, “Virtual legal services are not new and carried out in so many countries around the world, but special conditions have to be observed, to ensure standards and ethical issues,” says Sensitive yet critical issues like accountability, confidentiality and evidence are very difficult in such settings, he added. He recommended that disclaimer on the side of the service provider can help in solving outstanding issues mentioned above.
Ethiopian law allows firms to operate in the country, but so far there is no implementing directive issued by the Ministry, which needs to be acted upon immediately, Manyawekal elaborated.
In addition to medical and legal services, banking transactions are also provided. Hello Cash Service, which is giving service to a few people, has a payment system allowing users to add credit to order products and services, transfer credit and also pay as well as get paid quickly and easily without sharing personal information. The company offers its customers and partners complete and readymade mobile payment systems that can be hosted using a real time transaction processing platform. These systems will allow existing and potential customers to access not only traditional banking services (phone banking, online banking, etc.) but also other new value-added services via mobile phones (m-banking & m-payments), POS terminals, ATM and the internet (e-coupons, sms banking, utility bill payment and peer to peer money transfers by mobile phone).
Hello Cash is working currently with Lion Bank, Oromia Cooperative Bank and Somali Micro Financing, and another two banks are on the way. Agents are recruited and trained to transfer or deposit money on behalf of any customer who does not want to go to the bank. An agent is anyone who voluntarily gives the service by cell phone without having to go to the bank. The agent transfers money in one of the three banks which works in collaboration with Belcash, and the bank deducts a two Birr commission for the agent with every transfer.
Wondimagegnehu Negera, Oromia Cooperative Bank’s president said the bank signed an agreement with the service provider, Hello Cash, so that the latter recruits and trains agents for the bank.
“We get additional benefit from this partnership as it brings more initial deposits to the bank, and it is another stream of income. Our customer base increases as agents create new accounts in our bank; along the way, it is a promotion,” he said.
Hello Gebeya was started in July 2013. It is an advertising platform that brings buyers and sellers together through the phone as well as the internet. Hello Gebeya offers an easily accessible platform in Ethiopia where individuals or companies can place advertisements about goods or services they are providing or selling. The Hello Gebeya platform bridges the gap in access to market information among customers as well as between consumers and merchants, and it will also contribute to market regulation in the long run.
Hello Sera is a service which is meant for job seekers. Job seekers can call Hello Sera which is a channel that connects them with employers. It allows job seekers to easily register on the phone, and then it provides free access of their profiles to potential employers. Hello Sera started giving service on February 2014, and received about 14,000 calls within the first three months of its establishment. Hello Sera and Hello Gebeya both are operated jointly by Belcash technology and Amsis Advertising & Publishing Plc.
Andualem Admasie, CEO of ethio telecom, said that company gets 40pc of the revenue and 60pc goes to the service providers.
Ethio telecom is in partnership with 78 registered companies which have their own platforms and are willing to give different services; the companies also chose the numbers they wanted for a particular service. They got short code numbers from ethio telecom with which customers have been accessing different services.
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